ATMA, Syria — At least five children were killed during a raid by U.S. commandos last week on the home of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the Islamic State militant group, according to a review of video footage and witnesses who saw the aftermath of the operation.
That represents more than the tally by the Pentagon, which has alternatively said two or three children were killed.
While locals said they knew little about the adults who had lived in the house and kept a low profile, one thing was clear: The house had been full of children, often seen playing on the third-floor patio or in the yard. But their presence was not enough to deter the late-night raid on the house last week in Syria’s northern Idlib province, a three-floor cinder block building surrounded by olive trees.
U.S. officials said they tried to reduce civilian casualties by conducting a raid that carried significant risks for American soldiers, rather than targeting the house with an airstrike, and had sought to evacuate children from the building by telling their parents to send them out.
The day after the raid, the Biden administration blamed the deaths on Qurayshi, saying he detonated a large explosion, though U.S. officials have since said they are not sure who detonated the device.
Although President Joe Biden said U.S. troops carried out the operation “with their signature preparation and precision” and were directed to “take every precaution” to minimize civilian casualties, U.S. forces had good reason to doubt the raid would proceed without significant bloodshed given the well-documented history of cornered jihadists blowing themselves up. In 2019, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Qurayshi’s predecessor as the top Islamic State leader, detonated an explosive vest as U.S. forces closed in on him in another village in Idlib province, killing himself and three of his children.
“While regrettable, it’s not surprising that he chose to kill himself and others, but thankfully all our service members came back safely,” a senior U.S. military official said Thursday in a briefing for reporters.
U.S. forces had been monitoring Qurayshi’s house since the fall, including the “pattern of life of all the occupants there,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the operation remains highly sensitive.
The Pentagon has said there had been at least 11 children at home at the time of the raid, including eight children who they said had exited safely, and at least two that U.S. officials say were probably killed as a result of the explosion. They assessed that one child killed on the second floor probably died in the explosion, based on a lack of visible injuries suggesting a different cause of death.
The administration has not explained the discrepancy between its estimate of dead children and the tally provided by local first responders and UNICEF, who said that as many as six children were killed. The task of arriving at a precise count has been complicated, in part, by the poor state of some of the children’s remains.
During the briefing Thursday, the U.S. military official expressed doubt that there were civilian deaths beyond those previously reported by the Pentagon. “I don’t know where the additionals would have come from,” he said. “There is nothing to indicate to me that a discrepancy that large is accurate.” He said that the United States was “confident” American soldiers had not caused civilian casualties. He added that it was possible there were other bodies at the site, given what he said was limited U.S. visibility into the raid’s aftermath and extensive rubble on the third floor.
The lingering questions about the raid come at a time when the U.S. military is facing growing scrutiny for conducting operations that have caused civilian casualties, including a drone strike that killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan in August as well as deadly airstrikes conducted in recent years in Syria and Iraq.
In addition to the children, U.S. officials said three women and four men were killed, including Qurayshi and one of his lieutenants. The officials said Qurayshi, his two wives and the two or three children were killed in the explosion. The lieutenant, along with his wife, was killed after firing on U.S. troops, the officials said.
Qurayshi’s neighbors said they had counted at least nine children living in his building. They recalled last summer when mosquito nets appeared on the concrete veranda of the house. A neighbor, Mohammed Abu Ahmad, said he noticed people sleeping under the nets. “You could tell there were children and women, but the man never showed,” he said, referring to Qurayshi.
Abu Ahmad and another neighbor described seeing children running around and playing games, but never with local kids. The children stayed close to the house.
The house’s landlord said he had rented it out 11 months ago to two related families, who lived on the second and third floors. The first floor was occupied by another family who had at least four children, neighbors said.
As the raid began, the family on the first floor left the house in response to a warning broadcast by U.S. forces over a bullhorn, neighbors said. Videos captured the Arabic warning instructing children in the house to come out. “The area is surrounded by land and air,” it said. “The children are without blame. If there are children, they should come to me.”
In videos taken after the raid that were confirmed by The Washington Post, the remains of at least five children are visible.
The White Helmets were among the first on the scene, going through the rubble and extracting bodies once the American helicopters had left. Speaking hours after the raid, they said they had recovered 13 bodies, including those of six children.
Ahmed Rahhal, a local journalist who arrived at the house soon after the raid was over, said in an interview that he saw the bodies of three children inside the house and the bodies of two more outside.
The White Helmets, a team of first responders in Idlib, said that human remains were visible on the walls inside the house. Other remains were found outside the house and under the collapsed ceiling on the third floor, where U.S. officials said Qurayshi lived and had detonated the explosive.
A first responder who was on the scene that night, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said bodies of children and adults were found on the ground outside the house as well as on the second and third floors.
Also killed during the raid was a member of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, the militant group that controls the area, according to a first responder and another witness to the raid’s aftermath. A second HTS member was gravely wounded and died later in the hospital of his wounds, the witness said.
A senior U.S. official said the HTS members were killed some distance from the house, after firing on U.S. troops.
Local authorities in the area did not respond to questions about whether autopsies had been conducted on any of the bodies and what if anything they had revealed.
Dadouch reported from Beirut, Fahim from Istanbul and Lee from Washington. The Washington Post’s Atthar Mirza, Elyse Samuels and Dalton Bennett in Washington and Karoun Demirjian in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, contributed to this report.