An apparent suicide bombing in the northern Syrian city of Manbij on Wednesday killed two U.S. service members, a Defense Department contractor and a civilian Defense worker, according to the Pentagon.
The attack, which the militant group Islamic State said had been carried out by one of its followers, also killed more than a dozen civilians and Kurdish militia members, according to local reports. Three U.S. service members were among the wounded, according to the Pentagon.
“Initial reports indicate an explosion caused the casualties, and the incident is under investigation,” U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Syria, said in a statement.
The attack comes after President Trump announced he would withdraw troops from the nation based on his assertion that Islamic State had been all but vanquished, a claim repeated Wednesday by Vice President Mike Pence.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday that the Manbij attack indicated Trump’s decision to withdraw had emboldened Islamic State.
“My concern, by the statements made by President Trump, is that you set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we’re fighting. You make people we’re trying to help wonder about us,” Graham said at confirmation hearing for attorney general nominee William Barr. “And as they get bolder, the people we’re trying to help are going to get more uncertain. I saw this in Iraq. And I’m now seeing it in Syria.”
Manbij is controlled by a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which is backed by the U.S. and has been conducting joint patrols with American troops in the city.
It was during one of these patrols that the Islamic State attacker — nicknamed Abu Yassin Shami, according to a statement by the extremist group — approached a group of U.S.-led coalition personnel and Kurdish militants gathered near a restaurant about 1 p.m. and detonated a suicide belt.
Islamic State claimed nine coalition personnel were killed or wounded, along with a number of Kurdish fighters.
Local media outlet Hawar News quoted officials in Manbij as saying a number of YPG fighters as well as 13 civilians were killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitor that is based in Britain but employs a network of activists in Syria, put the death toll at 16.
After the bombing, Vice President Pence repeated Trump’s claim that Islamic State was defeated.
“Thanks to the leadership of this commander in chief and the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces we’re now actually able to begin to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria.… We are bringing our troops home,” Pence said in a speech to a group of U.S. ambassadors at the State Department, using an acronym for Islamic State.
“The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated,” Pence added, referring to Islamic State’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria that it referred to as the Islamic caliphate.
Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, tweeted about the same time as his speech that the vice president had been briefed on the attack and expressed condolences “to the loved ones of the fallen.”
Hours later, Pence’s Twitter account posted a statement condemning the attack but stating that “we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities” and would never allow the “remnants of ISIS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate.”
Hawar News broadcast a video depicting the moment of the blast. It shows people walking through a marketplace area in the center of Manbij when an explosion blasts out of one of the storefronts.
Two pedestrians, engulfed in the flames of the blast, quickly fall to the ground while a third approaching the restaurant turns around and runs away.
Activists reported a heavy security presence in the immediate aftermath of the attack, with helicopters arriving near the area to evacuate casualties while a joint U.S.-French investigative team cordoned off the site of the explosion.
“The restaurant is in the center of town, and it’s normally a crowded area,” said Abu Ahmad, an activist in Manbij. He gave a nickname for reasons of security.
Last month, Trump ordered the abrupt withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, a process the Pentagon said has begun with the removal of equipment but could take months to complete.
Trump’s decision was taken against the recommendations of many of his foreign policy and military advisors.
The withdrawal would leave Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria to face Turkey, which views the YPG as a proxy force for a Kurdish insurgency it has fought for decades.
Trump’s advisors are seeking an agreement with Turkey, which has threatened to attack the YPG when U.S. forces depart.
Many have criticized the withdrawal as abandonment of a dependable U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State. Others say it would give the extremist group the space it needs to reconstitute itself after losing all of the territories it once held.
Yet it’s unclear how Wednesday’s bombing would affect the pace of the withdrawal, with Trump changing the timeline of the pullout in various statements recently.
Another question is who is to blame for the infiltration of an Islamic State fighter into Manbij, a city protected by the coalition as well as the YPG, with Turkish-backed Syrian rebels as well as Syrian government troops on its perimeter.
In a statement, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “Today’s deadly bombing targeting our troops in Syria is a reminder that ISIS still has the capacity to carry out attacks.”
“I strongly urge the president to forcefully respond and ensure we do not withdraw our troops until ISIS is completely destroyed,” McCaul said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had been briefed on the incident.
“We will continue to monitor the ongoing situation in Syria,” she said.
Bulos reported from Baghdad and Cloud from Washington.