WASHINGTON — U.S. Special Operations forces carried out a helicopter raid against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria early Sunday, killing two operatives, including one official who the military said was involved in plotting and enabling terrorist attacks.
The Pentagon’s Central Command, which oversees American troops in Syria, said in a statement on Sunday that the main target of the mission, an Islamic State Syria provincial official known by the nom de guerre Anas, was killed in the raid that took place at 2:57 a.m. in an undisclosed part of eastern Syria.
American commandos had planned the mission for weeks, but bad weather had delayed the operation, U.S. officials said. Once the weather cleared, commandos flying in two helicopters sought to capture Anas at his compound, but in a brief ensuing firefight he and an associate were killed, the officials said. The fact that the Pentagon sent commandos to kill or capture Anas, rather than use a less risky drone operation, indicated his significance.
No Americans were injured in the nearly three-hour operation, officials said. An initial assessment indicated no civilians were killed or injured, the military statement said.
“ISIS continues to represent a threat to the security and stability of the region,” Col. Joseph Buccino, a Central Command spokesman, said in the statement. “The death of these ISIS officials will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out destabilizing attacks in the Middle East.”
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Charles Lister, the director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said on Sunday that the American campaign was at a pivotal moment “where taking out operational midlevel commanders is arguably even more important than the most senior leadership.” He said this was especially true during the winter, when attack frequency declines and ISIS operatives try to consolidate and plot future attacks.
The raid was the first major American counterterrorism operation in northeastern Syria since U.S. Special Operations forces carried out two major strikes against ISIS in October that killed three senior figures responsible for arming and recruiting fighters and plotting attacks, according to American and Syrian Kurdish officials.
In the first of those twin attacks, helicopter-borne commandos killed Rakkan Wahid al-Shammari, who facilitated the smuggling of weapons and fighters to support ISIS operations. Several hours later, the military said, an Islamic State deputy leader in Syria and a man responsible for the group’s prisoner affairs were killed in a U.S. drone strike in the country’s north.
Late last month, the Islamic State announced that its leader, whose identity had remained shrouded in mystery, had been killed in battle less than nine months after taking charge of the terrorist organization.
A Central Command spokesman confirmed in a statement soon after the ISIS announcement that the leader, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, had been killed in mid-October by anti-government rebels in southern Syria.
He had been named by the group in March, after its two previous leaders were killed in separate raids by Special Operations forces on safe houses in northern Syria. The Islamic State also named a successor last month, but provided no information about him other than a nom de guerre.
The leadership transition, announced through a voice message on Telegram, came at a time of extreme weakness for the group, which has been reduced in only a few years from the world’s most fearsome terrorist network to a low-level insurgency struggling to maintain its relevance in mostly rural parts of countries torn by conflict.