What we know about Abu Sayyaf: The Islamic State leader killed by U.S. forces

Before Saturday, most Americans had never heard of Abu Sayyaf. But according to the Department of Defense, the senior Islamic State leader wielded the kind of power worthy of sending U.S. Special Operations forces into eastern Syria on a rare and risky mission to capture him.  

That power, officials announced following the raid that ultimately killed Sayyaf, involved the major black market business fueling the Islamic State.

“Abu Sayyaf was a senior ISIL leader who, among other things, had a senior role in overseeing ISIL’s illicit oil and gas operations — a key source of revenue that enables the terrorist organization to carry out their brutal tactics and oppress thousands of innocent civilians,” said National Security Counsel spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan in a statement.

Last year, investigations into Islamic State finances revealed that illicit oil sales were among the terrorist organization’s more lucrative ventures, generating an estimated $1 million a day to fund its violent expansion across Iraq and Syria. In November, The Guardian reported that several U.S. airstrikes on IS-controlled oil refineries and tankers hardly interfered with militant group’s increasingly sophisticated smuggling network, which by then reached from about six Iraqi oilfields into Iran, Jordan and Turkey.

The intention of Friday night’s raid was to capture Sayyaf alive, but, as the Defense Department reported, he was killed after trying to “engage” U.S. forces. Still, both the Pentagon and the White House hailed the mission as a success, resulting not only in the seizure of some of Sayyaf’s communications equipment and other potentially valuable materials, but also the capture of his wife, Umm Sayyaf, who is also suspected to be a member of the Islamic State and a key player in the group’s terrorist activities. 

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to the media during a briefing at the Pentagon on May 7, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. (AFP Photo/Mark Wilson)

Defense Secretary  said Umm Sayyaf, who is currently detained in Iraq, might additionally have been “complicit in what appears to have been the enslavement of a young Yezidi [sic] woman rescued last night.”

According to reports from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and the Iraqi government, the Islamic State’s violent persecution of the Yazidi, a religious minority, has included forced conversions and mass murders as well as the kidnapping, systematic rape and sexual enslavement of Yazidi women.

While Carter declared the operation — Sayyaf’s death included — a “significant blow” to the Islamic State,  some experts responded to the announcement with caution.

In an interview with the New York Times, former CIA analyst and White House national security advisor Bruce Riedel said it seemed like the raid was “a collection mission, the goal to capture someone or two someones who can explain how ISIS works.”

While suggesting that, in lieu of Sayyaf, “perhaps the wife can do that,” Riedel added, “To me, it demonstrates we still have large gaps in our understanding of the enemy and how it is organized.”

CNN’s national security analyst Peter Bergen was similarly skeptical. Pointing out that raids like the one on Sayyaf likely put the Islamic State’s leadership on high alert to operate more carefully, he questioned the real value of the mission.

“Taking out the guy who runs effectively the most important financing stream is obviously significant,” he said. “But what’s really significant is the computer records and all the materials that he would have with him as the head of this financing arm, if indeed that is the case that he is really that important.”