U.S. special forces killed an Islamic State commander and captured his wife in eastern Syria, the White House and Pentagon said Saturday, in one of the only ground operations since an international coalition began targeting the militant group by air last August.
Officials described the Tunisian man, known as Abu Sayyaf, as having a role in the group's military and financial operations, including one of its primary revenue streams, the black market gas-and-oil industry. The IS leader’s wife, known as Umm Sayyaf, is in U.S. military detention in Iraq. The couple's given names have not been released.
ABC News quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying Sayyaf was targeted for his suspected link to American aid worker Kayla Muller, who was captured by the terrorist group in 2013 and later killed. ABC previously reported that Muller had been given to Sayyaf as either a forced bride or a slave.
The report said the Muller family was monitoring the situation Saturday but had no immediate comment. It also said that a push to capture Sayyaf was approved in March by President Barack Obama shortly after Muller's death had been verified. It said national security advisers refused to comment Saturday on the timeline for the president's approvals.
The White House said Obama late Friday directed the Pentagon to send U.S. personnel based in Iraq to conduct the raid in al-Omar. No U.S. personnel were killed or injured in the operation, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.
The U.S. and several partner countries have conducted daily airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq for months, but have strictly limited the participation of ground forces. The coalition also carried out a combined 21 aerial raids overnight.
U.S. officials said the raid that netted the commander was not a result of cooperation with President Bashar al-Assad's government.
U.S. special forces "killed about a dozen" Islamic State fighters but no civilians, a Defense Department official told VOA, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There were some women and children around, and they [the Islamic State fighters] were trying to use them as human shields."
"The fighting got fairly intense," the official added, describing hand-to-hand combat in close quarters.
One official told Reuters the elite Delta Force participated in the mission, arriving by helicopter. Aircraft including UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and V-22 Osprey reportedly were involved.
During the raid, a young Yazidi woman held by the couple was also freed.
Yan St-Pierre, the CEO of Berlin-based security consulting firm MOSECON, said the U.S.announcement of the raid was intended to deliver a psychological blow to the Islamic State to slow its momentum.
"Usually, these announcements don’t come within a few hours of the kill being executed. Rather, maybe a day later. They want to confirm that the target was indeed killed," St-Pierre told VOA. " ... But over the past 24 hours, past 48 hours, with ISIS making so much progress, it probably added to the pressure of having to act quicker than they wanted."
The oil field raid overnight came after Islamic State militants had gained ground in Iraq, raising their black flag over the city of Ramadi on Friday.
Still, St-Pierre said, the operation was most likely planned well before the most recent IS offensive and appeared to have been successful from a military standpoint. In Washington, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement that the operation was "another significant blow" to the Islamic State group.
But it was unclear how much harm the operation will cause the Islamic State.
"With the exception of the top leadership, they seem to be able to replace people in these capacities pretty easily," said Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Syria claims attack
Syrian state media said its government forces also targeted IS militants in the al-Omar area east of Deir al-Zour, killing a "large number" of fighters and a senior Islamic State leader. It identified a commander killed as Abu al-Teem al-Saudi, a national of Saudi Arabia.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed an oil field attack but did not attribute responsibility for the 19 people it said had been killed there.
The Islamic State group took control of major oil fields in Syria in July, when militants overran northern and eastern sections of the country.
VOA's Carol Guensburg and Walter Wisniewski contributed to this report.