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People inspect a destroyed house following an operation by the U.S. military in the Syrian village of Atmeh, in Idlib province, Syria, on Feb. 3.Ghaith Alsayed/The Associated Press

The suicide bomb detonated by Islamic State’s leader when American forces closed in on him in Syria was so powerful that it blew the bodies of people who were inside the building into the surrounding neighbourhood, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The officials, providing details of the mission targeting Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi in a village on Syria’s border with Turkey, blamed the militant group for all civilian casualties in the operation while declining to offer an estimate on the number of those killed.

The officials said the operation was in the works since early December. Quraishi’s death marked another setback for a group that has been waging insurgent attacks in Iraq and Syria.

One official noted that the operation was complicated by the fact that Quraishi was known to only rarely leave his residence on the building’s third floor, instead relying upon a network of couriers in order to interact with others. The only known exception was when Quraishi sometimes would go to the building’s roof to bathe, the official said.

President Joe Biden, in remarks at the White House, described Quraishi’s bomb blast, which killed him and his family, as a “final act of desperate cowardice” that carried echoes of the self-detonation of a bomb by his predecessor, Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during a U.S. raid in 2019 in Syria.

“The blast was so large on the third floor that it blew bodies outside of the house and into the surrounding areas,” a senior administration official said, briefing reporters on the operation.

“All casualties at the site were due to the acts of ISIS terrorists inside the residence,” the official added.

Quraishi was not the only Islamic State figure killed in the operation, U.S. officials said. One of Quraishi’s lieutenants, who also lived in the building, barricaded himself and members of his family inside the building, on its second floor, the officials said. He and his wife tried to fire on the U.S. assault force and were also killed, the officials said.

The operation was in the planning stages since early December, when officials became convinced the Islamic State leader was located in the building, the officials said. But the number of children in the area and families on the first floor led U.S. officials to try to craft a mission aiming to safeguard civilians, they said.

That ultimately required putting at risk U.S. forces in a raid, instead of carrying out a remote strike, and calling for families on the first floor to evacuate, the officials said.

U.S. military procedures to guard against civilian casualties are currently under scrutiny following a high-profile mistaken drone strike in Afghanistan that the Pentagon initially hailed a success.

Biden gave final approvals for the mission on Tuesday during an Oval Office meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the top American military officer, U.S. officials said.

Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other administration officials monitored the operation in real-time from inside the White House Situation Room, receiving updates from Austin, Milley and General Frank McKenzie, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, the officials said.

At one point, a helicopter involved in the operation suffered a mechanical failure and had to be moved and destroyed, the officials said. Another moment of tension came when U.S. forces tried to evacuate families from the first floor, they said.

“One of the first reports was that when the team came on site and called everyone to come out, those on the first floor … were led to safety,” the first official said. “Because obviously that was a key point of concern and why this operation was so complex.”

Biden said “God bless our troops” once the U.S. forces were wheels up after the operation, but kept tabs on them during the night as they moved to safety, officials said.

“Thanks to the bravery of our troops, this horrible terrorist leader is no more. Our forces carried out the operation with their signature preparation and precision,” Biden said in his remarks.

The leader of the violent Islamic State group was killed during an overnight raid carried out by U.S. special forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, President Joe Biden said.

The Associated Press

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