Plans by the Islamic State terror group to kidnap officials outside of the Middle East region and hold them for leverage triggered an early morning U.S. raid that led to the death of one of the plot's alleged masterminds.
U.S. Central Command on Monday confirmed the death of Abd-al-Hadi Mahmud al-Haji Ali during the operation in northern Syria, describing him as the official responsible for planning attacks in the Middle East and in Europe.
Confirmation of Ali's death came hours after a U.S. official, speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the operation, said the senior leader's remains had been recovered and were undergoing DNA testing to confirm his identity.
Two armed fighters with Ali at the time of the raid were also killed, according to CENTCOM officials, who said no civilians were injured and that the U.S. forces involved in the operation emerged unscathed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based opposition war monitor, reported the U.S. raid took place before dawn in the village of Suwayda, near the town of Jarabulus, not far from the border with Turkey.
Sources told the group that U.S. forces arrived by helicopter in the pre-dawn hours, sparking violent clashes with the IS fighters that ended only after the U.S. launched two missiles at the building where the IS leader was hiding.
VOA has not been able to independently confirm the account.
"We know ISIS retains the desire to strike beyond the Middle East," CENTCOM spokesman Colonel Joe Buccino said in statement Monday, using another acronym for Islamic State. "This raid deals a significant blow to ISIS operations in the region but does not eliminate ISIS' capability to conduct operations."
Word of the alleged plotting to kidnap officials on foreign soil, and the U.S. raid to hamper such efforts, comes as most Western assessments of IS in Syria and Iraq, sometimes referred to as ISIS core, have downplayed the group's capabilities.
Just last month, a top U.S. homeland security official said an attack on the U.S. by IS was "almost inconceivable" due to the suppressive effect of counterterrorism operations by the U.S. and its partners.
And even if IS were to try to launch an attack, most officials have pointed to the group's Afghan affiliate, IS-Khorasan, as the more dangerous and capable threat.
IS-Khorasan "can do external operations against U.S. or Western interests abroad in under six months with little to no warning," CENTCOM General Michael Kurilla told lawmakers last month.
Additional intelligence shared by United Nations member states for a report earlier this year suggested IS in Syria and Iraq appears to be historically weak, down to as few as 2,500 fighters in areas once covered by its self-declared caliphate, a far cry from the tens of thousands of militants once thought to be at its beck and call.
But a second U.S. official who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity warned that IS core, under the stewardship of a new generation of leaders, has been undeterred.
Ali's death is a "big deal," the official said, "in terms of planning … expansion beyond the region."
"He was a key figure in these plans," he added.
And while the official said Ali will be likely replaced, his death is a clear setback.
"They lose experience. They lose capability every time we take one of these guys out," the official said.
At least 13 senior IS leaders in Syria and Iraq have been killed or captured since early 2022, including Khalid 'Aydd Ahmad al-Jabouri, responsible for planning attacks in Turkey and Europe, in a U.S. airstrike earlier this month.
Last week, CENTCOM also announced the capture of another IS official, Hudayfah al Yemeni, describing him as an "attack facilitator."