U.S. Special Operations Forces killed a senior leader of ISIS overnight Friday during a rare and risky ground raid in Syria and freed a young woman who was enslaved in his compound, the White House announced Saturday.
American Delta Force commandos took off from northern Iraq in Blackhawk helicopters and Osprey aircraft, going deep into ISIS-controlled territory with no allies on the ground. Their target, SIS leader Abu Sayyaf, did not go down quietly.
The preplanned operation near the eastern Syrian city of al-Amr was supposed to be a snatch-and-grab mission to capture Abu Sayyaf alive. Instead, he was killed amid an intense fire fight and hand-to-hand combat between ISIS militants and the Army Delta Force commandos.
Twelve enemy fighters were killed in the operation, while no American forces were hurt, U.S. officials said.
As the Special Operations Forces departed, they took Abu Sayyaf's wife, Umm Sayyaf, who is also considered to be an ISIS operative, into custody. As the helicopters departed, they were struck by heavy ground fire but not disabled and were able to depart the area safely.
The mission is the first known American commandos operation inside Syria outside of a failed attempt to rescue hostages held by ISIS last year.
Umm Sayyaf is being held in Iraq and will be secluded from other prisoners, officials told NBC News. She is accused of being "directly complicit in (ISIS) activities, specifically human trafficking," an official said.
The White House's National Security Council confirmed Umm Sayyaf is being "debriefed."
"We are also working to determine any information she may have regarding hostages — including American citizens who were held by (ISIS)," spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.
In addition, Friday's operation "also led to the freeing of a young Yazidi woman who appears to have been held as a slave by the couple," the White House said.
Abu Sayyaf was in charge of overseeing ISIS's oil and gas operations, which provide crucial revenue for the militant group that has conquered swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq. Iraqi authorities supported Friday's raid.
A U.S. military official described the mission, which was met with heavy resistance from ISIS, as a "hugely successful operation” and represents a “significant blow” to the terror network operating in Syria and Iraq.
"Despite the rhetoric, (ISIS) is suffering significant losses in leadership and the ability to conduct operations," the official told NBC News. "Through strikes in Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish offensive in northern Syria and military successes in Iraq, (ISIS) is desperate."
The United States is leading a coalition in a military campaign to roll back the jihadist group whose self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq has reshaped the region.
In the Iraqi city of Ramadi, U.S.-led air strikes forced ISIS to withdraw from a government building over which the group's black flag had flown on Friday. Were it to fall, Ramadi would be the first major city to be won by ISIS since an effort by Iraqi security forces and paramilitary groups to push it back began last year.
In Syria, the group fought Syrian government forces for control of the ancient city of Palmyra, an attack that has raised fears its UNESCO World Heritage site could meet the same fate as monuments destroyed by ISIS in Iraq.
While Washington is working closely with Iraq in the fight against ISIS, it has shunned the idea of cooperating with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who it says has lost legitimacy to rule and must leave power. The United States said it did not warn Assad in advance or coordinate with his officials over Friday's special forces raid.
- ISIS Seizes Most of Iraq's Ramadi, Raises Flag Over Government Site
- ISIS Deputy Leader Killed by Strike, Iraq Military Says
— Kristen Welker, Richard Engel, Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube
Reuters contributed to this report.