American special forces commandos swooped into the heart of Islamic State’s oil and gas operations in eastern Syria in a raid intended to capture the man viewed as the group’s chief financial officer, Pentagon and White House officials said Saturday.
Instead, the man resisted and was killed, a Defense Department official said.
“The goal was to capture him,” the official, who requested anonymity in order to provide details of the operation, told McClatchy. “He engaged.”
The Obama administration, which announced the operation on the same day that the Islamic State was consolidating its control over the provincial capital of Ramadi in the biggest Islamic State victory since the capture of Mosul nearly a year ago, identified the man by the nom de guerre Abu Sayyaf and said he was Tunisian.
Captured alive in the operation was the man’s wife, who officials identified as Umm Sayyaf. She was taken back to Iraq for questioning. Abu Sayyaf means father of Sayyaf and Umm Sayyaf, mother of Sayyaf.
Abu Sayyaf’s precise position in the organization was unclear. Statements from the Defense Department and the National Security Council described him as a “senior leader” and suggested that he had also played some role in the Islamic State’s military operations. But the name was not immediately recognized by experts on the Islamic State, and the Defense Department official acknowledged that he was not one of the very top Islamic State leaders, on whose heads the State Department has placed significant bounties.
Eleven Islamic State fighters who were guarding Abu Sayyaf were killed, the official said. No Americans were killed or wounded, the Obama administration said.
The raid, undertaken by members of Delta Force, the U.S. military’s most elite unit, was the second known U.S. raid into Syria in the past year. In July, U.S. special forces raided an Islamic State prison in northern Syria in hopes of rescuing Americans who were being held hostage by the group. The raiders found no prisoners, however; two of the hostages sought, American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, were among Westerners later executed by the Islamic State.
Friday’s raid took place near Deir el Zour, an oil industry center in eastern Syria. According to the Defense official, the special forces were ferried to the site aboard Blackhawk and Osprey helicopters. Drones provided targeting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, supported the operation, the Defense official said.
The U.S. raiders took computers and records from Abu Sayyaf’s complex that “will give us good insight into how they run their finances and structure their money transactions,” the official said.
“You can think of him as like the CFO,” the official said, meaning the group’s chief financial officer. “They refer to him as their emir for oil and gas. We believe this will deal a fairly significant blow to their ability to raise funds and to manage money.”
The senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, offered a cautionary note.
“While Sayyaf was a significant figure and his loss and that of other senior leadership is a serious setback to ISIS, we should be under no illusion about the long-term impacts of any particular operation,” he said. “This terror group, like al Qaida, has proven adept at replacing its commanders, and we will need to keep up the pressure on its leadership and financing.”
Deir el Zour, which Islamic State fighters seized last July as they swept across large swaths of Syria, has six large oil and gas fields. Abu Sayyaf was killed at the largest of them, al Amr.
Carter said the raid was conducted at the direction of President Barack Obama.
The Pentagon vehemently denied Syrian state television reports that Syrian army forces, which have been battling the Islamic State to keep President Bashar Assad in power, killed Abu Sayyaf. In a subsequent statement to the Daily Beast website, NSC spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said any cooperation with the Assad government was out of the question. “As we have said before, the Assad regime is not and cannot be a partner in the fight against ISIL,” she said.
It was unclear what would become of Umm Sayyaf. In its statements, the Obama administration said it believed she was a member of the Islamic State and may have been “complicit” in the “enslavement” of a Yazidi woman who was found by the raiders and was to be returned to her family in Iraq.
But whether Umm Sayyaf could be charged with a crime was uncertain.
“We are working to determine an ultimate disposition for the detainee that best supports the national security of the United States and of our allies and partners, consistent with domestic and international law,” Meehan said.
The United States will follow “its usual practice” and provide the International Committee of the Red Cross” access to Umm Sayyaf, Meehan said.
Roy Gutman in Istanbul, Mitchell Prothero in Iraq, and Jonathan S. Landay and Mark Seibel in Washington contributed