US Special Operations forces carried out two major strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in northern Syria on Thursday, killing three senior figures responsible for arming and recruiting fighters and plotting attacks, according to American and Syrian Kurdish officials.
Taken together, the nighttime assaults dealt the ISIS group its most punishing blow since a risky predawn raid in north-west Syria in early February by US commandos resulted in the death of the terrorist group’s overall leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.
The twin attacks started early Thursday when Special Operations forces dropped from helicopters in north-eastern Syria and killed Rakkan Wahid al-Shammari, who facilitated the smuggling of weapons and fighters to support ISIS group operations, the Pentagon’s Central Command said in a statement.
The raid was a rare operation inside Syrian government territory and just a few miles from a Syrian airfield where Russian troops are based.
Several hours later, an ISIS deputy leader in Syria and a man responsible for the group’s prisoner affairs were killed in a US drone strike in the country’s north, a senior US military official said.
“This strike will degrade ISIS’ ability to destabilise the region and strike at our forces and partners,” General Michael Kurilla, head of the Central Command, said in a statement.
Counterterrorism specialists said the American attacks hurt an effort by the ISIS group to regain momentum in the region.
“To have killed ISIS’s deputy emir for Syria is a significant achievement given that Syria is clearly where ISIS is investing its resources most these days,” said Charles Lister, director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programmes at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Even if the ISIS group no longer has the power to control a swath of territory the size of Britain, as it did in Iraq and Syria until 2019, the terrorist group has shown that it can still carry out devastating coordinated military attacks.
In recent weeks and months, its fighters in Iraq have killed Iraqi soldiers and police officers, beheading an officer on camera.
In Syria earlier this year, the jihadists attacked a prison in an attempt to free thousands of their former comrades and occupied the compound for more than a week before a Kurdish-led military force supported by the United States drove them out.
The American attacks on Thursday came three weeks after the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Pentagon’s Kurdish-led allies in the region, completed a weeks-long security operation through the sprawling Al Hol detention camp, in north-eastern Syria.
The Syrian Kurdish forces arrested about 300 ISIS operatives living among the camp’s 60,000 detainees – family members of group fighters held there since the fall of the group’s religious state in 2019 – seized more than 50 pounds of explosives, and removed group supplies, Central Command said in a statement last month.
Some counterterrorism analysts suggested that the American attacks probably stemmed from evidence about ISIS leaders’ location collected in the Al Hol sweep, including information obtained through interrogating group operatives who were arrested.