US Commando Raid on IS at Deir al-Zour: More Questions Than Answers

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Abdel Bari Atwan

The Islamic State’s (IS) own spokesmen have yet to comment on Saturday night’s  US ‘Delta’ commando operation in which Abu Sayyaf, the Tunisian IS commander believed to be responsible for the organization’s finances, was killed. Meanwhile the American official version is clouded with ambiguity leading one to doubt its truth and accuracy.

Spokeswoman for the National Security Council said that Delta force entered the target area at Deir al-Zour – Syria’s biggest oil installation which IS seized last year – in Black Hawk helicopters and V-22 aircraft. IS defended the multi-storey building housing its offices and some staff accommodation;  Abu Sayyaf was killed as he ‘tried to engage’ US troops and ‘resisted capture’.

Having studied ‘jihadist’ groups for more than two decades, I have several observations to make here:

First, ‘jihadi Salafi’ groups always announce the fall of one of their ‘martrys’ – this is because if allows for the appointment of a successor and for their wives to remarry if they so wish. When key al-Qaeda figures have been assassinated, including bin Laden (after some delay) an official announcement has followed. We cannot be certain as to what has happened here until such an announcement then.

Second, we do not believe that the main objective of the ‘Delta Force’ raid was to kill Abu Sayyaf. It was personally ordered by US President Barack Obama, which suggests to us that the target was somebody higher up the IS food chain – quite probably  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the leader of IS) himself. We recall that Obama personally ordered the commando raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbattobad in which he was allegedly killed.

Third, the fact that ‘Delta Force’ failed to take Abu Sayyaf alive, means that he and his comrades fought to the death, and refused to surrender. Why then are there no casualties among the commandos? Or are the US concealing the true cost of the operation?

Fourth, the US spokeswoman says they have arrested Abu Sayyaf’s wife and taken her to Baghdad, claiming that she was a ‘prominent member’ of the organization  to justify her detention and probable torture.  They also claim to have taken documents and computers from the offices, suggesting this raid had an intelligence-gathering purpose.

Fifth, it is claimed that a Yazidi woman was found in Abu Sayyaf’s accommodation, and she is described by the spokeswoman as a ‘slave’. While we are in no position to deny this, it is a very convenient detail, plugging the whole episode directly into the main stream of Western propaganda.

Sixth, the official version said that the IS death toll was 12 people, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chaired by Mr. Rami Abdul Rahn said the real death toll is 32, and that the dead include four IS leaders, including the Chechen ‘Minister for Defence’. We would like to know if the dead included many civilians which seems highly likely under such an onslaught.


It seems logical to infer from this raid that  the US military leadership has started to realize that aerial bombardment alone will not weaken IS just 11 months after its inception, especially since it managed to seize Ramadi, the capital city of Anbar province two days ago after months of fighting. It has also seriously threatened to overrun Palmyra, and may be poised to launch an attack on Baghdad itself. In other words, IS has continued to grow and expand despite the heavy bombardment by US-led coalition planes.

Judging from the past and from information available about this raid, we believe that the US thought they were going to kill or capture al-Baghdadi. If that is the case the CIA must have had credible information that he was at the Deir al-Zour complex. Either he escaped or the information was wrong – perhaps it was a trick and a trap to draw US troops into direct battle.

There has been a lot of psychological gamesmanship around al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts. Regional and Western intelligence services and media have been full of reports that he has been mortally wounded, putting pressure on him to appear in a video. His reckless appearance in a video trapped Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, giving clear clues as to his whereabouts upon which evidence he was swiftly assassinated. Baghdadi is more wily and has only released an audio tape to assure his followers that he is still alive.

A final question regards the sovereignty of Syria. The spokeswoman for the National Security Council at the White House categorically denied coordination with the Assad regime. While the helicopters and planes took off from a US base inside Iraq, why didn’t Syrian planes intercept them, or Syrian anti-aircraft missiles threaten them, if they had not agreed in advance upon this incursion into Syrian air space?

In conclusion we suggest that the most dangerous outcome of this Delta Force raid is the likelihood of  escalation outside the current territories, in Syria and Iraq. IS or its allies – and there are many who have now pledged allegiance to Baghdadi – may attack in the West by way of retaliation.

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