President Barack Obama’s order for US commandos to target an Islamic State commander in Syria was part of an evolving strategy to disrupt the militant group, which has proven resilient to airstrikes intended to break its grip on parts of the Middle East.
The raid seized on a rare opportunity to act on real-time intelligence. A man the US called Abu Sayyaf — a common nom de guerre in the Arab world — who was identified as a leader of the group’s oil, gas and financial operations was killed, along with about a dozen other militants, with no US casualties, administration officials said.
US officials and analysts said the raid may yield a rich body of intelligence to help unravel the financing, communications and personnel behind Islamic State. The assault suggests greater risk-taking mode by an administration leery of protracted ground combat in Iraq or Syria, and offers reassurances to allies who have questioned Obama’s resolve to eliminate one of the region’s most destabilizing forces.
“It’s a significant shift,” said Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser in President George W. Bush’s administration. “It represents that airstrikes aren’t enough and we’re finding it necessary to go after their leadership. That begins to change the complexion of the battlespace. We’re more actively involved and using boots on the ground.”
On Friday, hours before the raid, Islamic State militants seized the center of Ramadi, in western Iraq. The group also released an audio recording that it said was a speech by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was reported to have been severely injured in a March airstrike.
“At a time when ISIS advances in Syria and Iraq show just how resilient and agile the jihadi group remains and expose the serious flaws of the US strategy against it, there is a danger in overstating the significance of this raid and missing the bigger picture,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who is based in Bahrain.
“ISIS continues to convey a sense of movement across Iraq that masks its setbacks,” he said.
US officials said the raid doesn’t represent a greater commitment to using ground forces in the fight against Islamic State, which has proved adept at dodging airstrikes.
Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in an e-mail that the assault was “precisely the sort of limited ground operation” envisioned in Obama’s proposed congressional authorization for the use of force against the group.
“The administration is still very worried about overextending,” Zarate, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said.
The raid comes after Obama’s meeting last week with leaders of six Arab states, called the Gulf Cooperation Council, who expressed concerns about the president’s policies in Syria and Iraq. Islamic State set up its self-styled caliphate in June 2014 on areas straddling the two countries, each riven by civil strife.
Abu Sayyaf was thought to have connections with Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi and some knowledge of the group’s finances, making him a high-value target for potential intelligence, US officials said.
The operation in an eastern Syrian town called al-Amr was intended to capture Abu Sayyaf. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he was killed after engaging US forces. His wife, Umm Sayyaf, who is suspected of involvement in Islamic State operations, was captured and is being detained by the US military in Iraq, Meehan said.