Of the roughly 200 additional special operations troops the Obama administration is injecting into the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a small, “double-digit number” of elite forces have an expanded mission: capture, rather than kill, the terror group’s leaders.
But Pentagon and White House officials have yet to hammer out where, why, and for how long the U.S. military will hold any future prisoners of the war on terrorism.
“That’s too far out,” said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman in Baghdad for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. and coalition operation against ISIS, on Wednesday. “Let’s let these guys get on the ground and conduct an operation or two first. Those policy-level questions, as far as I know, they’re still being sorted out out in Washington right now.”
The Pentagon will determine what to do with new prisoners on a “case by case,” basis, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at Wednesday’s press conference.
“As it relates to individuals that are detained in the course of these operations, you know, the Department of Defense will have to make a determination,” Earnest said. “We’ll obviously be working closely with the Iraqi government for these raids that are conducted in Iraq. The situation in Syria is obviously more complicated… It’s hard to answer hypotheticals about it now, but ultimately, we’re cognizant of the need to—that at some point, these kinds of questions will have to be answered.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the additional special operators deploying to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria were a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. They will free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIS leaders, he said.
U.S. officials say capturing a target often is preferable to killing because of potential intelligence to be gained, but counterterrorism operations under the Obama administration largely have consisted of the latter. In the 16-month-old fight against the Islamic State group, the administration publicly has touted killing only a handful of leaders, usually with airstrikes that keep U.S. combat boots off the ground. Carter’s announcement this week puts any euphemisms to rest.
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“A raid is a combat operation. There is no way around that. So, yeah, more Americans will be coming here to Iraq, and some of them will be conducting raids inside of both Iraq and Syria,” said Warren, who last month was among the first U.S. officials to publicly call American operations in Iraq “combat.”
“But this is not, you know, a major ground combat operation. I mean, we’re talking, you know, a double-digit number of personnel inside Iraq conducting very precise, very surgical—and by the way, very limited—operations against exceptionally well-planned and very well-targeted objectives.”
Earnest suggested capture raids are not a change in strategy because U.S. forces have been conducting unilateral operations for some time. But the example that both he and Warren pointed to as precedent is the only publicly acknowledged offensive raid into Syria by U.S. military forces in the war against ISIS. In May, U.S. special operations forces entered Syria to capture a man known as Abu Sayyaf, whom Pentagon officials said helped direct ISIS’s financial operations. Instead, operators killed Sayyaf in a firefight and captured his wife, Nasrin As’ad Ibrahim, an Iraqi woman referred to as Umm Sayyaf. Ibrahim, the first known detainee in the war against ISIS, was held for months by the U.S. military in the Kurdish capital of Irbil, Iraq, before she was handed over to the Kurdish regional government.
Earnest echoed Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford’s Tuesday testimony, emphasizing the importance of intelligence gathering in the new group’s mission, noting the information gleaned in the Sayyaf raid has been referred to as a “treasure trove.” A Defense Department official commented of the Yazidi woman captured with Ibrahim, “She was a freakin’ goldmine.”
“Their ability to go and scoop up paperwork and hard-drives and other information that can be critical to our ongoing efforts is a central part of this strategy,” Earnest said.
The administration explained the decision to ultimately hand over Ibrahim as due in part to logistical considerations of her prosecution, but it was also in deference to Baghdad. Iraqi authorities opposed U.S. prosecution because Ibrahim is an Iraqi citizen and Iraq’s constitution bans handing citizens to other countries’ authorities. But many of the ISIS leaders the group would capture in Syria are not Iraqi, a key difference.
For operations conducted in Syria, Warren acknowledged the process would likely unfold like the Sayyaf raid: stage outside Syria, enter, conduct the operation, exit Syria, likely back to Iraq with the detainee in tow, and “then able to work with the Iraqi authorities to conduct detention and follow-on operations.”
The senior defense official said the question must be answered soon, because “we’re not equipped to do detention ops on our own.”
“If they’re going to try and capture somebody in Syria they’re going to have to have a plan for detention,” the official said. “There is no element of this thing to do that beyond short-term, a couple of people.” As for the size of the potential detention operation, the official continued, “I don’t know what we’re anticipating yet, but we want to have the all capability we need in theater.”
But where? The White House has pointed to other cases of terrorism suspects being captured abroad, transferred to U.S. authority, interrogated by American officials, and then brought to U.S. soil for charges, conviction, and imprisonment, as a potential model.
The Justice Department had begun to build a case against Ibrahim, who was interrogated by the High Value Interrogation Group, or HIG, a special team of officials from the FBI, CIA and Pentagon, before being released. The HIG was created by the Obama administration to put U.S. interrogation on better footing after the torture scandals of the Bush administration and to more effectively create federal terrorism cases. The HIG will interrogate a detainee for intelligence value, but only information gleaned after a detainee has been given access to a lawyer can be used to build a court case.
On Wednesday Earnest said he wouldn’t rule U.S. prosecution out for the new group of detainees under the expeditionary force.
“In some cases, these expeditionary operations will be carried out against individuals that do pose a specific threat to the United States or our allies or our interests, and that could open them up to being part of the criminal justice system here. So I certainly wouldn’t rule that out,” he said. “But again, it’s hard to talk about these sort of in the abstract.”
The president must provide clarity soon under the defense policy bill he signed last Wednesday. It gives Obama 90 days to submit a “comprehensive detention strategy” for current and future detainees held under the authorization for the use of military force “pending the end of hostilities.”
Earnest emphasized Wednesday the U.S. would not add detainees to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.