IDLIB, Syria — The US Department of Defense has confirmed that US Special Forces carried out a counterterrorism mission in Dayr Balut, northwest Syria, on Feb. 2, killing IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.
Charles Lister, director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, explained on Twitter that the raid lasted for over two hours as the forces clearly wanted to get their target dead or alive. He noted that nothing of this scale has happened since former Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in October 2019.
During the operation, clashes erupted near the town of Atmeh in Idlib on the border with Turkey. Helicopters of the US-led coalition also landed near the Atmeh camps in search of wanted persons whose identities have not yet been revealed.
Locals shared audio recordings attributed to the coalition, in which an Arabic speaker called on women and children to evacuate their homes in the targeted area, while residents also reported hearing shelling and gunshots.
Fahd al-Khal, a young man who was displaced from the Idlib countryside to the Atmeh camp, told Al-Monitor, “We woke up terrified at around 1 a.m. Turkish soldiers came running, struggling to warn us in Arabic and asking all civilians to evacuate the area. The raids lasted for over two hours and they kept getting closer and closer; it was terrifying.”
The building where the raid took place, Feb. 3, 2022 (Muwaid Al-Atrash/Al-Monitor)
Khal added, “We could not count how many helicopters there were, but the sound of shelling, mixed with the sirens and the people’s screams were traumatizing. Two parties were obviously clashing. The shelling then reached the house in which I live with my family in Atmeh camp. It was chaotic and random. We had children in the house so we were naturally scared for our lives. We then heard an ambulance outside and when we were able to go out, we indeed found an ambulance trying to evacuate residents.”
Abed al-Youssef, another eyewitness who was displaced from the Idlib countryside to the Atmeh camp, told Al-Monitor that he heard helicopters, "very loud and close,” at 1:30 a.m.
He added, “We then heard sirens, followed by shelling and heavy machine guns. Our children were traumatized. We were displaced to a camp to escape the shelling and now we had to relive it here.” He and his neighbors heard the helicopters leave at about 4:30 a.m.
“There were several helicopters coming from different directions, and one could tell from the sound whether they were coming from the right side or left side," he said. "It was a very difficult night for us. I am certain no one was able to sleep. Hundreds of families live in this camp, and I am sure they were all alert and trying to figure out what was happening as no one could step outside to see.”
At first, Youssef said, they thought the Syrian regime was entering the camp. At sunrise, they went outside, and "the scenes of all the dead children and women were horrific.”
Inside the building where IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi had been living, Feb. 3, 2022 (Muwaid Al-Atrash/Al-Monitor)
Sources told Al-Monitor that three women were killed inside the targeted house in Atmeh, but it remains unknown whether they were Qurayshi’s wives.
On Feb. 3, Agence France-Presse quoted a US official saying that as US forces approached the compound, “Qurashi detonated a bomb that killed him and members of his family,” including children and women were among the victims.
US President Joe Biden announced that his country's army “had taken a major terrorist leader off the battlefield,” noting that all US soldiers made it out safely.
The New York Times reported that the US Special Forces had to destroy one of the helicopters participating in the operation when it was forced to land due to a mechanical problem. The US helicopter was found near the town of Jindires in the countryside of Afrin, north of Aleppo, 14 kilometers from Atmeh