‘We are still shocked’: the Syrians who discovered Islamic State’s leader was their neighbour

Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi had been an unseen phantom in a safehouse in the town of Atme until his violent end on Thursday

For many months, the man on the motorbike would come and go from the house and a mechanic’s workshop in the Syrian border town of Atme.

No other adult in the three-story building ever seemed to emerge, least of all a second man who signed a lease last spring and moved in with two women and three young children, never to be seen publicly again until the early hours of Thursday.

By then, both men were dead, the mechanic in the room he shared with his wife on the ground floor, and the phantom who lived above him – one of the most wanted men in the world – lying on a lawn outside.

The violent end of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, leader of the Islamic State, met little public reaction online among the group’s members, in contrast to the fanfare that followed the death of his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, just a short distance away two years ago. But among the small working-class enclave surrounded by olive trees and camps for displaced people, a stone’s throw from Turkey, it was the talk of the town.

“We never saw his face,” said local resident Abdullah Amin. “The guy downstairs, however, we saw a lot. He had a place to fix cars in town and people used to go to him.”

The suspicion among locals, partly corroborated by regional security sources, is that the unnamed man was a lieutenant for Qurayshi, receiving and passing on messages from couriers who arrived in Atme. In the wake of the prison break last month in Hasakah on the other side of Syria, messages are believed to have been delivered more frequently. Qurayshi is understood to have played some role in the attack and to have received regular updates about its progress. It was to be the last such audacious plot to be launched under his leadership.

“There were several security lapses on his behalf along the way,” said an official with knowledge of the operation to kill him. “But the most important one was recently.”

Locals who spoke to the Guardian say there were no signs of strangers in town and no hint that the IS leader was hiding among them. “We are still shocked,” said Amir. “I live a short distance from that house and I did not have a clue.”

Rescue workers and local militants continued to scour through the partially ruined home on Friday, in a search of body parts and clues to the violent explosion that is thought to have caused the bulk of the casualties. US president Joe Biden said Qurayshi had detonated a bomb that killed him and his family, and blast damage, as well as blood splatter inside the home, adds some weight to that view.

However, skepticism of the US account lingered, fuelled in part by a lethal drone attack in Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, in the wake of last summer’s chaotic withdrawal.

“There were helicopters and planes and there was shooting … but there was also an explosion inside the house,” said Amir.

A second Atme resident, a volunteer with the first responder organisation, the White Helmets, said several bodies of women and children had been taken to a forensic institute in nearby Idlib.

The Pentagon claims that the US army Delta Force unit that carried out the raid was able to extricate 10 women, children and babies from the building before opening fire, and that only three children were killed. However, local reports say that 13 people, including six children, were killed, and observers who saw photographs of the dead said there were signs to suggest some were killed by heavy-calibre rounds.

There is also controversy over whether the two members of the Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), who were shot at the scene as the US soldiers were leaving, had opened fire on the departing helicopters. The Pentagon has said it will review the evidence. The raid took place less than a week after the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, ordered a comprehensive review of US posture towards protecting civilians in conflict.

HTS members took the bodies of Qurayshi and his family from the scene. It is not known what happened to them. Before HTS moved in, keeping bystanders away from the scene, US forces were able to take a DNA sample from Qurayshi’s body to match against a sample they had stored from his days as a prisoner in Iraq.

Qurayshi spent several years in the US detention centre, Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq, where he earned a reputation as an informant, who passed on information to his captors to lead them to eliminate his rivals.

“Having this guy living here is strange,” said Momammed Mahmoud, an Atme grocer. “There wasn’t a clue about him being in town. There are checkpoints on three sides of town and none of [the militants] who run them like Isis. We would rather be known for different reasons.”


Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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