The Pentagon Never Really Stopped Hunting Terrorists in Iraq
Satellites and other sources identified dozens of possible militants ... in 2013
Late on Nov. 12, the Pentagon announced that it had used a drone to try and kill Mohammed “Jihadhi John” Emwazi in the Syrian city of Raqqa. American officials could not confirm whether or not the strike killed the British member of Islamic State.
“We are assessing the results of tonight’s operation and will provide additional information as and where appropriate,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
One of a group of Britons fighting for the Sunni extremist group known as “The Beatles,” Emwazi beheaded American journalist James Foley in August 2014. American officials believe the crew are responsible for the deaths of five more foreign reporters and aid workers.
If proven to have been successful, the attack on Emwazi will become the latest in an increasing number of targeted killings of Islamic State members. While the Pentagon has tried to shy away from body counts, the practice of going after individual fighters has become the norm in the absence of more traditional military targets like tanks and aircraft.
While most sources indicate Emwazi is dead, this new attack continues to highlight just how difficult it is to be sure the right “high-value individual” is on the receiving end of these strikes. While the strike occurred in Syria, the Pentagon actually had a head start in hunting for members of the terror group’s Iraqi iteration.
The official 2013 historical review of the Air Force’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency – a.k.a. AFISRA – shows the flying branch was actively snooping on the Middle Eastern country. War Is Boring obtained a heavily redacted copy of this history through the Freedom of Information Act.
The intelligence gathering scooped up nearly 13 hours of video footage and 10 hours of radio chatter or phone calls, according to the annual summary. In total, the flying branch’s spies “identified 152 possible targets.”
“National Technical Means” – a euphemism for spy satellites – listened in on at least some of the communications. In June 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported unspecified drones had been flying secret missions over Iraq the year before, as well.
It’s possible the drones were MQ-1 Predators with powerful video cameras. Starting in 2007, the Air Force’s Predators had been keeping tabs on the Kurdish Workers’ Party – more commonly known by its acronym PKK – in northern Iraq from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Both Washington and Istanbul had designated the Marxist rebel group as a terrorist organization.
Able to take high resolution pictures, higher flying RQ-4 Global Hawks would have had the range to reach the region from the Pentagon’s constellation of bases in the Arabian Peninsula. Those same air fields regularly host other spy planes such as the U-2 Dragon Lady and the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint.
Derived from the Boeing 707 airliner, the four engine Rivet Joints have gear to listen in on enemy transmissions. The venerable U-2s can be fitted with either wide-angle still picture cameras or electronic listening systems.
Regardless of the particular aircraft, their missions would have started and ended outside of Iraq. Two years earlier, the Pentagon had officially ended American combat missions in the country. Of course, in December 2013, U.S. Army soldiers were still packing up gear and shutting down bases.
But insurgents hadn’t stopped fighting. In 2006, Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq created an umbrella organization with a number of smaller Sunni extremist groups dubbed the Islamic State of Iraq. Despite being roughed up by the American-led coalition over the next five years, Islamic State had bolstered its numbers by reaching out to disaffected Ba’athists who had served Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
On April 8, 2013, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi announced that the group had joined forces with Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise Al Nusra to form a new organization that stretched from Syria to Iraq. Baghdadi’s unilateral move angered Al Qaeda’s top leader Ayman Al Zawahiri, who Washington believes is hiding in Pakistan.
Despite attempts to solve the impasse, Al Zawahiri demanded Baghdadi dissolve his group, which changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi and his allies refused to bow to these demands.
With much of this power struggle playing out in public, Washington’s spies and analysts would have been keen to map out the group’s leadership. Iraqi authorities had signed off on the Air Force’s spy missions and the Pentagon shared the intelligence with their counterparts in Baghdad, the Wall Street Journal explained, citing unnamed American officials.
Unfortunately, the unredacted portions of the AFISRA history doesn’t elaborate on what groups were under surveillance or who any of the targets might have been. It’s entirely possible it wasn’t clear.
With various factions pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda or Islamic State, who was fighting for who – or against who – was no doubt fluid at the time. “It’s not like it did any good,” an anonymous source told the Journal.
After striking out on its own, within a year, the Islamist fighters had seized control of significant portions of both countries, routed Baghdad’s forces and shocked the world, publicly torturing and beheading surrendered soldiers and civilians alike. In August 2014, American jets began bombing Islamic State in Iraq.
The next month, the aerial bombardment spread to Syria. Since then, the Pentagon has lauded its efforts to go after specific members of Islamic State and other terrorist groups in the region.
“Strikes have killed approximately 70 senior and mid-level leaders since the beginning of May,” Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesmen for the American task force leading the fight, told reporters at the Pentagon during a teleconference on Oct. 13. “That equates to one … killed every two days.”
It’s entirely possible that American pilots have gone after the terrorists the Air Force was hunting two years earlier. But if the drone attack on Jihadi John is any indication, the Pentagon might still not know for sure whether they’ve actually gotten them or not.