US forces kill Some Guy, key ISIS leader (plus: Arabic 101 for big media)

US Special Forces conducted a raid against an ISIS target in Syria overnight that reportedly killed an ISIS bigshot:

US special forces soldiers have killed a senior leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group during a raid carried out in eastern Syria, the US secretary of defence said.

Pentagon chief Ash Carter said in a statement on Saturday that the raid in al-Amr had killed Abu Sayyaf when he “engaged US forces”.

Al Jazeera’s Omar al-Saleh, reporting from the Bekaa valley in neighbouring Lebanon, said two US helicopters had taken part in the operation at an oil field east of the city of Deir Az Zor.

“Activists from the area say at least six people from ISIL were killed, including at least two of Arab nationalities; a Saudi and an Iraqi,” Saleh said.

“We believe the operation may have taken place overnight or early Saturday.”

The US put the number of ISIL deaths at about a dozen, and said no US soldiers were killed during the incident.

Abu Sayyaf, we’re told, “was involved in planning ISIL’s military operations and had helped direct its oil, gas, and financial operations,” and, hey, that sounds good. I’m a little skeptical when I hear that we’ve killed some guy who was a senior leader (with what seems like an incredibly broad portfolio, from energy to finance to military operations) of our biggest enemy yet nobody seems to have heard of him before today, but I’m reflexively skeptical like that. Certainly there’s no particular reason why US authorities would let me or anybody else in on the names of all of ISIS’s top commanders. Anyway a half dozen or so dead ISIS fighters versus no US dead (and, hopefully, no civilian dead) is on balance probably a good thing, particularly when the raid also apparently freed a Yazidi girl whom Abu Sayyaf and his wife had been keeping as a slave.

There’s little to go on here to assess what kind of damage this Abu Sayyaf’s death might do to ISIS overall, first because of the aforementioned skepticism but also because we were told months ago that airstrikes had crippled ISIS’s oil revenue, plus the oil business just ain’t what she used to be these days. Also, it’s possible that Abu Sayyaf and/or his wife had or have intel on the location of American hostages being held by ISIS, which would obviously be important. But this raid also could, in theory, reflect some policy change in Washington about using special forces to go in and capture/kill suspected ISIS commanders instead of trying to kill them via airstrike. Maybe Abu Sayyaf was thought to be a particularly ripe target for capture and interrogation (hell, maybe Abu Sayyaf wasn’t the intended target; how can we know at this point?), or maybe this is how things are going to be done from now on.

I’d actually like to digress and offer a bit of a public service announcement to our major US media.

Folks, “Abu Sayyaf” is not this gentleman’s real name. It’s what’s known in Arabic as a kunyah, which is an honorific that is bestowed upon a person upon the birth of his or her child. “Abu Sayyaf” means “Father of Sayyaf.” Sometimes a person adopts a kunyah that doesn’t have anything to do with a child, as a pseudonym, and that could be the case here, as “sayyaf,” depending on how it’s spelled in Arabic, could be “sword” or “executioner”; “Father of the Sword” sounds like an appropriately bullshit macho name for an ISIS commander.

The thing about a kunyah is that it has nothing to do with Western naming conventions, and therefore you can’t, New York Times, treat it as though “Abu” were this guy’s first name and “Sayyaf” his last name:

Abu Sayyaf’s wife was reportedly captured in the raid, and she’s apparently going by the name “Umm Sayyaf.” This makes sense, as “Umm” is the feminine equivalent of “Abu,” which means that “Umm Sayyaf” means “Mother of Sayyaf.” It does not, Washington Post, mean anything other than that:

And just as “Abu” was not the man’s first name, it follows, CNN, that “Umm” is not this woman’s first name:

Maybe it’s nitpicking to worry about whether a major media outlet gets an Arabic name right, but it seems to me that we ought to expect major news outlets to have somebody on staff who’s got a year of Arabic under their belt, at a minimum. Places like CNN, NYT, and WaPo ought to have people on staff who know stuff about stuff, I think, and it worries me to think that, if they can’t get this simple stuff right, what else are they potentially getting wrong? NYT and WaPo have since quietly corrected their pieces, but that kind of correction only gets you so far; how many people read those pieces with the errors and have now been misinformed?

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