- Locals believed Islamic State leader was Syrian from Aleppo
- Crammed with displaced Syrians, town provided good cover
- Leader's family kept to themselves, paid rent on time
- Area in northwest Syria controlled by rival jihadist group
- Quraishi at least third senior IS leader who hid in region
AMMAN/ATMEH, Syria, February 4 - The Islamic State's leader and his family hid in plain sight in a corner of Syria crammed with people uprooted by the 11th civil conflict. They kept to themselves, neighbors did not pry into each other's past, the rent was paid on time.
The status quo was shattered on Thursday night, when US special forces invaded Atmeh in northwest Syria to raid his hideout.
According to the United States, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, the head of one of the world's most feared militant groups, will evade capture and kill several family members and others.
His death represents a blow to the Islamic State as its fighters are facing a devastating threat in Syria and Iraq.
Quraishi, a Syrian merchant from Aleppo, had brought his family to Atmeh near the Turkish border, far from the frontlines of the Syrian conflict.
Since Quraishi, an Iraqi, rented an apartment there a year ago, taking the first floor before expanding to rent the top one, there was little to draw attention to.
The children were generally well behaved and kept out of sight, sometimes accompanying their mother to the shops, according to a woman who lived on the ground floor and knew her neighbours as "the family of Abu Ahmed."
"They kept to themselves, and our kids played with their kids sometimes outside, but we never socialized with them," the woman, who gave her her name as Ameena, said in a phone interview.
Ameena said one of Quraishi's wives, Um Ahmad, was invited to tea. She said Ameena's husband had fled Aleppo while the city was wary.
The women wore all-enveloping black gowns, compared to conservative Muslims.
While the family were not from Atmeh, it did not draw attention to a country where tens of thousands of people have fled.
"We thought they might have gone through a lot, but as you know, here everyone has a tragedy and people rarely speak of what happened to them these years, and everyone prefers to keep to themselves," Ameena said.
HIDING NEAR THE ENEMY
Following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, founder of the Islamic State in 2019 he stepped down as a hostilities in US commandos.
Baghdadi's hideout was made possible in northwest Syria, the last major bastion of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group previously known as the Nusra Front, has been an Islamic State adversary for years.
In the nearby Afrin area in northwestern Syria, it was not far from Turkish troops positions.
Quraishi was able to find the best hiding place in the Islamic State, which controlled a third of Iraq and Syria in 2014, before being beaten into retreat.
The Syrian government has stated that navigating the country is effortless. Beyond the internally displaced, the area also accommodates foreign Islamists who travelled to the country during the conflict as fighters or civilian volunteers.
Sami Jasim, a senior Islamic State leader, was captured in northwestern Syria last October in response to Turkish assistance.
Quraishi, his two wives, and a child were murdered on another floor and would likely be slain with Quraishi's lieutenant and his wife, who were shot in the head by US forces.
Three people have been shot and killed, according to Syrian rescue workers.
Four children have been rescued after the assault, including a 12-year-old girl, boys aged 7 to 4 and a toddler.
Quraishi, a US official said, had used the house and an unwitting family living on the first floor as a "protective shield." Quraishi's planning for the raid was complicated, according to a source.
The landlord's son told Reuters that each apartment was rented for $160 per month.
"My dad entrusted me to rent, and if he (Quraishi) had water, electricity, or Internet problems we'd help him," the son said.
Ahmed al Saloum, a 56-year-old carpenter who lived nearby, said he often saw a woman hanging laundry from a second-floor balcony. "They never aroused any suspicion," he said.