The United States struck additional key blows against the Islamic State terror group, removing a couple of senior leaders from the battlefield in two separate nighttime helicopter raids in northeastern Syria.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees American forces in the Middle East and South Asia, said the raids, carried out Thursday with the help of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), targeted Hamza al-Homsi, who oversaw the terror organization’s network in eastern Syria, and another operative who led an IS assassination cell.
But despite the successes, U.S. officials said, the raid against al-Homsi in the vicinity of Deir el-Zour turned dicey when the IS leader triggered an explosive device, possibly a hand grenade.
The blast wounded four U.S. service members and a service dog, who were taken to medical facilities in Iraq. They were reported to be in stable condition and receiving treatment.
There were no other injuries to U.S. or SDF forces in either of the raids, and initial assessments indicated no civilians were hurt.
The raids targeting al-Homsi and the assassination cell leader were the latest in a series of operations that have whittled away at senior IS leadership.
Earlier this week, CENTCOM announced that a raid on February 10 killed Ibrahim Al Qahtani, an IS official involved with planning attacks to break the terror group’s members out of prisons across northeastern Syria.
Last month, a U.S. operation in eastern Syria resulted in the capture of two IS facilitators, Abdallah Hamid Muslih al-Maddad, also known as Abu Hamza al-Suri, and Husam Hamid al-Muslih al-Maddad al-Khayr, as well as one of al-Khayr’s associates.
Just days earlier, another U.S.-SDF operation in eastern Syria resulted in the capture of an IS official said to be “involved in the planning and facilitation of ISIS operations in and outside of the region as well as global recruiting efforts.”
U.S. and SDF forces likewise captured a number of key IS operatives during a series of raids in northeastern Syria this past December.
Going back to the start of 2022, the IS core in Syria and Iraq has lost at least 10 senior level leaders, killed or captured during operations by the U.S., its partners and allies and in clashes with rival groups.
That includes the death of Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, the former IS emir, who died last October during a clash with the Free Syrian Army in eastern Syria.
A report by the U.S. Defense Department inspector general, published this month, said IS had been “significantly degraded" because of steady loss of key leaders, and that the pace of attacks in Syria and Iraq had been declining as the terror group prioritized survival.
Earlier this week, a U.N. report based on member state intelligence said there were now only 5,000 to 7,000 IS members roaming free across Syria and Iraq, "roughly half of whom are fighters."
The U.N. report also said that intelligence services had detected a “decline in morale” among IS core members in Syria and Iraq, with the terror group undertaking a concerted effort to move its leaders to escape what was described as “enhanced counterterrorism pressure."
At its height, in 2014 to 2015, IS boasted approximately 34,000 fighters, according to official U.S. estimates, though officials admitted the number could have been much higher.
Some independent analyses concluded IS — also known as ISIS or ISIL — had as many as 100,000 fighters during the peak of its self-declared caliphate.