Senior Islamic State leaders in Syria are coming under fire, part of what appears to be an urgent campaign to gut the terror group’s brain trust.
The U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces — credited with playing a key role in taking out IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and IS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir — said Wednesday it had carried out a series of raids aimed at getting the terror group’s key players dead or alive.
“Another successful raid targeting & arresting senior ISIS members,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted late Monday, using an acronym for the terror group which is also known as IS or by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.
Another successful raid targeting&arresting senior ISIS members.
— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) October 28, 2019
Word of ongoing operations against the terror group came shortly after a senior State Department official credited the SDF with playing a “key role” in enabling the U.S. raid on Baghdadi’s compound in Bashira, Syria, which led to the IS leader’s death.
The official also confirmed SDF claims that its forces had killed the IS spokesman in a separate operation Sunday in the town of Jarablus, near the Syrian border with Turkey.
Pentagon officials denied any involvement in the strike, in which a second IS fighter was killed and a third was captured, though the State Department said U.S. assets were involved.
Earlier Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper lauded the U.S. raid that killed Baghdadi as a “devastating blow for the remnants of ISIS” and promised that the U.S. would continue to be in close contact with the SDF.
“Baghdadi’s death will not rid the world of terrorism or end the ongoing conflict in Syria,” Esper said while briefing reporters. “But it will certainly send a message to those who would question America’s resolve.”
U.S., SDF relations
Relations between the U.S. and the mainly Kurdish SDF have been strained since U.S. President Donald Trump ordered U.S. Special Forces to withdraw from parts of northeastern Syria earlier this month. Once the U.S. troops began to vacate key outposts near the Syrian-Turkish border, Turkey launched an assault targeting the Kurds, many of whom it views as terrorists with links to groups inside Turkey.
But SDF officials Monday said that cooperation with the U.S. in the weeks and months leading up to the raid on Baghdadi’s compound in Idlib province had been intense, though the Turkish incursion caused the operation to be delayed by more than a month.
“Since 15 May, we have been working together with the CIA to track al-Baghdadi and monitor him closely,” senior SDF adviser Polat Can said on Twitter.
Can said the SDF had been tracking the IS leader for months, watching him as he moved from Dashisha, in eastern Syria, to Deir El-Zor, before finally making a move to the compound near the Turkish border where he met his end.
“Our own source, who had been able to reach al-Baghdadi, brought al Baghdadi’s underwear to conduct a DNA test and make sure [100%] that the person in question was al-Baghdadi himself,” Can said of the access the SDF spy was able to get. “Our intelligence source was involved in sending coordinates, directing the airdrop, participating in and making the operation a success until the last minute.”
A U.S. official confirmed to VOA that Baghdadi, who died after detonating a suicide vest when he was cornered in a tunnel under the compound, has been buried out at sea.
In the meantime, U.S. officials are starting to sift through material and other evidence collected at the compound before it was destroyed in an airstrike.
“There was material taken away. I don’t want to say exactly what or how much,” General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters.
Milley also confirmed two IS members, both men, were taken alive.
“They’re in our custody,” he said.
Milley said the U.S. has both photos and video of the Baghdadi raid, and that some of them could be declassified and released to the public in the coming days.
Trump said Sunday that Baghdadi was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” to his death.
Milley said he had not been given that information but that the president had spoken directly with members of the assault team.
For now, Milley and Esper said the U.S. is repositioning troops and equipment to further secure the oil fields near Deir el-Zor, once controlled by IS, to make sure the group’s remaining terror cells are not able to target the facilities and profit from the oil.
“That will continue until we believe we have sufficient capability,” Esper said, adding the U.S. would also be ready to defend its forces in the area against the Syrian regime or Russian forces also operating in the region.
“We want to make sure SDF does have access to the resources in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the defeat ISIS mission,” Esper said.
During a visit to Chicago for a police chiefs convention Monday, Trump said the oil fields in Syria were worth $45 million a month in revenue, and the U.S. plans to keep them.
U.S. officials, though, were unable to explain how that would work.
“We’re just beginning to look at specifics of this,” the senior State Department official said.
The president Monday also celebrated the death of the IS leader, calling Baghdadi, “a sick and depraved man and now he’s dead.”
“He’s dead, he’s dead as a doornail, and he didn’t die bravely I can tell you that,” Trump said.
Steve Herman and Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.