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Key Islamic State figure killed in Syria drone strike, U.S. says

Maher al-Agal, who worked to build ISIS networks outside of Iraq and Syria, was targeted along with an associate, the U.S. military said

People inspect the site in northern Syria where a U.S. drone targeted Islamic State operatives on July 12. (Rami Al Sayed/AFP/Getty Images)

A top leader of the Islamic State terrorist organization was killed in a U.S. drone strike Tuesday in northwest Syria, the White House and U.S. military announced, an operation officials said would undercut the group’s ability to plan and carry out attacks globally.

Maher al-Agal, who worked “aggressively” on building the group’s networks outside of Iraq and Syria, according to the U.S. military, was one of two targets of the strike outside Jindires, about 35 miles northwest of Aleppo. Agal was considered to be one of the top five Islamic State leaders in Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials said.

A second individual closely associated with him, whom the military did not identify, was “seriously injured” in the strike, according to U.S. Central Command. A humanitarian group with personnel on the ground said the person eventually died of his wounds. U.S. military officials did not immediately confirm that report.

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President Biden praised the development, saying it “represents the culmination of determined and meticulous intelligence work and stands as testament to the bravery and skill of our armed forces.”

“It also demonstrates that the United States does not require thousands of troops in combat missions to identify and eliminate threats to our country,” Biden said in a statement. The U.S. military footprint in the Middle East has been significantly reduced in recent years as Washington contends with threats posed by China in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as Russia’s pronounced aggression in Europe.

U.S. officials, citing an initial review, said no civilians were harmed in the attack.

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Tuesday’s operation occurred in a village called Khaltan, according to the White Helmets, a team of first responders that works in northwest Syria. In a message posted on Twitter early Tuesday afternoon, the group affirmed that one person was killed and another was wounded after a drone struck, targeting a motorcycle. In a subsequent post, the group said that the second person had later died.

The White Helmets posted a picture, showing shrapnel on a road in a rural area, surrounded by what appeared to be olive groves. The area, near the Turkish border, is controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

Other Syrian social media accounts posted pictures of a severely wounded man purported to be the second passenger, as well as the mangled remains of the motorcycle.

The strike comes a day ahead of Biden’s planned visit to the Middle East, where he will visit with Israeli, Palestinian, Saudi and other Arab leaders. Biden is expected to focus on promoting regional security cooperation in response to Iran, which has carried out a string of recent provocations as hopes for a revived nuclear deal dim.

Domestically, Biden’s trip will be watched for any developments it may yield in the realm of oil and gas markets. Biden is expected to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members include some of the most influential oil producers in the region. But the president also faces pressure not to compromise the U.S. message on human rights in exchange for guarantees that could help alleviate high gas prices at home exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, particularly when it comes to making deals with Saudi Arabia.

The Islamic State was not expected to be among the top agenda items for Biden’s trip. But Tuesday’s strike is a reminder of the destabilizing role it continues to play in the Middle East.

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Tuesday’s strike is the latest in a number of U.S. military efforts to pick off or capture top operators within the terrorist organization. The drone strike on Agal follows the high-profile raid earlier this year that led to the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.

His predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed during a similar raid in October 2019.

In both operations, U.S. military officials came under scrutiny after civilians, including children, were killed. The Pentagon has faced broad criticism in recent years for incurring civilian casualties in attacks on the Islamic State — including charges that it covered up the death of women and children in a 2019 strike on the group’s fighters in Baghouz, Syria.

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While the U.S. military has acknowledged it can do better, it has rejected accusations that it actively tried to hide civilian deaths, declining to mete out serious punishments of U.S. personnel or hold commanders responsible over the incidents.

Still, it appears such accusations have made some impression.

CENTCOM was quick to point out Tuesday that, according to initial assessments, no civilians were injured or killed during the strike on Agal. They took a similar tone last month when announcing that no civilians had been harmed during a raid to capture Islamic State bombmaker Hani Ahmed al-Kurdi, known as the “Wali of Raqqa.”

Fahim reported from Istanbul.