WASHINGTON — For the second time in just over a week, U.S. Special Operations forces carried out helicopter raids against the Islamic State in eastern Syria, capturing six operatives including a senior official who the military said was involved in plotting and enabling terrorist attacks.
The Pentagon’s Central Command, which oversees U.S. troops in Syria, said in a statement on Tuesday that the main target of three predawn raids over the past 48 hours was a senior Islamic State Syria provincial official known as al-Zubaydi.
On Dec. 11, helicopter-borne American commandos swooped in on another ISIS official, known as Anas, killing him and an associate in a nearly three-hour gun battle in eastern Syria, the military said.
In this week’s assault, personnel from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F., the American counterterrorism partner in northeastern Syria, accompanied the U.S. troops, the military said.
“These partnered operations reaffirm Centcom’s steadfast commitment to the region and the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, the head of the command, said in a statement. “The capture of these ISIS operatives will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out destabilizing attacks.”
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The recent raids represent the latest in a string of setbacks this year for the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria, the most serious since the end of the jihadists’ so-called caliphate more than three years ago.
Late last month, the Islamic State announced that its overall leader, whose identity has remained shrouded in mystery, had been killed in battle in Syria less than nine months after taking charge of the terrorist organization.
Outside the Middle East, the group has experienced mixed success. Its branch in Afghanistan, which carried out a deadly attack against American troops in Kabul in August 2021, is locked in a stalemate with the Taliban government. But ISIS fighters have struck highly symbolic targets in Afghanistan, including Russian and Chinese interests.
Islamic State fighters, along with Qaeda cells, are gaining strength in West Africa, with the violence now threatening countries like Ghana, Togo and Benin. “I’m very preoccupied and worried about this trend of terrorism spreading south,” President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger said in an interview in Washington last week.
Overall, though, Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in New York, said the Islamic State “will continue to present a threat, but that threat has been reduced significantly.”
No Americans were injured in the raids this week, officials said. An initial assessment indicated that no civilians were killed or injured, the military statement said.
Rami Abdul Rahman, an official with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group in Britain that tracks the conflict through contacts in Syria, said the raids were conducted between Deir al-Zour and Hasaka in the country’s east.
The fact that the Pentagon sent commandos to kill or capture the Islamic State officials, rather than using a less risky drone operation, indicated their significance.
The United States has worked for years with the Syrian Democratic Forces to fight the Islamic State in Syria, and several hundred U.S. forces remain in territory the group controls in northeastern Syria, near the Turkish border.
But that partnership has enraged Turkey, a U.S. ally and member of NATO, which views Syria’s Kurdish fighters as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The group has fought a bloody, decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state aimed at gaining independence or greater autonomy. Turkey, the European Union and the United States consider the insurgent group, known as the P.K.K., a terrorist organization.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has started a series of airstrikes against Kurdish militants in northern Syria in recent weeks and warned that a ground operation would soon follow.
The S.D.F. briefly suspended the joint counterterrorism operation with the United States, suspecting an imminent Turkish attack. Fearing the loss of their main counterterrorism partner in the region, American officials rushed to tamp down tensions, at least for the moment, and operations soon resumed.
The raids this month were the first major American counterterrorism operation in northeastern Syria since U.S. Special Operations forces carried out two strikes against ISIS in October that killed three senior figures responsible for arming and recruiting fighters and plotting attacks, according to American and Syrian Kurdish officials.
Late last month, after ISIS confirmed the death of its leader, a Central Command spokesman confirmed in a statement that the leader, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, had been killed in mid-October by anti-government rebels in southern Syria.
The two previous ISIS leaders were killed in separate raids by Special Operations forces on safe houses in northern Syria. The Islamic State also named a successor last month but provided no information about him other than a nom de guerre.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.