TSG IntelBrief: Targeting Islamic State Leadership in Syria
May 18, 2015

Targeting Islamic State Leadership in Syria

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• A raid such as the U.S. Special Forces raid into eastern Syria to capture senior Islamic State official ‘Abu Sayyaf’ suggests a level of actionable and accurate intelligence that was lacking just last year

• Abu Sayyaf might be identifiable as Tariq Tahir Falehal-Awni al-Harzi, a Tunisian member of the Islamic State who was just added to the U.S. Rewards for Justice Program earlier this month, as was Islamic State number two Abu Ala’a al-Afri

• Al-Harzi would indeed be an appropriate target for what is the first publicly-known U.S. raid into Syria not involving U.S. hostages; he was an early foreign member of al-Qaeda in Iraq and then the Islamic State, and was responsible for recruitment, finances, and suicide bombers

• While the killing of Abu Sayyaf is important, the group remains stubbornly lethal in both Syria and Iraq, having just taken over most of the important Iraqi city of Ramadi this weekend.

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Prior to this weekend, the only publicly known U.S. special forces raid into Syria was the 2014 attempt at rescuing hostages held by the Islamic State. This suggests that both the target and the intelligence surrounding this weekend’s raid into eastern Syria was unique and important. The killing of ‘Abu Sayyaf,’ described by U.S. officials as a Tunisian national and senior Islamic State official connected with oil and finance, is noteworthy both for the potential intelligence gain from the exploitation of the site as well as how quickly the U.S. announced the almost unprecedented raid. There was nothing routine about this raid into Syria by U.S. forces. Its success obscures its difficulty in obtaining the information to plan the mission and executing the mission itself.

There is uncertainty as to the true identity of Abu Sayyaf, who obviously was important enough to risk the raid; something not undertaken lightly. But a case can be made that Abu Sayyaf might be Tariq Bin-al-Tahar Bin al Falih al-‘Awni al-Harzi. Al-Hazri was just added to the U.S. Rewards for Justice Program earlier this month, with a $3 million reward. He was earlier added to the U.S. Treasury’s list of Designated Terrorists in September 2014 for his alleged role as both a recruiter and financier for the Islamic State along the border between Syria and Turkey and beyond. He was also suspected in hostage taking and executions, which would compliment his role in recruitment and finance. 

Al-Harzi was a well-known and long-term threat. His brother, Ali al-Harzi, was believed to have played a leading role in the 2011 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Tariq al-Harzi has a long history with both the Islamic State and its precursor al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). According to Iraqi reports, he entered Iraq in 2004 to join the fight against Western troops, and was arrested and detained in Abu Ghraib prison in 2005. Upon his release, he rejoined AQI, and was again detained by U.S. military forces in 2008, and sent to Camp Cropper near the Baghdad airport. He was remanded to the custody of the Iraqis in 2009 when they assumed responsibility for the prison system, and received a death sentence for his crimes in Iraq.

In a tragically familiar pattern, al-Harzi was broken out of prison in 2012 during an Islamic State-led prison break. Prison breaks have been a hallmark of the Islamic State, as well as al-Qaeda, as a tried-and-true way to replenish ranks with loyal and talented members. Prisons have also been a source of recruitment for extremist groups. Once free, al-Harzi assumed a prominent role with what would become the Islamic State. He was placed in charge of the all-important border area between Turkey and Syria, through which nearly all the foreign fighters would pass.

According to the Rewards for Justice program, al-Harzi was also the leader for the Islamic State’s foreign operations, a new position for a group previously focused on Iraq and Syria. Through his brother Ali, he was also responsible for procuring weapons in Libya and Iraq.

For the U.S. president to authorize such a risky mission involving ground forces deep into Syria, the target would have to be someone at the level of al-Harzi, and the intelligence needed for such as raid would have had to be timely and quite accurate. This raid might very well create significant disruption in the networks that ‘Abu Sayyaf’ was connected to, as it shows a level of penetration into the group’s inner workings that can’t be dismissed as luck.

Abu Sayyaf might turn out not to be Tarqi al-Harzi, as there are a number of Tunisians in important positions within the group. But it is certainly reasonable to argue Abu Sayyaf is al-Hazri given his importance, and the fact that he was so recently listed on the Rewards program, as was Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli aka Abu Alaa al-Afri, who was reportedly killed last week in an airstrike in Tal Afar, Iraq.

All of this high-level personnel loss comes amidst an undeniable push by the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. The group has reportedly taken near complete control of the important city of Ramadi in al-Anbar Province, after threatening to do so for weeks. The collapse of the Iraqi security forces in the face of a determined extremist foe continues to be a problem, and U.S. airstrikes have begun in Ramadi to help drive off the Islamic State. As important as the killing of ‘Abu Sayyaf’ is, as long as the group’s foes remain incapable of defense and offense outside of their comfort zone, and the ground reality remains one of poor governance and persistent grievance, the group will remain a serious threat to the region and beyond.

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