U.S. Special Operations Forces met resistance and had to fight “hand to hand” in Friday night’s raid in al-Amr in southeastern Syria that killed ISIS senior commander Abu Sayyaf, defense officials told The Daily Beast.
Troops from the U.S. Army's elite Delta Force flew into the scene in Ospreys and Black Hawk helicopters, landing near a multi-story building and meeting fierce resistance as they entered, the officials said. The troops engaged in close quarters combat with the target and his body guards, even trading blows “hand to hand” as they rushed the targets, two of the defense officials said.
The aircraft where flown by pilots from the Air Force Special Operations Command and the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation regiment, they added. All of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the raid publicly.
There was some resistance from armedguards and from Abu Sayyaf himself, but the raiders were prepared for that, athird official told The Daily Beast.
“It was risky, but not high risk,” theofficial said. “This is what these guys do.”
Some ISIS fighters hid behind women in anattempt to use them as human shields, and the second defense official said theU.S. troops had to “literally shoot around” the human shields to kill thefighters.
The hand-to-hand combat occurred in thebuilding where Abu Sayyaf was, the second official said. The Tunisian national,attempted to resist in some way, leading U.S. forces to kill him.
His wife, an Iraqi national, and an 18-year-old Yazidi slave were taken out of the compound, as well as computers, cell phones and other forms of potential intelligence sources, which U.S. officials already believe will be valuable. They are assessing that information now, two of the officials said.
U.S. officials are hoping theintelligence gathered may shed some light on whether the number two of ISIS wasreally killed as the Iraqi government claims, the third official said.
“This mission was all about gatheringintelligence,” that official said. What they find will determine if there areother raids.
“It really depends on intelligence, whichdrives operations and determines how robust a cycle we can get,” he added.
Known as the “emir of oil and gas,” Abu Sayyaf was believed to be a key figure in financing ISIS operations, the first official said, and the second compared him to a chief financial officer.
“The CFO talks to everybody,” the second official said. “He was the lynchpin in their command and control. We knew we would be able to get a lot of information.”
"Abu Sayyaf was a senior ISIL [an acronym for the group used by the U.S. government] leader who, among other things, had a senior role in overseeing ISIL’s illicit oil and gas operations—a key source of revenue that enables the terrorist organization to carry out their brutal tactics and oppress thousands of innocent civilians," said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan in a statement after the raid. "He was also involved with the group’s military operations."
She added that U.S. officials suspect that Abu Sayyaf's wife, Umm Sayyaf, is also a member the group and "played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities, and may have been complicit in the enslavement of the young woman rescued last night."
U.S. officials are questioning Umm Sayyaf, an Iraqi national, and still have not determined what will happen to her. Among the options being considered is releasing her or turning her over to Iraqi custody.
(Abu and Umm Sayaf are nom de guerres, meaning Father and Mother of Sayyaf, but defense officials said they did not have their actual names to release.)
The president readily signed off on the mission, the third official said, when presented with detailed intelligence showing who and what they hoped to grab, and when told that the risk of civilian casualties would be minimal.
Meehan made a point to say that there was no coordination with Damascus.
"The U.S. government did not coordinate with the Syrian regime, nor did we advise them in advance of this operation," Meehan emailed The Daily Beast. "We have warned the Asad regime not to interfere with our ongoing efforts against ISIL inside of Syria," adding that the Assad regime is not and cannot be a partner in the fight against ISIL.
Meehan said the point of the raid was to capture Abu Sayyaf and interrogate him. "The President has consistently said that our preference is to detain, interrogate, and prosecute suspected terrorists when feasible." She said President Barack Obama authorized the operation based on a "unanimous" recommendation from his national security team.
"This is just a continuation of the war we've been waging all along," a senior administration official said. "We've devastated the Iraq-based leadership, and this raid puts ISIL on notice there is nowhere to hide. We (the Coalition and Iraqi and Syrian allies) will attack you. We will shrink your surface area. We will break up your safe havens. We will liberate those you've enslaved, and in the end we will pursue you and we will defeat you. This mission is just another step in that process."
Some analysts argued the Pentagon appeared eager to shift the narrative away from the ISIS advances this week with their offensive in Iraq’s Anbar province, where Islamic militants on Friday stormed the main government building in Ramadi. In Syria, too, ISIS has been making advances and today appeared to have entered the northern parts of the ancient site of Palmyra, stoking fears for one of the Middle East’s most important Roman archaeological sites.
Michael Pregent, an analyst at the National Defense University in Washington, tweeted: “Remember Ramadi is falling to ISIS - Sayyaf news is equivalent to Jennifer Anniston ruining another relationship.”
Another senior US official, who asked not to be identified for this article, told The Daily Beast that Abu Sayyaf was one of several ISIS figures targeted in the raid but that the others had left before the strike-force arrived, suggesting although the mission had been fully successful, US commanders were hoping to ensnare bigger ISIS leaders.
Political activists in the area say another ISIS oil emir, a Saudi national, was killed in the raid as well. They also say that Abu Sayyaf’s wife is a relative of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, although it is not clear whether by blood or marriage.
—Additional reporting by Jamie Dettmer