Inside the U.S. raid that took out a key ISIS leader in Syria

U.S. special forces killed a senior Islamic State commander during a raid overnight Friday in eastern Syria, the Pentagon said Saturday. Doug Ollivant, the former director for Iraq in the National Security Council, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington, D.C., to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    For some perspective on the raid, I'm joined by Doug Ollivant in Washington, D.C. He was the director for Iraq in the National Security Council in the Bush and Obama administrations. He is a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation and a partner at Mantid International.

    So, what do we know about this individual? Why was he such a high-value target?

  • DOUG OLLIVANT, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION:

    Well, there are many things we don't know about this individual.

    Now, presumably, the U.S. intelligence knows the function that he is performing in the organization. He's evidently very tied into financing, oil sales, and the like. But exactly who he is, we're not sure.

    Abu Sayyaf, his nickname meaning "father of Sayyaf." We don't know who Sayyaf is. Presumably his son, but we don't know how old or what he does.

    And we seem confused where he comes from. The United States seems to think he's Tunisian, but we have had reports out of the region saying he's an Iraqi from Mosul, and before that, from Saudi Arabia.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. One of the interesting things that I found was that this was one of the first times that I've heard about U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, and they were launched from Iraq.

  • DOUG OLLIVANT:

    That's right. So, this is the first time that we know of that U.S. Special Forces have gone into Syria with the intent of killing or capturing enemy combatants. We know that there was the attempted raid to rescue hostages, such as James Foley before. This is the first time they've gone forward to conduct combat and try to kill and capture people.

    And it was launched from Iraq. In the past, Iraq has been very circumspect about allowing attacks to be launched outside its borders into another country. Evidently, the existence of the Islamic State has changed their mind on that point.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Critics of the administration point out that is this or is this not a coincidence that this news is happening around the same time that Ramadi, a city in Iraq, is fallen into ISIS fighters?

  • DOUG OLLIVANT:

    Well, it's certainly convenient for the administration that the news is turning to this raid rather than the very real dangers in Ramadi. On the other hand, the news this morning seems to be that Ramadi is just a little bit better. Some buildings have been recovered in the city. Reinforcements are flowing from Baghdad.

    So, there's a very real contest in Ramadi and we need to take it seriously. And the Islamic State clearly had some good days the past day or two, but we'll also see how Ramadi ends up.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There is also the storyline about Palmyra, another — I don't know if it's a U.N. heritage world site right of the top of my head — but another important site culturally that is threatened by ISIS' advance.

  • DOUG OLLIVANT:

    A very beautiful set of roman ruins. I believe it is a UNESCO heritage site, and it's being very much threatened by ISIL as well. This is also important because we're seeing conflict between the Syrian regime, the Assad regime, and ISIL directly. Many people have pointed out there are many place where's the two don't fight each other.

    Well, this is a case where they are, and perhaps we're seeing the dynamics between the Assad regime and ISIL changing as they're now in combat on this front.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In this larger narrative, how important is the killing of any single individual in the leadership ranks?

  • DOUG OLLIVANT:

    Look, the killing of any single individual never really matters in any organization. You know, we've — we've heard him described as the chief financial officer of ISIL in Syria. If you take out the chief financial officer of any corporation in America, his junior, one of his underlings, is going to step up, take his place, step into that role. The Islamic State is going to do something very, very similar.

    That said, it never hurts to take out a senior leader and importantly, the intelligence that was gathered from this raid, the things that his wife knows, the data, the laptops, the thumb drives — all this intelligence that's gathered in the raid may be very important.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Douglas Ollivant, joining us from Washington, thanks so much.

  • DOUG OLLIVANT:

    Thank you, Hari.

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