18 May 15. On Saturday US forces conducted a raid in Syria aimed at capturing a leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) known as Abu Sayyaf. Coming under fire during the mission, the commandos killed Abu Sayyaf and about dozen other fighters while also capturing Abu Sayyaf’s wife and seizing intelligence on how the organization operates.
Q1: Who was Abu Sayyaf and what does this raid mean for ISIL?
A1: Much speculation exists regarding the importance of Abu Sayyaf, particularly since his true identity remains unreported. He has been described in a range of importance from ISIL’s key financial leader and “emir of oil and gas” to a mid-level, but emerging leader in the group. We do know that U.S. officials placed such an importance on him that they authorized this high-risk, boots-on-the-ground mission deep into eastern Syria instead of launching a stand-off attack such as a bombing mission. Most noteworthy seems to be the trove of intelligence seized by the commandos including mobile phones, computers, and other materials. These types of sources can lead U.S. forces to other key leaders in ISIL and help the intelligence community better dissect the organization. Depending on the information captured, the raid could be a significant blow to ISIL, which since its inception has benefited from not being widely understood by external forces. While we may never know the full effect of the raid, it should be seen as a significant tactical success for the United States both in terms eliminating a key Islamic State leader and gathering important intelligence.
Q2: What does this raid mean for the future of U.S. operations against the Islamic State?
A2: The raid demonstrates continued U.S. aggressiveness in the fight against the Islamic State. Since last June when Operation Inherent Resolve – the formal name of U.S. military operations against ISIL – commenced, U.S. forces together with their coalition partners have delivered a series of staggering blows to ISIL’s military infrastructure killing almost 10,000 militants and destroying hundreds of tanks and vehicles and as well as other key targets. Special operations forces (SOF) have operated in the region with relative impunity conducting a series of daring raids many aimed at freeing hostages. However, the meteoric rise of ISIL left the U.S. intelligence community racing to close significant information gaps in its understanding of ISIL. Intelligence has been a limiting factor in some of the operations, particularly in the U.S. government’s efforts to free hostages held by the militant group in which timely information is of utmost importance. Reportedly Abu Sayyaf was a prominent figure in ISIL’s hostage operations and his capture may have provided U.S. officials with valuable insight into the group’s tactics. With his killing, the United States lost the potential to interrogate Sayyaf, but the capture of his wife and the recovery of materials from the site still may provide the United States with increased understanding of ISIL, its organization, and its hostage operations.
Q3: What does this raid say about the U.S. government’s use of SOF?
A3: This latest raid, in which the United States suffered no causalities, demonstrates the lethality and effectiveness of SOF direct action missions – a capability honed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It shows American policy makers’ growing comfort in deploying these units globally, including inside sovereign nations, to pursue terrorists and free hostages. This represents the significant and continued evolution of this critical national security capability. For years national security leaders hesitated to send commandos on high-risk missions mainly out of concern to repeat an Iranian hostage rescue (1980) or Blackhawk Down (1993) scenario. A decade of successful SOF missions in Iraq and Afghanistan culminating with the Bin Laden raid in Pakistan clearly has reset the conditions for the use of SOF in national security deliberations, and we should expect to see this administration as well as future ones continue to use SOF in this manner.
Q4: What does the raid mean for U.S. and coalition efforts to defeat ISIL?
A4: Unfortunately not as much as we would like it to at this point. The true value of this raid only will be seen over time as intelligence analysts scour the materials seized at the site and work to provide actionable intelligence to U.S. and coalition forces. The situation in the region remains dynamic and unpredictable. In the same weekend that the United States conducted this successful raid in Syria, ISIL forces captured the key Iraqi city of Ramadi, which sits a mere 75 miles from Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. The loss of this symbolic city – it was the origin of the Sunni Awakening in 2006 against al Qaeda in Iraq that helped bring about the end of the insurgency — represents a significant setback for U.S. and coalition efforts against ISIL. This loss notwithstanding, the U.S. and coalition forces have made considerable strides against ISIL in the last year including recapturing Tikrit in late March. But the strategic balance has remained uneven. ISIL has proven to be a resilient threat, one that likely will endure for the foreseeable future given its territorial foothold across Iraq and Syria. Defeating ISIL ultimately will require a sustained ground campaign that must be led by Iraqi and other regional forces. The inconsistent results of Iraqi military efforts and the chaotic situation in Syria make it clear that U.S. and international support of regional efforts will be required to bring about the end of ISIL.
Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is a senior associate at the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.
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