U.S. Intel to Obama: ISIS Is Not Contained

A new report is a stark contrast to earlier White House assurances that ISIS had been ‘contained.’ And it’s spurring changes in how the U.S. grapples with ISIS.


Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

A new U.S. intelligence report on ISIS, commissioned by the White House, predicts that the self-proclaimed Islamic State will spread worldwide and grow in numbers, unless it suffers a significant loss of territory on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials told The Daily Beast.

The report stands in stark contrast to earlier White House assurances that ISIS had been “contained” in Iraq and Syria. And it is already spurring changes in how the U.S. grapples with ISIS, these officials said.

It’s also a tacit admission that coalition efforts so far—dropping thousands of bombs and deploying 3,500 U.S. troops as well as other coalition trainers—have been outpaced by ISIS’s ability to expand and attract new followers, even as the yearlong coalition air campaign has helped local forces drive ISIS out of parts of Iraq and Syria.

The White House commissioned the intelligence report prior to last month’s deadly strikes in Paris, and long before last week’s terror attacks in San Bernardino, California, three senior U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to describe a confidential document and policy changes. It was also commissioned before President Barack Obama declared ISIS “contained” in Iraq and Syria—just a day before the Paris attacks—but it was delivered to the White House in the weeks afterward.

After reviewing its grim conclusions, Obama asked Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford to come up with new options to beat the group back.

The counterterrorism campaign is being stepped up—using the same arsenal of drones, special forces raids, and local proxies previously employed in the global war on al Qaeda. A special operations targeting cell, announced by Carter last week, is one of the recommendations. The roughly 200-strong team will conduct raiding operations in Iraq and Syria, coordinating strikes through a 50-man team that will work inside northern Syria with a band of U.S.-supported guerrillas known as the Syrian Arab Coalition.

Defense chiefs have also tasked the military’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to host an interagency think tank of military, diplomatic, and intelligence representatives to come up with other options, The Daily Beast has learned.

President Obama addressed the nation about the threat of terrorism in a rare Oval Office address Sunday night and made brief mention of the stepped-up campaign but no new announcements to expand it.

“In Iraq and Syria, airstrikes are taking out ISIL leaders... In both countries, we’re deploying special operations forces who can accelerate that offensive,” Obama said. “We’ve stepped up our effort since the attacks in Paris.”

The roughly eight-page intelligence report that drove the policy changes was compiled by a team of analysts from the CIA, DIA, NSA, and other agencies, all reporting to the director for national intelligence.

“This intel report didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know,” said one official. “It was lots of great charts showing countries highlighted across the globe, with some groups having pledged allegiance to ISIS and others leaning towards it.”

It described how the terrorist group with aspirations of founding an extremist Islamic caliphate already has a network of groups that have pledged allegiance or are vying for membership in a dozen countries.

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The DNI confirmed it had produced the intelligence report, but offered no comment.

The White House and Pentagon would not comment on the intelligence report nor confirm the request to U.S. Special Operations Command to host intergovernmental discussions on the problem. But they did point out that SOCOM already has the job of tracking and planning the military’s response to counterterrorism threats.

“SOCOM plays an important role in the critical analysis of trans-regional threats, providing assessments that look across the seams between geographic commands, and helping the department to synchronize military efforts with all elements of national power,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis Saturday.

The State Department will continue to lead the overall ISIS campaign, with U.S. Central Command directing the campaign in Iraq and Syria, two U.S. officials said, saying that SOCOM was in no way being asked to take over the campaign.

But three U.S. officials insisted SOCOM has been asked to present further options that will employ other skills unique to the more than 60,000 operators led by Gen. Joseph Votel, who once commanded the counterterrorism-focused Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC, which consists of elite units like the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known colloquially as SEAL Team Six.

Far beyond raids and hostage rescues, special operators like Green Berets specialize in training, advising and assisting local forces, and conducting psychological operations to combat ISIS’s social media siren song that has lured so many young recruits to its fight—still drawing 1,000 fighters a month to Iraq and Syria.

Secretary of Defense Carter is so eager to use some of the nascent plans they have already come up with that he announced them publicly before military planners had worked out some of the logistical or legal kinks.

Carter surprised his own defense chiefs when he told Congress last week that he would be deploying the new Iraq-based special operations “expeditionary targeting force.” While many of the operators are already in Iraq, ready to participate in one-off raids like the one that killed ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf, the rules governing how they will operate haven’t quite been worked out, one of the senior U.S. officials said.

Those forces and the 50 operators who will work inside Syria are led by the Joint Special Operations Command, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operations publicly.

Carter said they’ll only raid inside Iraq with the Baghdad government’s consent, and always together with Iraqi forces. But the Pentagon hasn’t figured out what it would do if it starts regularly capturing ISIS leaders in raids inside Syria—with options ranging from handing them over to the Iraqi government for questioning or flying them to a U.S. ship and prosecuting them as has been done with al Qaeda suspects grabbed in Libya and Somalia.

“With respects to the expeditionary targeting force and capture, we will deal with that on a case-by-case basis. It’s gonna depend on the circumstances,” Carter said Thursday in a Pentagon press briefing.

The 50 special operations “advisers” inside Syria, who are expected to arrive this month, will be helping with synchronizing and coordinating airstrikes and rebel ground offensives, two senior military officials say.

“It’s having conversations in person that have been hard to have by text message, the way they are doing it now,” one of the officials said.

“Things like, ‘Hey, that target you helped us hit yesterday, next time let us know if there are civilians in the area,’” he said.

All the officials interviewed said stepped-up raids and strikes won’t solve the problem, but may damage ISIS enough to make the group less popular and buy time for other necessary steps like the political deal-making underway to try to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

U.S. officials are also in discussions with close allies like Britain, France, and others to ask them to step up their counterterrorist missions in places like Libya, where ISIS is growing but the White House is unwilling to send troops after the attacks that killed the ambassador and three more Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

“It’s clear that we have to intensify global efforts,” said one Western official who spoke anonymously in order to describe sensitive diplomatic discussions to weave a global network for counter-ISIS forces. “As long as they have territory, they can push their narrative of having a caliphate.”

After publication of The Daily Beast story Sunday, House Intelligence Committee senior member Rep. Mike Turner, (R-Ohio), sent a letter to President Obama, complaining that White House was ignoring similar grim intelligence reports sent to Congress.

“Your statements on containment, and the diminishing threat posed by ISIL continue to conflict with assessments provided to Congress,” Turner wrote in a letter obtained by The Daily Beast. “If you have received any intelligence supporting your claims, I urge you to share that information with the appropriate Congressional committees.”