The kinetic operation against the ISIL senior leader Abu Sayyaf: a case-study of “surgical strike” in theory and practice – by Emilio Palmieri


The event.

According to an arid official statement released by the US SecDef Carter dated on 16 May 2015, “Last night, at the direction of the Commander in Chief, I ordered U.S. special operations forces to conduct an operation in al-Amr in eastern Syria to capture an ISIL senior leader known as Abu Sayyaf and his wife Umm Sayyaf; Abu Sayyaf was killed during the course of the operation when he engaged U.S. forces. U.S. forces captured Umm Sayyaf, who we suspect is a member of ISIL, played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities, and may have been complicit in what appears to have been the enslavement of a young Yezidi woman rescued last night”.

Various open source media have also added that the US Special Operation Forces (SOF) who acted on the scene were two dozen members of the so dubbed US Army Tier One – Special Mission Unit better known as Delta Force. The High Value Target of the operation was Abu Sayyaf, aka Abu Muhammad al-Iraqi or Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, as U.S. officials have recently said on condition of anonymity, who was a military and financial leader with the Islamic State. As reported, the alleged Tunisian played a major role in “overseeing ISIL’s illicit oil and gas operations — a key source of revenue that enables the terrorist organization to carry out its operations”. He was neutralized after a heavy firefight that ensued the assault of his compound located at al-Omar oil field in eastern Deir Ezzor (eastern Syria). His wife Umm Sayyaf, suspected of being an influential element of ISIL as well, was also captured (and currently being held in Iraq) and a young girl of Yazidi ethnicity was rescued from her status of captivity.

Special Operations doctrine.

US Army Special Operations doctrine[1] refers to critical capabilities as special warfare and surgical strike. The former deals with the so called “indirect approach”, which means basically waging war through proxies (be they civilian and military agencies of a friendly government[2] or underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force opposing an unfriendly government[3]) who are trained, advised, assisted by US SOF; the latter has been defined as the “execution of activities in a precise manner that employ special operations forces in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover or damage designated targets, or influence threats”.

The Abu Sayyaf operation falls under the “direct approach” dimension of the surgical strike operational concept: its features all of the attributes having being politically significant, carried out in a denied and hostile environment and against a designated target of strategic significance.

A few planning assumptions.

In order to execute the mission assigned to Delta Force, a few assumptions must have been taken into account during the planning phase:

  • POTUS, through SecDef, must give the green light for the operation (political-strategic and political-military levels of responsibility reside on both of them);
  • the Syrian government has to be kept unknowledgeable of the operation (OPSEC rules);
  • the Iraqi government has to be involved only for its supplementary role, given the territorial vicinity to the target area;
  • intelligence preparation of the operational environment and air superiority before and during the operation have to be assured.

Special Operations in Theory.

The US Navy Admiral (Ret.) William “Bill” McRaven[4], when a student at the Naval Postgraduate School in 1993, was the author of a thesis (later published as a book) entitled “The Theory of Special Operations”. The then-Commander McRaven analyzed 8 historical cases of special operations and was able to infer 6 principles – applicable because pertaining to special operations – aimed at achieving the “relative superiority” by small forces over a larger enemy during the engagement, in so doing gaining a decisive advantage that, in the end, allows mission success. In sum, the principles applicable to every special operations are the following:

  • simplicity: limited number of objectives, gathering of good intelligence to reduced information gaps, employment of innovation (technological or tactical) to ease the execution;
  • security: “keep the ops tight” in order to avoid the enemy’s (in general terms) knowledge of the mission;
  • repetition: “repetition hones individual and unit skill, while full dress rehearsal unmask weaknesses in the plan, but both are essential to success on the battlefield”;
  • surprise: the attributes relating to this principle are the execution of deception operations, the time of the attack and the gain of the advantage over enemy’s vulnerabilities;
  • speed: it is basically the amount of time needed to gain the relative superiority over the enemy; the shorter the time, the higher are the odds of achieving mission success;
  • purpose: understanding the goal and the end state of the mission is the pre-condition for getting a small unit ready to engage a larger opposing force and win.

According to what we know about the Abu Sayyaf mission, all of the principles of special operations seem to have been applied:

  • simplicity with regard to the target (one primary and one secondary), the intelligence superiority acquired and the advanced and innovative technology employed;
  • security: a very limited number of people involved in the planning and execution phases of the ops;
  • repetition: we have to assume[5] that a rigorous rehearsal must have been carried out prior to the D-DAY;
  • surprise and speed: the innovative technology employed (Blackhawk helicopters and V-22 aircraft) played a crucial role in that it allowed to catch the enemy off guard, to exploit its vulnerabilities and to execute the operation in a matter of minutes and with relevant fire power;
  • purpose: all the members of the assault team must have understood the mission and the concept of operation in order to master the execution phase.

