President Joe Biden on Thursday, in remarks from the White House, gave details to the nation about a dramatic U.S. raid overnight in Syria he said took the leader of ISIS “off the battlefield.”
“Last night, operating on my orders, the United States military forces successfully removed in a major terrorist threat to the world, the global leader of ISIS, known as Haji Abdullah. He took over as leader of ISIS in 2019 after the United States counterterrorism operation killed Al Bhaghdadi,” Biden said from the Roosevelt Room. “Thanks to the bravery of our troops, this horrible terrorist leader is no more.”
Amid reports of women and children also killed, Biden said he had directed the Department of Defense “to take every precaution possible to minimize civilian casualties.”
“Knowing that this terrorist had chosen to surround himself with families, including children, we made a choice to pursue a Special Forces raid at a much greater risk than our to our own people rather than targeting him with an airstrike,” Biden said. “We made this choice to minimize civilian casualties.”
“We do know that as our troops approached to capture the terrorist — in a final act of desperate cowardice he, with no regard to the lives of his own family or others in the building, he chose to blow himself up — not just in the vest but the blow-up that third floor, rather than face justice for the crimes he has committed, taking several members of his family with him. Just as his predecessor did,” Biden said.
Earlier in the day, the White House tweeted a photo it said showed Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the Situation Room watching as the raid took place.
“We remain vigilant, we remain prepared,” Biden said. “Last night’s operation took a major terrorist leader off the battlefield and it sent a strong message to terrorists around the world: We will come after you and find you.”
“U.S. Special Operations forces under the control of U.S. Central Command conducted a counterterrorism mission this evening in northwest Syria. The mission was successful. There were no U.S. casualties,” said John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, in a statement. “More information will be provided as it becomes available.”
One of the helicopters used in the mission experienced a mechanical problem and then had to be blown up on the ground by U.S. forces, according to a U.S. official.
Social media posts reported possible U.S. military activity in Idlib province, a town in far western Syria, close to the border with Turkey. Some posts included videos that seemed to show night scenes where the sounds of gunfire and low-flying helicopters could be heard near the towns of Atmeh and Dar Ballout.
The opposition-run Syrian Civil Defense, first responders also known as the White Helmets, said 13 civilians were killed as a result of the fighting and blasts that occurred at the raid site, including six children and four women.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war watchdog group based in the United Kingdom, said in a press statement that nine people, including at least two children and a woman, were killed during Wednesday’s mission. The group cited local sources.
A U.S. official, meanwhile, told ABC News that the reported civilian casualties were not the result of U.S. military fire, but occurred when the target of the raid detonated an explosive device at the beginning of the operation.
According to an Associated Press reporter on assignment who visited the Atmeh area on Thursday and spoke with residents, the U.S. raid did involve helicopters, explosions, and machine gun fire.
The AP reporter and several residents said they saw body parts around a house targeted in the raid whose upper story was almost completely leveled leaving rubble in the surrounding olive grove.
There are approximately 1,000 U.S. military troops operating in eastern Syria to support the mission against ISIS.
American troops do not operate in government-controlled areas in northwestern Syria, especially in Idlib province, which was an extremist safe haven for much of the last decade. But they have sporadically carried out counterterrorism missions in Idlib, targeting various Islamic extremist groups with drone strikes.
The highest profile mission was a ground raid that killed ISIS’ top leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who was hiding out in a house close to the border with Turkey, on Oct. 27, 2019.