US escalates ISIS strikes, key operative captured
BEIRUT - US President Barack Obama has unleashed the American military’s special operations forces against the Islamic State (ISIS) to an unprecedented degree, sending the famed “snake eaters” into the dark side, their natural habitat, to kill or capture the caliphate’s leaders and gather high-grade intelligence in the way that US forces crushed the group’s predecessor in Iraq a decade ago.
On March 2nd, the Pentagon announced the first-known success of the new aggressive strategy initiated in December 2015: the capture of a “significant operative” of ISIS’s recently launched programme to develop chemical weapons.
A week later, Iraqi officials identified him as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, who allegedly had been involved with Saddam Hussein’s Military Industrialisation Authority and specialised in chemical and biological weapons used against Kurdish secessionists in the 1980s, killing many thousands.
He is believed to be the first ISIS commander captured alive in Iraq. US officials have suggested that Afari was one of scores of Saddam’s former Ba’athist military and intelligence officers who played a key role in establishing ISIS.
Afari was captured sometime in February near the town of Tal Afar in northern Iraq by the US Army’s elite Delta Force, which comprises the majority of the Expeditionary Targeting Force (ETF) deployed in Iraq in December to wage a covert war against the ISIS leadership.
This 200-man contingent is the first major US combat group to return to Iraq since the US withdrawal in December 2011. Their deployment highlights Washington’s new focus on taking the war to ISIS, spearheaded by special operations forces, who became known as “snake eaters” for their long missions in the jungles of Vietnam.
The raid in which Afari was nabbed appears to have been modelled on a similar operation on May 15, 2015, in which Delta Force troops flew into eastern Syria from Iraq to seize ISIS financial guru Abu Sayyaf.
He was killed when he fired on the raiders, but they seized his wife along with computer data, which provided a treasure trove of intelligence that led to a fusillade of air strikes on ISIS oil facilities that badly dented the group’s financial operations.
The capture of Afari will likely yield much-needed intelligence as US-backed Iraqi forces prepare for a major assault on the main northern city of Mosul, captured by ISIS in June 2014 and a stronghold of its self-proclaimed caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq. Its fall would be a critical blow to the jihadists.
Meantime, the air strikes go on, using intelligence extracted from captured leaders. On March 4th, one strike pounded an ISIS base near the town of Shaddadi in northern Syria to target one of ISIS’s most iconic leaders, a Georgian known as Omar al-Shishani, or Omar the Chechen, identified by US officials as the ISIS “minister of war” with a $50 million US bounty on his head.
Underlining Shishani’s importance in the jihadist hierarchy, he had reportedly been dispatched to Shaddadi, seized by ISIS in June 2015 but retaken by Kurdish and Arab forces, by the ISIS leadership to rally the Islamist fighters’ morale and block rebel advances.
US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria reported they had information that Shishani, real name Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili and known for his distinctive flowing red beard, had been killed. Activists reported on March 10th that the veteran of the 1990s Chechen wars against Russia had been seriously wounded. Later reports said he was “clinically dead”.
Air strikes have degraded ISIS since they were launched in August 2014, but they have not brought it to its knees. Now Obama is stepping up the war by going after ISIS’s secretive leadership on the ground, a campaign likely to be extended to Libya, where ISIS seeks to build a citadel in oil-rich North Africa.
Beyond announcing the ETF’s deployment, complete with assault force, aviation wing and intelligence cell, Washington has said little about the task force. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter avowed it would be a key element in accelerating US operations against ISIS and would be used “to conduct raids of various kinds seizing places and people, freeing hostages and prisoners… and making it such that ISIS has to fear that anywhere, any time, it may be struck”.
This strategy has its roots in the model developed by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq by constant raids on the command element of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS’s predecessor, using intelligence gathered one night to mount kill-or-capture operations the following night and build up a withering momentum.
This unremitting pressure decimated much of the jihadists’ organisation and led to the elimination of AQI’s notoriously bloodthirsty leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of Jordan, in a June 2006 air strike and his two immediate successors over the following weeks.
The tempo of JSOC operations may well intensify. General Joseph Votel, who currently heads the greatly expanded US Special Operations Command, is Obama’s choice to be the next head of the Central Command, which runs US operations in the Middle East. He advocates a more aggressive fight against ISIS and is expected to give his “snake eaters” as much work as they can handle.