Special Operations in Practice.

The SOF Community is familiar with the targeting methodology labeled with the acronym F3EA, which stands for Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit and Analyze. The proponents of such an operational approach were the US Army General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal[6] and the US Army Lieutenant General (Ret.) Michael Flynn[7]. The methodology allows the application of the operational paradigm which refers to the so called “intelligence-driven operations cycle”: the process calls for the acquisition of intelligence, which drives operations, which in turn allow the gathering of more intelligence, which spawns more operations. In short, the phases are the following:

  • find: intelligence activities allow the identification and location of a target of interest;
  • fix: intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) assets monitor and track the identified target;
  • finish: raider forces strike the target;
  • exploit and analyze: as a consequence of the strike, evidence and information gleaned on the spot are collected, stored, processed, analyzed and disseminated in order to activate follow-on operations.

Again, as far as we know from open source media outlets involved in the dissemination of the story, the Abu Sayyaf mission appears to have been put in practice as a special operation along the features of the targeting pattern as previously explained:

  • find: once intelligence requirements were set in order to execute the operation aimed at capturing the High Value Target, various sources (especially of human nature) must have been deployed in order to identify Abu Sayyaf, life-pattern him and locate his whereabouts;
  • fix: once collected, processed and evaluate the intelligence products (actionable intelligence), IRS platforms must have been dispatched on the target area in order to monitor and track the target (the so called “eyes-on-target” process) with the aim of determining the right time and place for execution;
  • finish: once triggered, the raiding force air-assaulted the site and ground-attacked the target[8]. Battle damage assessment of the engagement: a dozen enemies KIA (among them Abu Sayyaf), one enemy capture (Umm Sayyaf), one hostage rescued (the Yazidi girl), no collateral damage (civilian) reported, no friendly forces killed or injured, no US equipment or vehicles damaged;
  • exploit and analyze: other than individuals of interest (among them the two women available for questioning), a treasure-trove of valuable and exploitable data and information were recovered on the site: computers, records of contacts and transactions, other sources of information, in other words intelligence material deemed of relevant interest for ensuing operations.


The Abu Sayyaf operation can be assessed as a major success on the part of the US SOF Community. All of the special operations features can be highlighted both in theoretical and practical terms. With this regard, a few conclusions can be singled out:

  • Delta Force vs. SEAL Team 6: in terms of “badassitute”, both the Tier One – Special Mission Unit possess the operational attributes to successfully execute operations of this magnitude. Within the rhetorical framework of the struggle that is currently being carried out against transnational violent religiously motivated networks, a sort of “advertisement[9] can be noted with a subtle reference to an InfoOps or (white) PSYOPS campaign of a kind;
  • as we have progressively gotten used to assessing, when it comes to dealing with counterterrorism operations, misinformation (at best) or disinformation both play a relevant role; thus, a skeptic approach should be maintained when reading on the media about tactical details of such operations;
  • anyhow, taking for granted the reliability of the reported information, a crucial element comes to light: had the US SOF not rigorously applied the planning and targeting processes pertaining to such a significant operation, we could have been looking at a second operational failure after the one suffered by US SOF Community in Afghanistan in August 2011, when a US-Afghan Joint-Combined Special Operation Team on board of a CH47 Chinook helicopter was shot down by a ground-to-air missile launched by an opposing element of the Afghan Taliban movement. The result was 38 military personnel killed (5 crew members and 33 passengers, among them 15 elements of the SEAL Team 6) . The event was a major blowback and the largest loss of precious assets in Naval Special Warfare history; the lesson learned as a consequence of that has paved the way for the further honing of special operations procedures.


[1] Ref. ADP 3-05 “Special Operations”, August 2012.

[2] These kinds of missions are labeled Foreign Internal Defense – FID.

[3] Missions like these are called Unconventional Warfare – UW.

[4] Former Commander of the US Special Operation Command (SOCOM), former Commander of the Navy Tier One – Special Mission Unit better known as SEAL Team 6 or DevGroup, inspirational source of the “Global SOF Network” concept.

[5] Operation “Neptune Spear” conducted in Abbottabad, Pakistan, against Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, as far as we know, was preceded by rehearsals executed in a training area on US soil where a replica of the compound to assault was set up.

[6] Former ISAF Commander in Afghanistan and former Commander of the US Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC), under his tenure the Jordanian leader of the al-Qaida in Iraq group Abu Musab al-Zarkawi was neutralized in June 2006; he is the author of the best seller book “My Share of the Task”.

[7] Former Director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and former Director of the Intelligence Directorate at JSOC.

[8] Media familiar with the event have reported that hand-to-hand combat was also performed on the scene.

[9] Here there is a staggering difference with respect to the Cold War period where OPSEC and deception were abundantly applied. Nowadays, a proliferation of movies and books on the subject of Special Operations can be widely appreciated.