Counterterror Fight

Meet the General Shaking Up America’s Yemen, ISIS, and Hostage Rescue Plans

Lt. Gen. Bennet Sacolick’s little-known office is grabbing the spotlight with its review of U.S. hostage policy and ISIS and Yemen strategy.

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Army Lieutenant General Bennet S. Sacolick still remembers the call: The body of an American hostage had been found in Iraq.

It was 2004, and the Iraqi insurgency was building momentum. Four Blackwater USA contractors had recently been killed and their burned bodies hung from a bridge in Fallujah. The Mahdi army, a Shia militia created by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was rising up and Sacolick, then a colonel, was commanding a special operations task force in Iraq.

After the call, Sacolick and his men tracked down the insurgents and captured or killed the group responsible for the kidnapping. It was a single-minded hunt with little concern for anything but the location of the next target. Sacolick never considered the victim’s family—either during the hunt for the insurgents or after the body was recovered near an overpass. The family wasn’t part of the mission.

“We eventually were able to kill or capture every single one of them, but I never associated that with a family back home,” said Sacolick, who asked that the victim not be named for privacy reasons. “I’ve since met the family and they are wonderful people, and now I’m on the other end of it and I realize there is a huge tail associated with hostages. Maybe that was my own personal maturing process, when you realize there was more to it than just what is going on in my battle space in Iraq.”

That disconnect between those trying to free the hostage and the family waiting for news of their loved ones is one reason the Obama administration ordered a review of how the U.S. government handles hostage negotiations and rescues. Sacolick, now director of the strategic operational planning directorate, was tapped to oversee the review, thrusting his little known planning office at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) into the spotlight.

While not household names, Sacolick and his office play an integral role in the United States’ counterterrorism fight. They are the architects of the strategy to combat terrorism worldwide, including the plan to destroy ISIS. In a rare interview, Sacolick talked to The Daily Beast about the ongoing hostage review; how his office is rewriting the strategy in Yemen from scratch as the country disintegrates into a civil war; and how his office is revising the plan to degrade and defeat ISIS as Iranian-backed militias lead an offensive in Tikrit.

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The hostage police review was ordered by President Obama in August, shortly after the video emerged showing journalist James Foley’s death. The families were not invited to be a part of the review until December. Christine Wormuth, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said last year that the review will include a “specific emphasis on examining family engagement, intelligence collection, and diplomatic engagement policies.”

Typically, the FBI is the leading agency that deals with the families. Military special operations units often conduct the rescue, with recent attempts in both Yemen and Syria. Much of the criticism of how the U.S. government handles hostage negotiations focuses on turf wars between the government agencies, poor leadership, and a lack of compassion and communication with the families. Foley’s parents said they felt ignored by U.S. officials.

The Daily Beast has spoken with several families who said they are not regularly updated and that information gathered by different agencies is not shared, often forcing families to serve as a bridge. The families also said there is no clear hostage policy, creating an ad hoc system that leads to delays and a breakdown of communication.

The review started with letters to families and former hostages. Sacolick and his team interviewed in person every single family who lost a loved one or had a loved one still in captivity.

“I am the honest broker in the process,” Sacolick said. “I am working directly for the White House.”

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In addition to interviewing families of hostages and former hostages, the review team consulted with experts in the government, think tanks, and representatives of four countries. The interviews brought back Sacolick’s experience in Iraq, he said. Connecting the people pursuing the safe recovery of a hostage with the people talking to the family is an important step, he added.

“We just don’t do a great job of keeping families informed,” Sacolick said. “We can do better. It is the most traumatic experience of their life. We can do much better at providing, not just leveraging, all elements of this great, wonderful government to bring their loved ones back home and doing a better job keeping them informed. Right now there is a disconnect.”

Sacolick declined to reveal any of the recommendations in his upcoming report besides a need for better communication with the families. He said the review is about halfway complete and is expected later this spring.

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The hostage review is one of the highest profile projects on Sacolick’s desk, but his daily challenge is mapping out the United States’ counterterrorism strategy.

“Trust me, someone is scheming against a U.S. Embassy somewhere on this planet every single day,” Sacolick said. “There are threats emanating from half a dozen countries. It keeps you up at night, but I am really comfortable with our country’s posture to prevent that.”

Sacolick said his career, which has spanned three decades, was good preparation for his current job. Sitting in his office, Sacolick’s walls tell the story of that career. A framed plaque commemorates his tour as commanding general of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, where he oversaw the training of the Army’s special operations forces. And a framed flag marks his stint as commander of 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta, more commonly known as Delta Force.

Sacolick enlisted in the Army in 1981 and served with the 2nd Ranger Battalion before earning his commission a year later. He has commanded at the detachment, troop, squadron, group, and task force level, including 12 years in Delta Force as a unit and task force commander during the Iraq War. He has seen combat in Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, according to his biography.

“I’ve been involved in every aspect of combating terror at every single level for the past 30 years,” Sacolick said.

