The Saturday morning Delta Force raid that killed ISIS commander Abu Sayyaf and captured his wife was sigifnicant less for who it killed than for where it killed him: To execute the raid, U.S. troops, very briefly, had boots on the ground in Syria. This wasn’t the first U.S. ground operation in Syria, though. There’s been at least one other: the unsuccessful attempt to free ISIS hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff in the summer of 2014. But the killing of Abu Sayyaf is the first successful ground raid that we know of, assuming that the goal was to kill the “emir of oil and gas” rather than capture him.
Terrorism analyst Bruce Reidel tells the New York Times that the raid looks like it was meant to be a “collection mission” to capture someone with information on the inner workings of ISIS. Drones, after all, have generally been the administration’s preferred method for targeted killings, whereas the U.S. has carried out a number of similar Special Forces raids recently to capture al-Qaida targets in Libya and Somalia.
The raid also raises the question of whether the U.S. will undertake more ground operations in Syria. The White House’s proposed authorization for the use of military force against ISIS, which has not been approved by Congress but can be interpreted as the administration’s self-imposed rules of engagement, specifies that it does not allow for “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” That rules out a permanent Iraq or Afghanistan–style occupation but the word “enduring” is in there to allow for operations just like this one: quick in-and-out special forces raids to target specific ISIS members or rescue hostages.
Early in the war against ISIS, the U.S. effort was hampered by a lack of on-the-ground intelligence from within Syria. The Abu Sayyaf raid could be a sign that the level of information is increasing, which could lead to more raids like this one, or drone strikes targeting ISIS commanders. The raid also comes at a time when, after weeks of setbacks and reports of internal strife, ISIS is on the offensive again, taking over several key sites in the city of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar.
Abu Sayyaf was reportedly involved in managing the group’s oil infrastructure and revenue. The administration has claimed that airstrikes and raids by local troops against energy facilities and smuggling routes have cut down on the oil money that flowed to ISIS last year, making it the best-funded terrorist group in history, but there’s still an awful lot we don’t know about how ISIS makes its money. Capturing Abu Sayyaf alive might have helped fill in those gaps, but the death of the ISIS “accountant” is probably still a significant blow to a group thought to be short on funds.