BEIRUT — In a rare ground raid deep into Syria, a team of Delta Force commandos killed a man described as the Islamic State’s head of oil operations, captured his wife and rescued a woman who American officials said was enslaved.
The Army commandos slipped across the border from Iraq under cover of darkness Saturday aboard Black Hawk helicopters and V-22 Osprey aircraft, according to a Defense official knowledgeable about details of the raid. The official was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Americans intended to capture a terrorist identified as Abu Sayyaf. When they arrived at his location, a multi-story building, they encountered stiff resistance, the official said, and a firefight ensued, resulting in the Americans’ aircraft being damaged by gunfire.
Sayyaf was killed, along with about a dozen Islamic State terrorists, American officials said. No American was killed or wounded.
Before the sun had risen, the commandos flew back to Iraq where Abu Sayyaf’s wife, Umm Sayyaf, was in custody and being questioned, officials said.
The goal was to gain intelligence about Islamic State operations and any information about hostages, including American citizens, who were held by the group, according to Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
Abu Sayyaf was described by one official as the “emir of oil and gas” for the Islamic State, although he also was targeted for his known association with the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
American officials said it was likely, given Sayyaf’s position, that he knew about more than just the financial side of the group’s operations.
Despite the U.S. claims, much about Sayyaf is in question. He has rarely been mentioned in Western reports about the extremist group, and he is not known to be among terrorists for whom the United States has offered a bounty. The name was not known to counterterrorism officials who study the Islamic State and does not appear in reports compiled by think tanks and others examining the group’s hierarchy.
Sayyaf’s death probably has temporarily halted Islamic State oil revenue operations, critical to the group’s ability to carry out military operations in Syria and Iraq and to govern the population centers it controls, the American official said.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, cautioned against exaggerating the long-term gain from killing Sayyaf.
He said the Islamic State, like al-Qaida, “has proven adept at replacing its commanders, and we will need to keep up the pressure on its leadership and financing.”
A Treasury official told Congress in October that Islamic State terrorists were earning about $1 million a day from black market oil sales and getting several million dollars a month from wealthy donors, extortion rackets and other criminal activities, such as robbing banks. Kidnappings were another large source of cash.
U.S. airstrikes in Syria since September have frequently targeted the Islamic State’s oil collection facilities in an effort to undermine the group’s finances.
The group controls much of northern and eastern Syria, as well as northern and western Iraq, despite months of U.S. and coalition airstrikes and efforts by the U.S.-backed Iraqi army to retake territory. The terrorists hold most of the oil fields in Syria and have declared a caliphate governed by a harsh version of Islamic law.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Washington announced the raid, followed soon by word from the White House.
Meehan, the NSC spokeswoman, wrote in a statement that the woman who was freed, a Yazidi, “appears to have been held as a slave” by Sayyaf and his wife. The United States intends to return her to her family, Meehan said.