Abu Sayyaf raid: Messing with the heads of ISIS

Story highlights

  • A U.S. raid kills an ISIS commander who had expertise in oil and gas operations
  • Juliette Kayyem: Don't underestimate the potential impact of the raid among ISIS' ranks

Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is also the host of the Security Mom podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The U.S. Special Operations Forces killing of Abu Sayyaf, a senior ISIS commander with expertise in the organization's finances, late Friday night into early Saturday appears to have been nearly flawlessly executed.

There will be revisions to the narrative -- a nighttime cross-border raid, a firefight, the killing and capture of various ISIS terrorists, the liberation of a slave girl -- and that is to be expected, given the intensity and speed of the raid. But, this was a good kill, and maybe not for the reasons most believe.
Let's first state the obvious. The man in charge of a major economic and financial lifeline for ISIS -- oil and gas -- is dead. All terrorist groups survive by keeping the money going. One of the unwritten successes in counterterrorism efforts has been the extent to which the Treasury Department has taken the lead in draining terrorist access to money that was viewed as permissible (or whose provenance was at least ignored) by major banking institutions in the Middle East.
    Juliette Kayyem
    But it is true that a single death will not incapacitate a group like ISIS, which, like al Qaeda, has thought through succession needs, continuity of operations plans and personnel redundancies to ensure that its success does not rest on one man, or woman, alone.
    A group like ISIS -- so desperate and determined to survive that it uses beheading videos as recruitment tools and engages in utterly brutal tactics -- will move on, as its capture of the Iraqi stronghold in Ramadi this weekend attests, but that doesn't mean that the death is just for show. Critics of this raid who are politicizing the bravery of Special Operations Forces ought to think more strategically about what is going on.
    Simply put, when it comes to ISIS, we are messing with their heads. I know that doesn't sound very technical, but this raid isn't being discussed in grand strokes or with an announcement by the President.
    Key ISIS figure in Syria, killed in U.S. raid
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      Key ISIS figure in Syria, killed in U.S. raid


    Key ISIS figure in Syria, killed in U.S. raid 01:20
    Instead, the U.S. is purposefully disclosing the details of the raid -- including the weeks that the armed forces were in Iraq and Syria planning it, and the use of ISIS informants in its own ranks -- to make ISIS begin to doubt the allegiance of its own troops.
    In the old days of World War II and the Cold War, this was called "black propaganda." It was a disinformation technique where covert operatives would convince -- through gossip or innuendo -- members of an enemy spy ring that their teammates weren't to be trusted. They would turn on each other and forget to set their sights on their work at hand, namely to spy on the United States.
    In addition, the orchestrated U.S. government announcements about the documents, computers and other financial materials that were captured in the raid have got to make a lot of ISIS leaders very nervous. And it is likely to make members of ISIS who have avoided the violence of the battlefield -- men like Sayyaf -- believe that not even an office job is safe.
    These specifics of what is emerging regarding the U.S.' painstaking efforts to lure ISIS adherents to disclose information is just a modern-day form of those Cold War tactics. Who knows, honestly, if we indeed have agents within ISIS who are giving up intelligence.
    What the United States wants is to have ISIS believe we do. And for critics who believe that it was too risky a move for someone as "low down" as Abu Sayyaf, they show a remarkable lack of understanding about the dual purpose of the raid: Kill the man, capture the wife, get the laptops and, just as significantly, freak out the others. Because now that Sayyaf is dead, there are a lot of ISIS leaders wondering who among them is telling secrets to the enemy. And the more they turn on each other, the less they will have time to plan ways to turn on us.