Friday was a good day for the world and a bad day for the Islamic State (ISIS).
In a typically meticulous operation, Delta Force operators were flown into eastern Syria and then stormed an IS compound. Meeting resistance, they killed around 20 IS fighters including IS officer Abu Sayyaf. Capturing Sayyaf’s wife, Delta then safely extracted. No Americans were injured.
As I said, it was a good day. Abu Sayyaf played a managerial role in ISIS financial-logistics arrangements, and reportedly was in contact with IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Some reports suggest his wife may have information about murdered hostages such as Kayla Mueller. This raid will also help illuminate ISIS’s delusion of ordained protection — a strategic necessity that the Obama administration has too long neglected.
Yet considering the media reaction that has followed this operation, you’d think President Obama had seized al-Baghdadi in Raqqa. We need to be cautious here. While Delta Force likely seized computer hard drives, documents, and other intelligence material, Abu Sayyaf seems unlikely to have been a key ISIS leader. What’s more likely is that he was a mid-level officer targeted for interrogation about the Islamic State’s operational structure.
Let’s be clear: This raid won’t seriously damage ISIS. That takes a relentless counterterrorism campaign of the kind that defeated ISIS’s precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). To gut AQI, U.S. and U.K. Special Forces launched multiple raids against men like Sayyaf every night. In turn, these raids provided a perpetual supply of intelligence that could be exploited to identify new targets and drive new raids. With AQI permanently off-balance, it lacked the stability to replace its leaders, network facilitators, and logistics managers. Simultaneously pressured by an alliance of Sunni tribes, AQI ultimately disintegrated.
Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, no such campaign is underway against the Islamic State today. Nor should we expect such a campaign any time soon. After all, even the Obama administration — with its track record of using Special Forces operations as PR campaigns — wouldn’t have publicized this raid so quickly (24 hours after action) if other near-term raids were planned. But the absence of a serious campaign is also reflected on the ground. This weekend, while the administration lauded itself, the capital of Anbar province, Ramadi, was falling to IS. And as I explained a month ago, this is a big problem. Ramadi’s subjugation will further catalyze the politicization of sectarianism at the heart of Middle Eastern chaos.
So it’s about perspective. Yes, this weekend’s raid is good news. But scoring a touchdown isn’t equal to winning a game. Beyond Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic State’s global empire is growing, and the Middle East is spiraling into a political abyss.