Under the night sky, a fleet of Black Hawk helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft carrying Army Delta Force commandos took off from Iraq and slipped across the border into eastern Syria, military and intelligence officials said. The goal: capture an Islamic State leader holed up in a multistory building in the town of Al Amr.
After touching down in darkness late Friday, the elite forces came under fire, and women and children scattered for cover, according to a senior military official not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
As the U.S. soldiers began their assault, they engaged in an intense firefight and some fought hand-to-hand with militants, the senior official said. The battle left about a dozen Islamic State militants dead, including the commandos’ target: a man known as Abu Sayyaf, a militant leader who helped spearhead the group's lucrative black market oil, gas and financial operations, the senior official said.
With the fighters dead, the soldiers grabbed Abu Sayyaf’s wife and a cache of the militants' laptops, cellphones and other materials before returning to a military base in Iraq, according to the Pentagon account.
No U.S. personnel were killed or injured during the operation, officials said. No civilians were killed, they said.
The raid was the U.S. military's first confirmed attempt to capture an Islamic State leader in Iraq or Syria during the 10-month campaign against the Sunni extremists. But it won't be the last, said a senior military official, who disclosed the details but wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The assault was carried out with the cooperation of Iraqi officials, U.S. authorities said.
“You can expect more of these on-the-ground operations as we move forward,” the American official said. “This was intelligence-driven. This was our first opportunity to carry out such a mission and we took it.”
Before the raid was authorized by the White House, the official said, Abu Sayyaf was under constant surveillance by drones and satellites.
Though the U.S. government might have gleaned key intelligence, the inability to capture Abu Sayyaf alive is likely to draw criticism from some who question deepening U.S. involvement in the fight against Islamic State.
Despite almost 4,000 U.S.-led airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq, the battle has become somewhat of a stalemate. Islamic State controls major cities, such as Mosul in northern Iraq and Raqqah in northeastern Syria, and continues to declare its “caliphate.”
Last week, Islamic State overran government buildings in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar province, after a call-to-arms recording surfaced, reportedly made by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi.
Islamic State’s Abu Sayyaf, though previously unknown outside intelligence and militant circles, was a key player in Islamic State’s military and financial operations, according to the Pentagon. He helped direct the group’s extensive oil and gas interests, a principal source of revenue, but was not, officials said, a sort of chief executive as reports have suggested. His name — U.S. officials identified him by only his nickname — does not appear to be listed in previous Treasury Department actions targeting suspected militant financiers.
Islamic State’s leadership structure remains opaque, making it difficult to judge the significance of Abu Sayyaf’s killing. Moreover, the group, like its predecessor organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, has proved adept at replacing slain commanders and ideologues known to be targets of Washington and its allies. Even top-echelon extremists may have relatively short shelf lives, recent history has shown, a fact that does not escape the militants, who appear to plan for the succession of fallen commanders.
What may be most significant about Friday’s operation is not Abu Sayyaf’s rank in Islamic State's shadowy hierarchy but that he was targeted in a U.S. strike featuring ground troops in Syria’s eastern Dair Alzour province, an Islamic State bastion since the group overran large portions of eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq in 2014.
“The fact that this involved U.S. boots on the ground inside Dair Alzour — literally the heart of darkness in ISIL-controlled territory — is extremely important,” said Fawaz Gerges, Middle East analyst at the London School of Economics, using a common acronym for Islamic State.
“It is certainly an escalation,” Gerges said in a telephone interview. “And it suggests that Washington may be conducting more and more of this type of operation as it targets ISIS’ command and financial structure.”
It is the only the second such confirmed ground assault in Syria; the other was an unsuccessful raid last summer meant to rescue U.S. hostages, including James Foley, the U.S. journalist later beheaded by the militants. Islamic State moved Foley and the other captives before U.S. forces arrived in northern Syria, according to the White House.
This time, however, the target seemed meant to send a blunt message: No Islamic State leaders are safe.
In the last 10 months, the U.S.-led aerial campaign has focused on hitting whatever the Pentagon could see, including military targets, militant oil and gas structure and extremist commanders. In November, U.S. forces tried to wipe out Islamic State’s leadership in an airstrike against a 10-vehicle convoy, which included the leader, Baghdadi. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Baghdadi was injured this year in a bombing run.
Ground raids, based on intelligence, can be more precise, but they also come with a much greater risk of U.S. casualties.
Though U.S. officials have touted the raid Friday as a major blow to Islamic State, mystery still surrounds the man identified by U.S. authorities as Abu Sayyaf — a common moniker in Islamist militant circles, after a famed Afghan militant who fought Soviet forces.
U.S. officials described him as a Tunisian militant and said that Tunisian authorities had been informed of his death. Islamic State supporters on Twitter identified the leader as “Abu Sayyaf Al-Tunisi,” a nom de guerre signifying that he was of Tunisian origin.
Thousands of Tunisian militants are said to have joined Islamic State in Syria, though Islamic State’s leadership has generally been viewed as being dominated by Iraqis, both religious militants and former commanders in the Iraqi armed forces of Saddam Hussein, a secular leader.
Some reports in the Arab news media suggested that Abu Sayyaf was a member of the Jaburi tribe, a prominent Sunni clan in Iraq, who had served time in Camp Bucca, a former U.S. detention facility in Iraq set up after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Hussein. Camp Bucca became an incubator for future Islamic State leaders, including Baghdadi. But there was no confirmation Saturday that Abu Sayyaf had ever been in U.S. custody.
There were also few details about Abu Sayyaf’s wife. The Pentagon identified her as Umm Sayyaf, a nickname meaning mother of Sayyaf, and called her an “important” Islamic State operative, though her role was unspecified in a group infamous for male domination. The Pentagon’s description of her as “Umm Sayyaf” immediately drew mockery on Arabic-language websites, as the moniker implies that the couple has a son named Sayyaf, or swordsman, more a title or honorific than a name.
Officials say Abu Sayyaf and his wife were complicit in the enslavement of a young Yazidi woman who was rescued during the raid. The Yazidi are a Kurdish minority group whose women have faced rape, torture and forced marriage at the hands of Islamic State militants.
Times staff writer Hennigan reported from Washington and McDonnell from Djibouti. Staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington and special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Djibouti contributed to this report.