Pentagon officials have been understandably keen to talk-up Friday night’s Delta Force strike deep into the terrain of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS. With no U.S. casualties among the two dozen commandos who landed in eastern Syria and at least one high-value militant dead—and a likely 40 other extremists dead—the mission has been hailed as a success, and not only by Defense aides.
But while analysts and military veterans see the raid as a successful tactical operation, questions remain about whether higher-value targets may have slipped away earlier. Who they are would provide answers to exactly what American commanders wanted to get from the raid. Whether the missed targets were more involved in ISIS’s finances or military leaders would provide some insight into the ever-evolving U.S. strategy, some analysts say.
Despite some descriptions of veteran jihadist Abu Sayyaf as ISIS’s “CFO” responsible for the oil smuggling that helps finance the group, analysts and political activists say he was a mid-level manager overseeing oil infrastructure as opposed to masterminding clandestine sales and deliveries. In the lists of the ISIS leadership drawn up by knowledgeable analysts and reporters, he never figured prominently.
Abu Sayyaf’s wife, Umm Sayyaf (a nom de guerre that means “Mother of Sayyaf”) in Arabic, was also captured, while an enslaved Yazidi woman was rescued by Delta. Both are being interrogated in Iraq by the FBI’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Team, according to House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and a senior administration official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
“There’s a belief that she was active within ISIL [another acronym used to describe ISIS] and had responsibilities within ISIL apart from being a spouse of Abu Sayyaf,” Schiff said in an interview with The Daily Beast Sunday. She may have had a possible “operational role,” he added.
“If the wife played a role in organization, she’ll be subject to prosecution by us or by Iraqi authorities,” he said.
The team has been deployed in the past to interview high-value al Qaeda suspects to get as much “actionable” intelligence as possible before turning the suspect over to an FBI team, which would then advise the detainee of his or her rights and then carry out separate questioning that could be used in a prosecution.
The FBI did not respond to request for comment and the White House also refused to confirm the team had been deployed, referring questions to the Pentagon.
In an email on Sunday, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said he “would not get into specifics, but as a general rule, we will always seek to get all the actionable intelligence and information we can from national security related suspects taken into our custody.”
Other analysts and Special Operations forces veterans are anxious that the Pentagon doesn’t sit back now. They argue such commando raids should be mounted frequently in a concerted campaign modeled on the 2006 hunt for al Qaeda in Iraq boss Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the mentor of ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
And they maintain that even if primary targets slip away, the benefits of commando raids outweigh the risks of a “Black Hawk Down”-type incident.
Political activists say the reaction by ISIS commanders and fighters to the arrival of the Delta Force on the ground was one of panic and confusion. “Horror and fear prevails among fighters hours after the storm operation carried out by the international coalition forces,” anti-ISIS activists tweeted Saturday. A jittery ISIS imposed a widespread curfew following the raid.
Commando raids are highly effective in disorienting and demoralizing an enemy—and they have the added bonus of lifting the morale of supporters and allies. This was something Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill recognized when he formed the British Commandos in June 1940, ignoring the advice of military top brass who said raids mounted on occupied Europe would have no decisive tactical impact and would just amount to PR.
Churchill saw the derring-do of the Commandos not only as morale-boosting, but believed the unpredictable rein of terror they and the French Resistance could bring down on the enemy would force Nazi commanders to look over their shoulders the whole time and tie down Axis forces better used elsewhere.
John Hannah, former State Department aide and now analyst at the Washington-based think tank, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, sees part of the tactical value of Friday’s raid resting on how well it roils the ISIS leadership. “The rest of the leadership has got to be more wary than they were before,” he says, arguing the strike was a statement.
But for the statement to have real effect, follow-up raids are needed. “My sense has long been that the U.S. could do quite a bit more to defeat ISIS,” says Jonathan Schanzer, Hannah’s colleague at the FDD. “We are hindered by a reticence on the part of American decision makers to put boots on the ground. The success of this raid only serves to underscore this.”
He says that capturing Abu Sayyaf alive “would have obviously been preferable,” and adds that it’s unclear whether the militant commander’s wife would provide valuable intelligence. Even so, “American successes on the battlefield involving Special Forces give the U.S. an edge in the psychological battle.”
Another edge may be gained by what U.S. defense officials called a “treasure trove” of intelligence materials gathered in the raid, such as cell phones, laptops and documents. The data can help better map the upper echelons of ISIS and establish how various leaders interact.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and now an analyst at the Brookings Institution, suspects Friday’s operation was “a collection mission: the goal to capture someone or two someones who can explain how ISIS works.” And if so, he told The New York Times, “It demonstrates we still have large gaps in our understanding of the enemy and how it is organized.”
If the U.S. still has big holes in its knowledge of the workings of the terror army, it begs the question of why American intelligence isn’t securing what nuggets of information political activists from ISIS-controlled provinces have to offer. In the past few weeks, more than 100 defectors from ISIS, including two senior security operatives, have been smuggled out of Raqqa, the so-called caliphate’s de facto capital, by activists with a network called Eye-on-the-Homeland.
One of the two security operatives was tasked with hunting down activists and opponents of ISIS; another was the bodyguard of a significant player in the terror group. The activists have debriefed them, securing what their leader Ahmad Abdulkader describes as “very important information.”
Yet his group have not been contacted by intelligence officials from the U.S. or other Western powers in the coalition against ISIS. Abdulkader says: “I could make another one hundred leave ISIS, but if I do so, who would be responsible for them, house and feed them? There is no where for them to go.”
His complaint isn’t unusual. Rebel commanders and activists have long grumbled that U.S. intelligence-gathering seems to be hit-or-miss and passing on intelligence is not facilitated. They say the Americans rely too much on electronic means of intelligence gathering and not enough on so-called human intelligence, because the Americans seem wary of them.
Why this is so is not entirely clear but maybe part of the explanation lies with an old Mideast hand, Gertrude Bell, the British explorer, travel writer, and sometime spy and political officer. “Can you persuade people to take your side when you are not sure in the end whether you’ll be there to take theirs?”
—Additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier