Obama Unleashes Hunter-Killers on ISIS

The special ops forces that got Bin Laden, Saddam, and Zarqawi are finally being sent by the dozens to go after the group’s leaders. Can they turn the tide?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The Obama administration is dispatching a targeting force of elite U.S. special operations troops into northern Iraq, after top U.S. defense and intelligence officials warned the ISIS network is growing faster than the coalition that’s fighting it, senior U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast.

The new special operations task force, led by the elite Joint Special Operations Command, is aimed at denting the so-called Islamic State group’s popularity by decimating its leadership and gathering the intelligence needed to cut off more of its operations before they can launch.

JSOC will initially lead the targeting effort in Iraq, but the special operations footprint could be expanded to include other special operations forces, a senior military official told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.

“It depends on our success with the initial mission,” which will likely influence how much the Iraqi government will allow, he said.

“We will take every opportunity we can get,” he added.

The task force will be roughly 200 strong, based in northern Iraq, a second senior defense official said.

It’s the sharp end of the spear that will work with roughly 50 special operations advisers who are deploying to northern Syria later this month, to advise local forces how to fight.

“It puts everybody on notice in Syria,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Congress on Tuesday. “You don’t know at night who’s going to be coming in the window. And that’s the sensation that we want all of [ISIS’s] leadership and followers to have.”

The war against ISIS began as a mission that President Barack Obama swore would not lead to ground troops. It became an operation in which U.S. officials grudgingly acknowledged forces were not only on the ground but in combat. Tuesday’s announcement suggests that U.S. forces could now be on the front lines.

The announcement of additional troops, made during a House Armed Services Committee on the war effort, surprised many at the Pentagon. Several of those involved in the effort struggled to answer basic questions about the new mission.

One thing that’s clear: The extra forces represent the latest adjustment to a strategy that has been stalled for months, according to Pentagon officials. Indeed, at Tuesday’s testimony, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford admitted that the U.S. had “not contained” ISIS.

Carter and Chairman Dunford told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the new “expeditionary” special operations force would carry out raids and hostage rescues in Iraq and Syria.

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“The raids in Iraq will be done at the invitation of the Iraqi government and focused on defending its borders and building the Iraqi security force’s own capacity,” Carter said at Tuesday’s hearing.

The move was dismissed by critics of the Obama administration’s ISIS strategy, which relies on 3,500 U.S. troops already in Iraq to train local forces to do the fighting, combined with U.S. and other coalition airpower to hit ISIS targets.

“There is no firm date when we could get ISIS out of Raqqa or even Mosul,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) told MSNBC, referring to ISIS’s Syrian and Iraqi capitals. “And as long as they’re there and they have a base, they’re metastasizing.”

Pentagon officials say ISIS has lost 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and 5 percent of what it once held in Syria since the coalition launched attacks in August 2014.

But U.S. intelligence officials say it continues to draw 1,000 new recruits a month, and is spreading globally to at least a dozen countries, attracting new followers through violent actions like the attacks in Paris.

The idea behind the new expeditionary force is to re-create a smaller version of the elite JSOC cell that operated in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. That force eventually carried out dozens of raids each night, with the evidence or information from captives in the first raid leading to the next raid. The downside for the U.S. public is that JSOC’s operations are top secret, so will likely only be explained when an operation is caught on someone’s cellphone camera, or when something goes wrong.

JSOC members have been on the ground in limited numbers since the start of the U.S. anti-ISIS campaign. But the new expeditionary task force will also provide the kind of airpower, combat search and rescue, and medical capability that special operations officials say will enable more aggressive raids throughout Iraq and inside Syria with a lower risk of casualties—an important requirement of the casualty-averse Obama White House.

One senior U.S. official explained that administration officials had been reluctant to approve raids without such resources available, because if operators were badly injured, they’d be outside the “golden hour” to get them to life-saving medical aid.

The targeting troops are part of a two-pronged attack by special operations forces, to buy time for the work of 50 special operations advisers, who are headed to northern Syria to work with the so-called Syrian Arab Coalition, which includes the Kurdish fighters that have proved to be some of the most effective in winning territory back from ISIS.

Senior officials say those advisers are expected to deploy in the next two weeks, with their first job to assess just how well the Syrian Arab Coalition is fighting and how to help them step up their fight against ISIS.

“All we have right now is their interpretation of what’s going on,” a senior official briefed on the operations said. He predicted the assessment of the local fighters could take weeks.

All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the special operations deployments.

The idea is to use the same model as the one in Afghanistan in 2001, when roughly 60 U.S. Special Forces Green Berets and a small band of CIA officers worked with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban.

“You have to empower locals to fix their own problems,” said Maj. Gen. James Linder, commander of the Green Beret’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

“You cannot clear out those villages with Americans and have the same results,” he said in an interview with The Daily Beast.

“So you have to get in there to find out who is the key communicator, what’s going to motivate those folks, what is their cause,” he said.

The U.S. advisers can teach them everything from how to train a small unit to carry out an ambush to how to coordinate multiple teams attacking the same target—something that rebel forces on their own have to learn by trial and error, with often deadly and disastrous results.

Other important lessons: teach them not to hit infrastructure or civilians, so that they’ll actually have something to govern afterward.

Linder held a one-day conference in Washington, D.C., to address how best to fight ISIS, to teach Washington policymakers and think tankers how special operations teams work to help local forces—a messy, years-long process.

“You need to manage expectations in the U.S. public,” he said, echoing top U.S. military officials who have spoken of this as a generational fight. “This will be a long-term engagement.”

—with additional reporting by Nancy A. Youssef