And it shows in the ways the United States is fighting ISIS and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terror outfit’s branch in Yemen. Sacolick’s first special operations command was with the 7th Special Forces Group, training and mentoring soldiers from Latin American nations including Colombia, Peru, and El Salvador. He sees the partnerships with local forces as the way forward, especially in Iraq.

“The introduction of American ground forces in large numbers is not the answer,” he said. “What will we achieve that we couldn’t achieve 10 years ago? Why is now going to be any different? We’ll just get sucked into a black hole. The Iraqis would love for us to fight their fight for them, but it is a bad idea.”

Sacolick said the American people wouldn’t accept another massive deployment of conventional troops as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think they accept the small footprint that Special Forces provides,” he said, adding that small numbers of conventional troops like the 82nd Airborne Division Trainers in Iraq could fit that bill, too.

But that model depends on a partnership with the local government. Take Yemen, where the government was overthrown by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. That forced the United States to remove its special operations forces from the country—hampering counterterrorism operations and drone strikes against AQAP, generally considered the most dangerous of the al Qaeda affiliates.

With Saudi Arabia leading a coalition against the rebels, the violence in Yemen has turned into a regional proxy war. Sacolick’s staff is rewriting its Yemen strategy, touted as the president’s counterterror model, from scratch as conditions on the ground shift daily.

“They were supporting our CT [counterterrorism] efforts,” Sacolick said. “Now that government is on the verge of collapse. It is really concerning. We’re talking about it every day. That is one of those areas where we let it play out.”

But finding willing partners with a more stable government is hard. Kurdish Peshmerga units are making progress against ISIS in Syria and northern Iraq. But the same can’t be said for the Iraqi army. Defense officials announced plans to oust ISIS from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, this spring. Iraqi officials said their forces aren’t ready, however.

Iranian military advisers and militia fighters have had some success mobilizing the Iraqis, leading an offensive against Tikrit last month. But the Iraqis’ first major counterattack against ISIS stalled, forcing the U.S. to break the stalemate with airstrikes. With the city liberated last week, the militia victory turned into an orgy of looting and lynching, according to media reports.

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Between 80,000 and 100,000 militia fighters are in Iraq fighting ISIS, and the influx of Iranian fighters and influence is a concern, Sacolick said.

“As long as they take their orders from Baghdad, I think we’ll be OK,” he said. “Those were the guys we were fighting five years ago. What happens when rogue elements decide they don’t like the U.S. Embassy? This is a consideration. We look at this all the time.”

Sacolick said ISIS poses a much bigger threat to Iran than the U.S., which could be a good thing.

“When ISIL took down Mosul and were moving on Baghdad, you don’t think my counterpart in the Iranian government wasn’t in a panic?” Sacolick said, using the government’s preferred acronym for ISIS. “That was probably the most significant national security crisis they’ve had in a very, very long time. Let’s leverage them. I am sure they’d love to have American soldiers die on their behalf, but I’d prefer to have Iranian ones.”

Sacolick’s staff is reworking the strategy against ISIS, and the revision is due this month. Sacolick said the shelf life for any strategy is about 36 months before it needs to be updated, but he is optimistic that the overall plan is working.

“We’ve been able to disrupt ISIL’s momentum,” he said. “They completely overwhelmed Mosul and they were on the heels of Baghdad. We were able to disrupt their momentum. We were able to affect their ability to communicate. We were able to affect their ability to mass. We were able to affect their ability to maneuver.”

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At the end of the day, Sacolick knows the United States can’t shoot its way to victory. The only way to win is to change minds, and that fight begins on social media. A first step is confronting ISIS’s massive social network, which produces almost 100,000 tweets a day.

“Their social media apparatus is out of control,” Sacolick said. “We’re just starting to develop a strategy, a plan to address it, and it is a tough one. I just don’t think America appreciates the significance of that. Three middle-class schoolgirls decide they want to be freedom fighters in Syria. How does this happen in our country? How do we address that?”

Brookings analysts J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan found current efforts to combat ISIS’s social media campaign wanting, according to a March analysis on ISIS’s Twitter activity. Morgan and Berger said counter messages from the State Department were only moderately effective, and most watchers on Twitter tuned in to see who won the argument. Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, called the State Department’s counter-messaging program an “embarrassment,” according to the report.

Morgan and Berger argue that any counter messaging has to come from a third party not affiliated with the U.S. government. Sacolick said a third party from a Muslim country like Jordan or the United Arab Emirates is needed to spread an anti-terror message.

“We have over 60 countries that want to help in some capacity,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be dollars or dropping bombs.”

But Sacolick acknowledged there isn’t a single solution to combating terrorism or a grand strategy to achieve victory, despite his mission. In the end, it will take battles on all fronts—military, economic, diplomatic—to make any real difference.

“We won World War II because we were part of a coalition,” Sacolick said. “Maybe we need some 21st-century [version] of that. Where is that community of the willing that all view terrorism as a threat to their national interest? That is what will be required.”