US special operations forces based in Iraq set out to capture a senior Islamic State leader during a raid in eastern Syria but ended up killing him and taking his wife into custody instead, the White House and Department of Defense announced today.
President Barack Obama ordered the operation Friday night, which resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf, described by the White House as having a senior role overseeing the oil and gas operations that are crucial to the militant group's financing.
Sayyaf's wife, Umm Sayyaf, was reportedly captured in the raid, and the US said that she is being kept in military detention for questioning as a suspected member of the Islamic State.
The US commandos, widely understood to be members of the elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), also rescued a young Yazidi woman they said was possibly being kept as a slave by the couple. In a statement released by the White House, National Security spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the US intends to reunite the woman with her family.
There were no injuries to US troops in the operation, the White House and DOD said in statements released this morning.
"The operation represents another significant blow to ISIL, and it is a reminder that the United States will never waver in denying safe haven to terrorists who threaten our citizens, and those of our friends and allies," Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in his statement, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State.
Meehan noted that the Iraqi government consented to the raid, and that it was carried out according to international and domestic law.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren told VICE News that Army Delta Force troops based in Iraq flew into Syria on UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, and were fired at by militants on the ground, who attempted to use nearby civilians as human shields.
"They got to the object, the place where Abu Sayyaf was located, and moved in to try and capture him, which is what their goal was, and several enemy fighters were there, and a firefight broke out," Warren said. "Our guys were able to use precision fire with their assault rifles and separate the innocents from the fighters, and we were able to essentially kill all the fighters without hurting the bystanders."
Warren said the troops were in such close quarters with enemy fighters inside the two-story building where the raid was conducted that they engaged in hand-to-hand combat. "With fists," he said. "It was too close to use weapons." Warren said 11 Islamic State fighters were killed in addition to Sayyaf.
The DOD spokesman described Sayyaf as being in charge of oil fields controlled by the Islamic State in eastern Syria, and said laptops, cellphones, and other records from the building were gathered during the raid for intelligence purposes. The militants use the money they earn from selling oil to fund their military operations.
"You can think of this guy as the CFO (chief financial officer) if you will of ISIL, so there were records, laptops, cell phones," Warren said. "That's how you gain information about another organization, by looking at their records."
Sayyaf was relatively unknown prior to the raid Saturday, and the Guardian reported that there is speculation among Iraqi officials and Western diplomats that the raid's intended target may have actually been Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the Islamic State's chief spokesman, who was reportedly seen often with Sayyaf.
Patrick Skinner, director of special projects for the Soufan Group, an intelligence consulting firm, said the raid shows that the US military has "decent intel at a pretty granular level" about the on-the-ground workings of the Islamic State.
"To launch such a raid means real-time intelligence, and anything to disrupt the funding mechanisms of ISIS is of high priority," Skinner said.
The raid comes as Islamic State fighters advanced on the Syrian city of Palmyra on Friday and fought against Syrian troops there. The militants also captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi on Friday after a widespread offensive.
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Photo via US Army/Flickr