It’s the most important battle in the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State to date: the fight to retake Mosul, the terror group’s Iraqi capital. But so far, the U.S. military does not know how many ISIS fighters have been taken prisoner, a senior defense official explained to The Daily Beast.
Iraq’s security forces have allowed the U.S. military to interview fewer than “a handful” of detained fighters under Iraqi control since the Mosul offensive began in mid-October, a U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast. The official could not say if any of those detainees were captured before the Mosul offensive, or after it began.
“We do occasionally get access to detainees that the Iraqis capture,” a second defense official said. “But it’s rare.”
Iraqi officials have said hundreds of ISIS fighters have died so far in the three-week-long battle; U.S. officials estimate a smaller number have fled. It is those fleeing forces that evade capture that are a potentially lost source of intelligence for the U.S. and its allies—and an opening for ISIS fighters to creep back into Mosul, U.S. officials concede.
Asked by The Daily Beast whether the U.S. military knew the number of ISIS fighters that had been captured, the first official replied, “Nope.”
In contrast, the U.S. military during its last war in Iraq had access to thousands of Iraqi prisoners—and the intelligence they provided. But observers said the lack of detainees this time around reflects an ISIS eager to fight. And it shows the limits of a war in a city littered with bombs and tunnels, and home to hundreds of thousands of civilians.
“You can’t do these capture operations in the middle of the urban warfare. It’s too dangerous. We didn’t capture many people in the [U.S.-led] Fallujah battles of 2004,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010-2012, explained to The Daily Beast.
Jeffrey said the lack of the detainees who could provide intelligence is the cost of not having U.S. troops involved in frontline combat, who could hold suspected ISIS fighters, even temporarily, to interrogate them.
“Some of that intelligence would be helpful not for [learning about] longer term ISIS plans”—the frontline fighters are unlikely to know about such strategic aims—“but for specific intelligence on the fight for Mosul itself,” said Jeffrey, the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Human Rights Watch offered a more troubling explanation for the lack of reported detainees, saying it believes that Iraqi and Kurdish forces have detained “at least 37 men from areas around Mosul and Hawija suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State” and that government officials have not allowed those detainees to make outside contact.
“Human Rights Watch spoke to 46 relatives and witnesses, who described how security forces took the men from checkpoints, villages, screening centers, and camps for displaced people. Most said that they did not know where the men are being held and all of them said that the men have not been able to contact them while in detention,” the group said in a statement.
In the war against ISIS in Mosul, the number of fighters detained is the dog that doesn’t bark. ISIS repeatedly has urged its troops to fight to the death, declaring anything short of that punishable by execution. On the other side of the battlefield, neither the Iraqis nor the Americans, for their own reasons, are eager to hold detainees. And if HRW is correct, some Iraqi forces don’t want to say how many detainees they are holding.
The status of detained ISIS fighters “is something I have never heard come up in a briefing with the Iraqis,” the second defense official said about briefings between the U.S. and Iraqi military.
To be sure, both Iraqi and Kurdish forces have arrested hundreds of fighters but what it is less clear is how many have remained in custody. One Kurdish official told The Daily Beast that Kurdish forces alone had detained hundreds of militants, but could not say how many remain in their custody, adding that any suspected ISIS fighter would be handed over to the Iraqis. Since most suspected ISIS fighters are Iraqis, they are not considered prisoners of war but detainees in their own country. There are international rules for the treatment of prisoners of war but each nation decides how to treat its own criminals. And therefore it is up to the Iraqi government if it will expend resources to bring a case against a prisoner through its tenuous court system. Releasing or mistreating those in custody, for some, are easier alternatives.
The U.S. military has agreed to notify the International Committee of the Red Cross within two weeks of taking a detainee in Iraq, but it is not clear if the Iraqis have made a similar agreement with the ICRC.
Given the seemingly limited number of ISIS fighters captured, the war against ISIS increasingly appears to end with death or flight. When roughly 100 ISIS fighters launched a surprise attack last month on the Iraqi city of Rutbah, for example, half the ISIS fighters involved were killed in the 36-hour battle, U.S. Air Force Col. John Dorrian told The Daily Beast.
“Most of them were killed in place. Some of them were trying to escape the city and were struck by coalition airstrikes,” Dorrian told reporters during an Oct. 28 briefing.
With ISIS fighters either fleeing or dying, U.S. hopes to glean intelligence through the fight to retake Mosul will hinge on information discovered in documents and electronic files, not through prolonged interrogations. And if enough ISIS fighters are able to flee, as they have so far in Mosul, that could stoke fears among Iraq’s Sunni population that the terror group could return, making it harder for Iraq’s central government to gain the confidence of the population needed to retain control of the city after the battle ends.
“The issue of fleeing ISIS fighters is an indicator of whether local Sunni Arabs or alleged former ISIS fighters feel that their security and interests will be protected by the force that defeats ISIS. If they don’t believe it, they have no incentive to remain in the territory cleared of ISIS or to disarm and re-integrate,” Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
There could be more ISIS detainees in the weeks ahead, as Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters start the block-by-block clearance of Mosul, Pentagon officials said, as it will be much harder for ISIS militants to flee in that urban environment. Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces first reached the city borders last week.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hinted at the possibility of increased detainees in his comments last week, when he called for ISIS fighters in Mosul to “surrender or die.” There are Iraqi detention centers set up south of the city for such detainees, Pentagon officials said, but no indication the Iraqi forces could handle a large number of detainees.
“We will close in on [ISIS] from all angles and God willing we will cut the snake’s head. They will have no way out and no way to escape,” al-Abadi said on state television, while dressed in combat fatigues.
The belief that ISIS will not surrender has led local forces to conclude that the only way to defeat ISIS fighters is to kill them, Pentagon officials concede. After all, no one is pushing Iraqi security forces to grab fighters that could be laden with explosives and prepared to kill Iraqi troops in suicide missions. Moreover, taking detainees slows down operations and such detainees demand housing, food, and eventually a judicial process.
The U.S. troops joining local forces in the push against Mosul are only there in an advisory role, Pentagon officials have said. And the U.S. has largely gotten out of the detention business in Iraq after a sordid history during the 2003-2011 occupation. Photos of U.S. troops humiliating and mistreating prisoners held in Abu Ghraib become some of the most defining images of a U.S. presence that fell far short of its promise be liberators for Iraqis living under Saddam Hussein’s regime. At its peak in 2007, there were roughly 50,000 Iraqi detainees—half of whom were held by American forces.
In 2015, the U.S. military acknowledged building a makeshift detention center for high-value ISIS detainees, but so far has only admitted to holding one such person: suspected ISIS chemical-weapons expert and Iraqi national Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, who was captured by U.S. special-forces commanders in February; U.S. officials did not acknowledge al-Afari’s capture until a month later.
Officials said then that al-Afari provided so much intelligence, it led to additional strikes on the terror group’s chemical-weapons facilities.
The best-known ISIS detainee was Umm Sayyaf, who was captured during a May 2015 raid that targeted her husband, Abu Sayyaf, a top-level ISIS operative who oversaw gas and oil operations. Umm Sayyaf was initially held by the U.S., but was handed over to Kurdish authorities in August. Like al-Afari, U.S. officials said she provided a tremendous amount of intelligence about internal ISIS operations and its detention of American citizen Kayla Mueller, who according to ISIS, died in February 2015.
Perhaps that’s one reason why ISIS has been so forceful in urging its fighters to not be captured. ISIS declared to its fighters that surrendering is a crime punishable by death. And there is evidence the terror group has followed through on that charge. Earlier this month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights received reports that ISIS killed 50 of its own militants at the Ghazlani military base in Mosul for “alleged desertion.”