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U.S. service member killed in Syria on Thanksgiving

A U.S. service member was killed in northern Syria on Thursday, marking the first known American combat death there in a steadily escalating campaign against the Islamic State group. 

The improvised explosive attack occurred near Ayn Issa, according to the U.S. military. The town is about 35 miles north of Raqqa, the Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital. Coalition forces have focused their attention there in recent weeks, saying intelligence assessments have suggested militants in the city are actively plotting terror attacks against the U.S. and its allies.

U.S. officials have not identified the fallen American, pending family notification. It's unclear whether any other personnel were wounded in the attack. No other information was released. 

"The entire counter-ISIL Coalition sends our condolences to this hero's family, friends and teammates," said Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve. "On this Thanksgiving, please be thankful that there are service members willing to take up the fight to protect our homeland from ISIL's hateful and brutal ideology."

ISIL is another name for the Islamic State group.

There are approximately 300 American troops on the ground inside Syria. The preponderance are special operations forces advising various militias also battling the Islamic State.

Backed by U.S. airstrikes, Syrian Kurdish forces began to target key areas around Raqqa earlier this month. Townsend has said the effort in Syria will involve far fewer U.S. troops overall than operations in neighboring Iraq, where about 5,000 American personnel are deployed. Many are supporting the ongoing fight to retake Mosul, another important Islamic State stronghold.

However, military analysts have said defeating the Islamic State in Raqqa will require substantial ground combat power. It's been suggested the U.S. could quietly deploy hundreds of additional special operations troops without a public announcement by categorizing them as "temporary duty" personnel.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter called Thursday's attack "a painful reminder of the dangers our men and women in uniform face around the world to keep us safe."

With reporting by Andrew Tilghman, Military Times' Pentagon bureau chief.

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