WASHINGTON/BEIRUT – President Barack Obama’s order for U.S. commandos to target an Islamic State commander in Syria was part of an evolving strategy to disrupt the militant group, which has proven resilient to airstrikes intended to break its grip on parts of the Middle East.
The raid seized on a rare opportunity to act on real-time intelligence. A man the U.S. called Abu Sayyaf — a common nom de guerre in the Arab world — who was identified as a leader of the group’s oil, gas and financial operations was killed, along with about a dozen other militants, with no U.S. casualties, administration officials said.
U.S. officials and analysts said the raid may yield a rich body of intelligence to help unravel the financing, communications and personnel behind Islamic State. The assault suggests greater risk-taking mode by an administration leery of protracted ground combat in Iraq or Syria, and offers reassurances to allies who have questioned Obama’s resolve to eliminate one of the region’s most destabilizing forces.
“It’s a significant shift,” said Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser in President George W. Bush’s administration. “It represents that airstrikes aren’t enough and we’re finding it necessary to go after their leadership. That begins to change the complexion of the battle space. We’re more actively involved and using boots on the ground.”
On Friday, hours before the raid, Islamic State militants seized the center of Ramadi, in western Iraq. The group also released an audio recording that it said was a speech by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was reported to have been severely injured in a March airstrike.
‘The bigger picture’
“At a time when ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, an alternative name for Islamic State) advances in Syria and Iraq show just how resilient and agile the jihadi group remains and expose the serious flaws of the U.S. strategy against it, there is a danger in overstating the significance of this raid and missing the bigger picture,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who is based in Bahrain.
“ISIS continues to convey a sense of movement across Iraq that masks its setbacks,” he said.
U.S. officials said the raid does not represent a greater commitment to using ground forces in the fight against Islamic State, which has proved adept at dodging airstrikes.
Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in an e-mail that the assault was “precisely the sort of limited ground operation” envisioned in Obama’s proposed congressional authorization for the use of force against the group.
“The administration is still very worried about overextending,” Zarate, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a telephone interview.
The raid comes after Obama’s meeting last week with leaders of six Arab states, called the Gulf Cooperation Council, who expressed concerns about the president’s policies in Syria and Iraq. Islamic State set up its self-styled caliphate in June 2014 on areas straddling the two countries, each riven by civil strife.
Abu Sayyaf was thought to have connections with Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi and some knowledge of the group’s finances, making him a high-value target for potential intelligence, U.S. officials said.
The operation in an eastern Syrian town called al-Amr was intended to capture Abu Sayyaf. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he was killed after engaging U.S. forces. His wife, Umm Sayyaf, who is suspected of involvement in Islamic State operations, was captured and is being detained by the U.S. military in Iraq, Meehan said.
Captured materials such as computers or phones may detail Islamic State’s financing schemes, communications methods, border-crossing routes and recruiting patterns, all of which al-Baghdadi will now have to scrap, said a U.S. intelligence official with knowledge of the assault.
“Typically, computers and phones used by terrorist leaders are terrific sources of intelligence, often with unexpected benefits,” J.M. Berger, coauthor of a book on Islamic State and a researcher at the Brookings Institution, said in an email.
The decision to target Abu Sayyaf may have been based more on opportunity than his particular importance, said Paul Pillar, a former officer in the Central Intelligence Agency who is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
While U.S. intelligence assessments expect that Abu Sayyaf’s death will cause significant operational damage to Islamic State, Pillar said his loss is likely “something other than a major blow” against the group.
‘I don’t think we actually know who this guy is yet, other than this nom de guerre he uses,” said Douglas Ollivant, a former National Security Council official under Obama who is now a researcher at New America, a policy research group in Washington.
While Abu Sayyaf was “a fairly senior mid-level financier,” Ollivant said, his death may not change the Islamic State organization in any fundamental way.
“Just taking out one guy, someone is going to step up and take his job,” he said.
Syria kept in dark
The night raid was launched from Iraq by army commandos with the First Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta after the U.S. obtained new intelligence placing Abu Sayyaf in a compound in eastern Syria, an official briefed on the operation said. The U.S. did not advise the Syrian government of the assault, Meehan said.
The Delta Force commandos flew in UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and CV-22 Osprey aircraft. Twelve militants were killed in a firefight that involved hand-to-hand combat, the official said.
U.S. forces were on the ground in Syria for about 20 minutes, a senior defense official said. A Yazidi woman suspected of being enslaved by the Sayyafs was freed and will be reunited with her family, Meehan said.
The U.S. is adopting more traditional counterterrorism tactics against Islamic State, such as special operations missions into its territory, as the group adapts to a months-long bombing campaign, an American official involved in counterterrorism operations said.
For example, the group has stopped moving forces in large motorized groups across open country and has launched terrorist attacks in Ramadi and other urban centers where air power is less effective, the official said. The official asked not to be identified because details of the Abu Sayyaf raid are classified.
Intelligence collected in the raid may prove more valuable than Abu Sayyaf’s elimination.
A raid shortly after the 9/11 attacks that sought information about al-Qaida’s finances “incidentally uncovered thousands of pages of historical documents about the founding of al-Qaida that had been digitized and stored on the targeted computer,” Berger said.
Any information about how Islamic State sells oil on the black market will also be tremendously useful, he said.
A November report by the United Nations estimated that Islamic State earns as much as $1.6 million a day from oil sales, and U.S. airstrikes have targeted refineries and other infrastructure captured by the group.