U.S. Special Operations troops carried out a ground operation in eastern Syria aimed at capturing an Islamic State militant, U.S. officials said Monday.
The raid took place Sunday near a small town along the Euphrates River valley, in the vicinity of the city of Deir al-Zour and deep in the heart of Islamic State territory, according to the officials and Syrian activist groups.
The troops, who landed on helicopters, spent about 90 minutes in the area, then left carrying Islamic State captives and bodies, according to witnesses quoted by the website Deir al-Zour 24, which monitors Islamic State activity in that province.
According to U.S. defense officials in Washington, the U.S. forces intercepted a vehicle carrying an Islamic State militant whom the U.S. military hoped to capture and interrogate. One official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an operation whose details have not been publicly announced, said that a firefight broke out and the suspect, along with another person in the car, was killed. No Americans were injured.
Col. John Dorrian, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, confirmed that the raid had taken place but declined to provide details.
“The Coalition can confirm a U.S. operation in the vicinity of Deir al-Zour on Jan. 8. The U.S. and the entire counter-ISIL Coalition will continue to pursue ISIL leaders wherever they are to ensure the security and stability of the region and our homelands,” he said in an email. ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.
Officials said the operation was conducted by a “small number” of personnel from the Expeditionary Task Force, a team of elite troops based in Iraq that is charged with hunting down Islamic State leaders.
“We’ve done them before and we’ll do them again,” Capt. Jeff Davis, a U.S. miliary spokesman, said of the task force operation, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 25 Islamic State members were killed in the operation. Another activist group, Sound and Picture, said two Islamic State prisoners were freed, but the details could not be independently confirmed.
U.S. officials said those reports overstated the death toll. One official said the suspect and the person accompanying him were the only people killed.
The U.S.-led coalition in recent months has targeted and killed a string of senior Islamic State officials with drone strikes, but ground raids aimed at capturing leaders are rare.
In May 2015, a U.S. raid killed Abu Sayyaf, a top financier, also in the province of Deir al-Zour. In July of the previous year, Special Operations forces landed near the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa to rescue Western hostages, but they did not find any.
A U.S. soldier died in another raid in the Iraqi town of Hawijah in October 2015 that freed about 70 Iraqi captives but did not find Kurdish peshmerga hostages thought to be there. U.S. officials said five Islamic State militants were captured and at least 10 killed in that raid.
The highest-ranking leader killed was Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s spokesman and second in command to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Adnani was hit by a drone strike in August after U.S. reconnaissance planes tracked him for months in a rural area of northern Syria.
There has been no word on the whereabouts of Baghdadi, who has eluded the U.S. forces hunting for him. Pentagon officials said two weeks ago that they think he is still alive.