U.S. Special Operations troops killed a top leader of the Islamic State group during a covert raid in eastern Syria Friday night, according to American officials. The raid appears to be the first publicly revealed offensive U.S. military operation on Syrian soil in the coalition fight against ISIS.
The Army special operations team was attempting to capture Abu Sayyaf, whom the Pentagon said helped direct the group’s illicit oil, gas, and financial operations. The team flew into Syria from Iraq on Blackhawk helicopters and Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, a defense official said. They fought a close-quarters firefight that included hand-to-hand combat. They killed a dozen enemy fighters, some of whom were using women and children as human shields.
Sayyaf was killed when he “engaged U.S. forces,” the White House and Pentagon officials said in separate statements Saturday morning. The U.S. troops also captured Sayyaf’s wife, Umm Sayyaf, who is also suspected to be a member of ISIS, and rescued a young Yezidi woman, the first official said.
No U.S. troops were killed or injured, and no innocents were harmed, the official said. The team also retrieved laptop computers in the raid.
“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 a statement Saturday.
ISIS, which has captured oil fields in Syria, sells the oil and gas on the black market. The facilities have been targeted by U.S.-led airstrikes since last year, but the sales remain “a key source of revenue that enables the terrorist organization to carry out their brutal tactics and oppress thousands of innocent civilians,” Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement.
Umm Sayyaf is being held in Iraq, Meehan said.
“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,” she said. “We will follow our usual practice with respect to giving the ICRC [International Red Cross] notification and access to the detainee.”
As for the young woman rescued in the raid, American officials official are attempting to reunite her with her family, Meehan said.
The Friday raid appears to have been the first time U.S. officials acknowledged putting troops into Syria for offensive actions against ISIS. Last August, special forces went in and fought militants in an unsuccessful effort to rescue hostage James Foley.