Why the risky raid to get 'Abu Sayyaf' in Syria? Who was he?

We don't know and we don't know appear to be the two answers.

Diaa Hadid
In this Monday, Oct. 27, 2014 photo, a Syrian flag flies over the capital, Damascus, Syria. U.S. commandos mounted a rare raid into eastern Syria overnight, killing a senior Islamic State commander in a firefight, capturing his wife and rescuing a Yazidi woman held as a slave, the Pentagon said Saturday, May 16, 2015. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the raid, identifying the militant as Abu Sayyaf. He said no U.S. forces were killed or injured in the operation.

Politicians from across the American political spectrum have been lining up to say "job well done" about a daring raid involving US Special Operations Forces in Syria that ended in the death of a member of the so-called Islamic State called "Abu Sayyaf" and the capture of a woman who US officials say is his wife.

But absent from the virtual parade is any meaningful detail on who the man was or why he was so important that it was worth risking the lives of US soldiers to try to capture him. The US said the raid was conducted from Iraqi territory and hit the man - the aim was to capture him, the US said - in a place called al-Amr in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour, which borders Iraq's Anbar and Nineveh provinces, two hotbeds of IS activity.

The Los Angeles Times reported the raid was conducted by a "fleet" of US Black Hawk helicopters carrying members of the army's elite Delta Force and that they were engaged in an intense firefight soon after touching down.

Such an effort would require authorization from President Obama, and the risks are obvious. No matter how "elite" or skillful soldiers are things can always go tragically wrong. On top of the potential loss of American life, had to have been the concern that some of the men involved could have ended up captured and stuffed into orange jumpsuits, to be paraded in one of the Islamic State's propaganda videos. 

Presumably, if events unfolded as the government claims, the IS member they were going after must have been a prize worth the substantial risks. But the White House - which immediately went public with its version of events - hasn't even begun to remotely make its case.

The real name of the man killed has yet to be mentioned by the US. "Abu Sayyaf" is almost certainly a nom de guerre. Many Arabs take on the honorific "Abu" (father) or "Umm" (mother) after the birth of their first child. So "Abu Sayyaf" simply means "father of Sayyaf." In this case, it's highly unlikely that is the name of the man's first child. "Abu Sayyaf" can be colloquially translated as "bearer of the sword," a nickname with obvious attraction for a jihadi. (The woman described as his wife is likewise simply just called "Umm Sayyaf.")

The White House statement on the raid describes the pair like this:

Abu Sayyaf was a senior ISIL 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.  He was also involved with the group’s military operations.  We suspect that Umm Sayyaf is a member of ISIL, played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities, and may have been complicit in the enslavement of the young woman rescued last night.

This person, who unidentified US officials have said was Tunisian, was a "senior" figure in IS efforts to smuggle and market Syrian and Iraqi oil? Quite possibly. But that area of the world has been churning out Olympic champion oil smugglers for generations, a process that accelerated with the crippling oil sanctions on Iraq that followed the end of the first Gulf War in 1991.

It's hard to imagine he had some special skills in moving oil, or at selling it at below market rates, that wasn't easily replaceable. And while taking any important IS member alive could yield potentially important intelligence, one of the least mysterious things about the group is how they market petroleum products.

Smuggling remained a huge business in Iraq during the US occupation of the country, thanks to subsidies that saw it sold at a fraction of the price it yielded in neighboring Jordan and Turkey and, to a lesser extent, in Syria. The US occasionally disrupted smuggling networks, but was never able to bring them under meaningful control. Nevertheless, a lot was learned about how oil products were illicitly moved.

In the five years I covered the Iraq war their were dozens of reports of "senior" members of the insurgency - usually belonging to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of IS - being killed or captured. Such descriptions of seniority in most cases were a form of prestige inflation, and most such losses were easily replaced, as IS's current strength in the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq makes clear.

And if this operation was all about intelligence gathering, why go so public about it so quickly? Presumably, some doubt as to whether Abu Sayyaf and his wife had been taken alive would have some utility. The US said the wife is being held in "US military detention in Iraq" and that "we will follow our usual practice with respect to giving the (International Committee of the Red Cross) notification and access to the detainee."

Even as the raid was being carried out, IS was putting the finishing touches on driving Iraqi forces out of the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi. Their effort was ruthless, and clever: At least six suicide car bombs and armored bulldozers to clear away fortifications as they drove on Iraqi government installations at the heart of the city, which have been under siege for weeks.

Abu Sayyaf's death, whoever he was, does not appear to have given them pause.

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