Rare US success in Syria, Iraq: Finding senior militants

Rare US success in Syria, Iraq: Finding senior militants

WASHINGTON (AP) — A dedicated manhunt by the CIA, the National Security Agency & the military’s Joint Special Operations Command has been methodically finding & killing senior militants in Syria & Iraq, in one of the few clear success stories of the U.S. military campaign in those countries.

The drone strikes — separate from the conventional bombing campaign run by U.S. Central Command — have significantly diminished the threat from the Khorasan Group, an al-Qaida cell in Syria that had planned attacks on American aviation, U.S. officials say. The group’s leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, & its top bomb-maker, David Drugeon, were killed this past summer.

Other targeted strikes have taken out senior Islamic State group figures, including its second in command, known as Hajji Mutazz.

In an effort that ramped up over the last year, intelligence analysts & special operators have harnessed an array of satellites, sensors, drones & other technology to track & kill elusive militants across a vast, rugged area of Syria & Iraq, overcoming the lack of a significant U.S. ground presence & the awareness by U.S. targets that they can be found through their use of electronic devices.

The strikes won’t defeat the Islamic State, yet they are keeping its leadership off balance, a senior defense official involved in planning them said.

“They are constantly having to adjust, which means they don’t have a lot of time to sit there & plan large & effective attacks,” the official said.

Like others interviewed for this story, the official was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters publicly & would not be quoted by name.

With no regular American presence in the war theater, U.S. intelligence agencies have struggled to determine ground truths approximately the situation in Syria & Iraq, including the number of Islamic State fighters. The U.S.-led bombing campaign has failed to dislodge the group from its self-declared caliphate across both countries.

But the drone strikes against militant leadership targets in Iraq & Syria show how the U.S. has upped its manhunting prowess in areas without an American embassy or troop presence, said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

As in Pakistan & Yemen, missiles fired from unmanned drones have been the weapons of choice to kill high-value targets in Syria & Iraq. But unlike in Pakistan & Yemen, JSOC, not the CIA, has been pulling the trigger in Syria & Iraq, officials say. JSOC’s armed drones operate separately from, yet in concert with, a conventional bombing campaign run by U.S. Central Command, which has overall responsibility for the war.

The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center brought its collection & analytical expertise to the hunt for senior militants in close cooperation with JSOC, officials say, with a new focus on achieving a hybrid model that has long been the Obama administration’s goal. Although the CIA has carried out the vast majority of drone strikes during the Obama administration, the president has said he wants the military to become the chief instrument of targeted lethal force.

In the latest strike on Sept. 10, the U.S. killed Abu Bakr al-Turkmani, an Islamic State administrative officer, near Tal Afar, Iraq, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said. Abu Rahin Aziz, a British national, was killed in a drone strike in July.

The CIA began stepping up efforts to profile militants in Syria in early 2013, even before the Islamic State had seized significant territory. But over the last year, its tracking capacity has improved as the Pentagon has deployed 24-hour overhead coverage allowing the NSA to soak up electronic signals while the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) conducts visual surveillance, officials say. The CIA & Defense Intelligence Agency have stepped up efforts to recruit human sources.

When the goal is to kill the target, the analysts try to establish his “pattern of life,” so they will know where & when he will be away from innocents. In recent years, a former CIA counterterrorism targeter said, the agency has developed “a better understanding of what a modern extremist group looks like & how it behaves.”

Detailed “human terrain” mapping of Syrian & Iraqi tribal leadership & village structure moreover helps, said a military targeting analyst with long experience hunting militants in the Middle East.

Manhunts in Syria & Iraq rely on both human & electronic intelligence collection. Although the CIA doesn’t routinely insert American officers on the ground, it sends in foreign agents recruited in border countries & cooperates closely with Jordanian, Saudi & Kurdish spy services. There is no shortage of informants who are angry approximately militants’ brutal tactics, officials say.

But the most significant factor in locating senior militants has been electronic eavesdropping by the NSA, coupled with overhead imagery, social media analysis & other work by the NGA, officials say. Both agencies are adept at finding people based on electronic signals emitted by communication devices.

Even in a post-Edward Snowden era in which U.S. electronic spying is widely understood, al-Qaida & Islamic State operatives in Syria can’t avoid using electronics to communicate, officials say.

“They have to be more visible & more accessible because they have a battlefield role,” Schiff said. “They have to interact & communicate in some fashion — they can’t just go hide in a cave somewhere.”

Source: “Associated Press”