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Why the U.S. Raid On Abu Sayyaf and ISIS in Eastern Syria May Be A Game Changer

Author:  Clint Watts
May 16, 2015

Why the U.S. Raid On Abu Sayyaf and ISIS in Eastern Syria May Be A Game Changer

This morning, reports confirmed that U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted a daring raid deep into Eastern Syria killing a key ISIS leader, Abu Sayyaf, along with several other ISIS members.  The raid occurred near Der Ouzzer amidst the critical Syrian oil fields that provide the key lifeblood to ISIS. This daring U.S. raid and its great success likely signal a turning point in the fight against ISIS.  Here are a few points worth considering.

Why risk so much to go after Abu Sayyaf?

For those outside of military and intelligence circles, Abu Sayyaf is an unknown, mid-level leader in ISIS.  However, the best way to target the top leaders in a terrorist organization is to first go after those people in charge of finance and communications.  These deputies hold the links between the foot soldiers and the leadership and provide essential coordination amongst the top commanders.

In well-run organizations, elimination of the top leaders may only result in a rapid succession of command with little resulting impact on the organization as a whole.  Targeting those individuals in charge of finance and command and control will disrupt how an entire organization operates; sub-elements won’t receive needed funds, junior leaders will be unsure of what to do, military operations will slow and/or become disjointed, and throughout the entire terror group doubt will creep in as communication lessens.  The effects of this strategy on terror groups can be observed retrospectively by looking at how al Qaeda was targeted through Abu Zubaydah, a key financial figure, not long after 9/11 and a targeted drone strike against Atiyah Abd al Rahman, al Qaeda’s key communications interlocutor.

ISIS has succeeded in pursuing an Islamic State where other al Qaeda affiliates have failed for one reason above all others: they have funded themselves.  This self-funding has come in large part from oil.  For the U.S. led coalition to make significant, sustained gains against ISIS, this revenue must be cut off and removing Abu Sayyaf from the network could definitely slow if not stop oil production and resulting revenues.  

Why a raid rather than an air strike? 

The U.S. mission more than anything suggests a perceived intelligence coup by targeting Abu Sayyaf.  Early reports suggest they wanted to take Abu Sayaaf captive, suggesting his knowledge on ISIS could likely map out the entire organization.  Taking Sayyaf alive would have allowed for interrogation and the yielding of unmatched intelligence from other sources.  Even if a captive like Sayyaf doesn’t talk, his detention would instill fear amongst the rest of ISIS leaders who would be concerned about what their comrade has revealed.  

A preference for raids as compared to airstrikes always signals the priority may be intelligence first and degrading ISIS operations second.  Along with capturing Abu Sayyaf’s wife and freeing some prisoners, computers and communications between many nodes inside ISIS were gained and this intelligence will likely identify where key ISIS leaders may reside, their role in the organization, and illuminate previously unknown weaknesses inside the group. 

What will be the effect of this raid on ISIS?

This highly successful raid will go much further to erode ISIS than the past many months of airstrikes and partner ground operations. 

First, the raid will be a huge blow to the confidence of ISIS members.  After taunting the U.S. to conduct ground operations, Special Forces have gone into the heart of ISIS’s caliphate, eliminated a key target and left without a scratch.  ISIS growth has hinged for more than two years on their success in building an Islamic state through military victories.  This raid represents an overwhelming defeat harming both ISIS ground operations as well as its online advertising which has up till now drawn an unprecedented number of foreign fighters.

Second, the raid will likely disrupt both financial and military operations.  ISIS units will increase their security by communicating less.  This will result in weakened command and control and a slow in military operations.  This increased security posture may also impede ISIS’s ability to operate a state: a point of great pride for the group and an essential element of their attractiveness to their members. 

Third, a successful raid of this caliber likely signals the start of a campaign rather than the conclusion. The raid and its resulting intelligence will ideally yield further elimination of key leaders in the coming weeks and months.

Fourth, we should look to see how this raid affects ISIS’s manpower: will foreign fighter flow slow after such a public ISIS loss?  Will ISIS members who’ve begun retreating under coalition strikes and ground campaigns now see this raid as the time to abandon ship? 

What does the raid signal for U.S. strategy against ISIS?

President Obama has stated and continues to imply the U.S. will not deploy ground troops on a large-scale to Iraq and Syria.  Today’s mission suggests the U.S. is now entering a fourth phase after initiating airstrikes, deploying advisors and implementing the equip and train mission of selected militias.  How much further will the U.S. go?  Does the Special Operations raid approach represent a substitute plan for eroding ISIS over time as opposed to bloody campaigns to re-take cities like Mosul?

The raid also suggests a major increase in U.S. intelligence on Syria and Iraq.  Last summer, news stories indicated the intelligence community was caught off guard by ISIS bold advance due to insufficient insight on ISIS movements.  This raid likely took a while to prepare indicating significant intelligence collection and planning..  Finally, the raid demonstrates the lengths the U.S. is willing to take against ISIS.  Airstrikes represent a safer strategy; few if any American lives are being put at risk.  A failed raid deep into Syria resulting in significant U.S. casualties would truly test the resolve of the American public to sustain a campaign against ISIS. 

Over the past year, no incident may represent a bigger game changer in the U.S. strategy to counter ISIS.  The pace and type of American actions in the coming months will be key for understanding both the U.S. strategy and ISIS resiliency. 

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