A Delta Force assault on ISIS

Q1: What or who was the target of the Delta Force assault in Syria?

A1: An exact answer is unknown at this stage, but there are at least three related targets. Reports indicate that one ISIS official killed in the commando raid, Abu Sayyaf, played an important role in the financial and military operations of the terrorist group. Second, there are indications that other ISIS officials and fighters were present and killed in the firefight, but their identities and value are not publicly known at this time. Finally, any raid would enable “sensitive site exploitation” with intelligence gleaned from equipment and papers gathered during the operation. Given the lack of intelligence on ISIS, data exploitation may have been equal to the human targeting.

Due to the importance of funding for ISIS military operations and to governing their self-declared state, killing anyone with a key role in finance or operations would be of value, though only for a limited period. It is early, and more needs to be learned about Abu Sayyaf and those killed alongside him. An expensive, high-risk commitment of Delta Force commandos, their air crew, three helicopters, and many other assets indicates high-value individuals and materials were in play.

Q2: What are some of the specific gains from this raid?

A2: Disruption, intelligence gathering, credibility, and propaganda are some of the key benefits to this raid, apart from killing senior leaders and fighters, and capturing the wife of Abu Sayyaf. Better understanding of and subsequent interruption to the ISIS funding network can complicate military and social media operations, subsidized food programs, fighter salaries and death benefits, and the funding of Sharia courts. ISIS does not govern territory and recruit fighters based on fear and glory alone—their operations have a high “burn rate” and needs reliable, substantial cash flow.

As with previous raids in Afghanistan and Iraq, the exploitation of information found on laptops, mobile phones, paper records, passports, notebooks, etc. will produce telephone numbers, addresses, communication records, identities, operational details, and data on funding sources. But this intelligence, if it is to be acted upon, must be used quickly. All in ISIS know about the raid and will react accordingly, so some of the intelligence is perishable. The raid will improve our understanding of how this secretive organization operates. The Delta Force assault also demonstrates American willingness to take risks, to penetrate ISIS territory in Syria, and to achieve difficult objectives at a time when many doubt U.S. resolve. Delta Force commandos attempted a hostage rescue in Syria last year, but this appears to be the first direct engagement of ISIS targets inside Syria. Finally, publicizing ISIS’s use of women and children as personal shields during the firefight helps highlight the depravity and cowardice of ISIS.

Q3: How does this impact ISIS?

A3: Drone strikes on al Qaeda induced anxiety about spies in their midst, with reports of many internal assassinations in the aftermath of such operations. This Delta Force assault demonstrates improved awareness of ISIS leadership and high-value material whereabouts—to a level that prompted a daring, high-risk assault. The raid will cause similar anxiety which can be deeply disruptive, impacting ISIS movements, use of phones, conversations, meeting locations, and relationships. Though ISIS is in a state of constant physical and mental siege, this raid was likely jarring to them.

But ultimately, ISIS leadership can be replaced; the organization is durable and resilient. ISIS can also use this raid to its advantage. Recruitment and fundraising could rise now that the group is directly engaged with American special forces inside territory declared an Islamic caliphate. Engaging American forces in battle is highly motivating and appealing to many would-be fighters from across the globe.

Q4: Where do we go from here?

A4: U.S. and coalition airstrikes inside Syria and Iraq have been very valuable, destroying military equipment, oil infrastructure, key ISIS buildings, and killing many of their fighters. But ISIS has adjusted to those airstrikes, which are fairly limited in number. Improved intelligence on the activities and location of ISIS leaders and their IT equipment, as apparently evidenced by this commando raid, leaves room for additional direct action by U.S. forces. Used with great success in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. Army Delta Force, Navy SEALs, and other special mission units may well become a more common feature in efforts to degrade and defeat ISIS. As the ISIS takeover of Ramadi in Iraq demonstrates, ISIS remains a potent force. Without the means to check their advances, ISIS will continue its lethal operations across the region while inspiring fighters abroad to strike at home.

Thomas M. Sanderson is a senior fellow and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Thomas M. Sanderson