Analysis and Assessment: U.S. Syria Raid against ISIS

Abu Sayyaf was a mid-level financier who oversaw oil revenues for the Islamic State, aka ISIS, in Deir al-Zour, Syria.  The raid was authorized by President Obama after the president was briefed on the intelligence that had been collected over the past several months.  The U.S. military and the intelligence community had been working for weeks to build a profile of Abu Sayyaf using human sources, electronic surveillance, and aerial reconnaissance of the particular areas of interest.

The raid to capture or kill Abu Sayyaf was carried out by approximately 36 members of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and supporting U.S. special mission forces in the vicinity of the Amr area within Deir al-Zour Province of eastern Syria.  The infiltration for the raid was conducted using MH-60L DAP Blackhawk helicopters and CV-22 Ospreys, which used Iraqi airspace to reach the target area in Syria.

This is the first successful raid against an Islamic State target since military operations against the terrorist organization began after the beheading of James Foley.  A previous raid last summer (2014) attempted to free James Foley and other hostages but was not successful due to the hostages having been moved as a result of delays, perhaps due to intelligence being compromised.

Some of the details:

Abu Sayyaf was killed during the raid after he attempted to engage members of Delta operators as they approached the room he had tried to hide in with his wife.  As the operators entered the room, Abu Sayyaf opened fire on them, resulting in his death from immediate return fire.  None of the U.S. operators were injured in the raid, and up to fifteen Islamic State fighters were reported killed.

Intelligence on Abu Sayyaf’s wife, Umm Sayyaf, is that she is involved in human trafficking operations for the Islamic State in the area.  She was captured, and the operators also rescued an 18-year-old Yazidi girl.  The Islamic State has been capturing and selling female captives throughout Syria and Iraq, where they have been able to seize terrain.  The sexual slavery of female captives has been well-established from interviews with those who have escaped the Islamic State.

There were no civilian casualties during the raid, as the highly trained operators were able to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants on the objective.

The raid demonstrates that the U.S. maintains the capability to reach out and strike the Islamic State at will if it so chooses with minimal dangers to its forces.  The successful collection on the mid-level target also addresses the U.S. capability in gaining influence on the ground with intelligence sources.  The U.S. is likely, though slowly, developing and growing a much needed network to be able to identify and locate higher-value targets (HVTs).

Assessment: While this is a significant event, it has not done serious damage to the Islamic State.  The death of Abu Sayyaf will not hamper the terrorist organization dramatically, as he will undoubtedly be easily replaced.  It does, however, send the message that the U.S. now has the ability and will come after select targets that it deems worthy of the risk.  This means that the higher-priority targets in the hierarchy of the Islamic State’s command group are continuing to be developed. 

This is not a turning point in the Obama strategy, which thus far has been tepid at best as the Islamic State has expanded outside the primary areas of Syria and Iraq.  Without significant coherent U.S. strategic-level strategy and consistently supported robust military operations against the Islamic State, IS will continue to develop its tactics, techniques, and procedures to strengthen its capability and capacity.   Strategically, the raid last night is little more than a pinprick against an ever-growing Islamic threat to the region, as noted in its current operation to take the strategic provincial capital of Ramadi in western al-Anbar.

Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF colonel and served for nearly 30 years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer.  He has expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare.  He is a former special operations special mission intelligence officer and the former deputy director for intelligence for U.S. Central Command, MacDill AFB, as well as a former White House National Security Council staffer and former distinguished senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.  He lives in Tampa Bay, FL area.