Up to thirteen civilians, including six children and four women, were reported killed and at least one child was injured after US forces targeted and subsequently killed the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, in Atma, northwest Syria on February 3rd 2022. Local reporting was conflicted as to whether the casualties were caused by US forces or in the detonation of a suicide device. Local sources were also conflicted regarding the civilian status of the adults harmed in the incident.
Al-Qurayshi had been the leader of ISIS since his predecessor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also killed in a US operation on October 26th, 2019.
Reports indicated that the operation began with Apache helicopters and drones circling the area, with heavy machine gun fire targeted at the residential building just after 1am. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, US forces “carried out an airdrop in that area, where soldiers had called, via loudspeakers, to evacuate women and children from a house”. After 15 minutes, the sound of gunfire was reported – marking the beginning of a two hour long standoff, culminating in the alleged detonation of a suicide device from inside the building.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby in a statement on February 3rd, noted that there was gunfire between US forces and ‘lieutenants’ of al-Qurayshi on the second floor of the building, as well as in the area surrounding the building. He reported that al-Qurayshi was on the third floor of the building when he detonated the explosive device.
Regarding civilian harm, Kirby stated that four civilians had been killed during the raid, including three children: the wife and two children of al-Qurayshi killed on the third floor, and another child when “one of [al-Qurayshi’s] lieutenants and the lieutenant’s wife [were] firing back at our forces. They were killed and it appears as if a child was also killed on that second floor.”
None of the deaths have yet been confirmed by the US to have resulted directly from US actions, with Kirby noting: “the lives of innocents taken in this operation were caused by Abdullah and his decision of blowing himself up”. In reference to the child killed on the floor below al-Qurayshi, Kirby noted that “it’s a loss caused by Mr. Abdullah and his lieutenant”, however he also stated that the information was as yet not definitive: “we’re willing to take a look to just examine and make sure that there wasn’t any action that we might have taken that could have also caused harm to innocents”.
Syria TV and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) instead noted that either one or two women had detonated the explosive device – with SOHR stating that at least one of the women was non-Syrian, and Syria TV stating that she was of Russian or Chechen origin. This was not corroborated by other sources.
In an eyewitness account, a woman living in the same building that was targeted in the raid said: “The planes came around 1am. They started shouting at us. There was a first, second and third floor. They were saying we needed to get out of the house – men, women and children – and that we would be killed if not. They fired a missile/shell while we were inside, then they fired bullets and we were inside.” The woman added: “I came out behind them but I didn’t see them on the ground. They said put your hands on your head and get on the ground and take off your hijab. I was very scared. I couldn’t tolerate it… They took the kids from me directly and they searched me and handcuffed my hands behind me.”
Graphic images were circulated in the early hours of February 3rd on social media of several young children killed in the attack. The Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) teams reported the death of at least 13 people, stating: “Our teams treated the injured and recovered the bodies, handed over two bodies to the forensic medicine in the city of Idlib and secured the place to protect civilians.”
The White Helmets also added that a girl and another individual were injured in the attack. In their statement they report that “our teams rushed an injured child to the hospital. The child’s entire family was killed in the operation. The teams also rushed another person to the hospital who was injured in the clashes when he approached the scene to witness what was happening.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the initial death toll at nine.
UNICEF also confirmed the deaths of the children in the incident: “UNICEF confirms that at least six children were killed and one girl was badly injured overnight in the border town of [Atme] in the northwest of Syria due to heavy violence”.
In his statement about the incident, President Joe Biden said that they had “made a choice to minimise civilian casualties” by conducting the attack with special forces rather than by an airstrike, given the presence of al-Qurayshi’s family, including children, in the area.
The Guardian reported statements from US Officials, who said “there were moments of tension, when one of the helicopters malfunctioned and had to be landed and then destroyed, and then when the special forces team called for family members to come out of the building, knowing there were children inside”.
Airwars will update this incident as new information comes to light.
The incident occured at 01:00:00 local time.