BEIRUT -- US-led international coalition forces said they captured a senior "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) bomb maker in an airborne operation carried out before dawn Thursday (June 16) in northern Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and AFP correspondents said military helicopters touched down for only a few minutes in an Aleppo province village in an area controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups.
The international coalition did not name the targeted ISIS operative, but US officials identified him as Hani Ahmed al-Kurdi, also known as the "Wali of al-Raqa", ISIS's de-facto capital, The Washington Post reported.
The Observatory could not confirm the individual's identity.
"The captured individual is an experienced bomb maker and operational facilitator who became one of the top leaders of ISIS's Syrian branch," the coalition said.
On Wednesday afternoon, US forces brought fuel trucks to Lafarge base in Kobani countryside, east of Aleppo, the Observatory said, adding that Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) members were involved in "the careful and confidential preparation of the military operation".
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said two helicopters landed in Humaira near the targeted position and took off seven minutes later, adding that only a few shots were fired during the operation.
"The US operation was quick and smooth," he said. "It took place in the village of Humaira, northeast of the city of Aleppo and 4km from the Turkish border."
After the operation was completed, international coalition aircraft landed at Lafarge base, the Observatory said.
The base has been used as a launchpad for previous operations, it noted.
Such operations are rare in areas of northwestern Syria that are under the control of Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters and non-ISIS extremist groups such as Tahrir al-Sham.
The latest such raid, in early February, led to the death of the group's leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi, who detonated a bomb vest to avoid capture.
In its statement, the international coalition said "the mission was meticulously planned to minimise the risk of collateral damage, particularly any potential harm to civilians".
"There were no civilians harmed during the operation nor any damage to coalition aircraft or assets," it added.
The operation "demonstrates our commitment to security of the region and to the enduring defeat of ISIS", said Maj. Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, the head of US Central Command (CENTCOM).
Constant pressure on ISIS
ISIS remnants in Syria mostly retreated into desert hideouts following the group's defeat, but cells have regularly ambushed Kurdish-led forces and Syrian regime or allied forces, carrying out similar attacks in Iraq.
The group's top leaders, however, often take cover in areas controlled by other forces and where ISIS's own fighters are not active.
Al-Qurashi's notorious predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US special forces raid in northwestern Syria, far from ISIS's area of operations.
Little is known about new leader Abu Hasan al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, the extremist group's third chief since its inception.
High leadership turnover has been a hallmark of ISIS since its inception, driven by successful operations to crush the violent extremist organisation.
Observers have long feared an ISIS resurgence in the area that straddles the Iraq-Syria border, which formed the heart of the group's once sprawling proto-state.
Yet with constant international coalition pressure on its leadership and its sources of financing, the group still has no fixed positions in either country and the intensity of its attacks has remained largely unchanged since 2019.
ISIS leader captured in Mali
A day earlier, the French military announced that its troops in Mali had captured a senior member of the Sahel affiliate of ISIS on the night of June 11-12.
The arrest of Oumeya Ould Albakaye comes as France prepares to complete its withdrawal from Mali after almost a decade battling an extremist insurgency in the country with the French-led Barkhane anti-insurgency force.
The operation, carried out near the border with Niger, took weeks of preparation involving air force and ground army units, the defence ministry in Paris said.
Albakaye will be held by French forces for questioning for several days and then handed to the Malian authorities, the military added.
A security source who asked not to be named told AFP that Albakaye had once been seen as a potential successor to the group's leader, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, who was killed by French forces in August 2021.
An explosives expert, Albakaye was a regional chief in the group, commanding the areas of Gourma in Mali and Oudalan in neighbouring Burkina Faso.
He is responsible for a large number of abuses against civilians in those countries, the military said.