March 4, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Kill or Capture and the Islamic State

• In what will become a more common occurrence, the U.S. military recently announced it had captured a mid-level official of the Islamic State in Iraq 

• Interrogations of detained Islamic State members will focus not just on obtaining immediate threat and tactical information, but also any intelligence regarding external threats to the West and elsewhere

• The current situation in Iraq is fundamentally different from the problematic and overwhelmed detainee system during the height of the U.S. War in Iraq

• U.S. teams will be conducting focused raids on persons of high value, with no interest in mass or lengthy detentions.


In a grim instance of history repeating itself, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Iraq are once again conducting raids and detaining suspected high-value targets against the group founded by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. On March 1, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that elements of the SOF teams in Iraq had, in recent weeks, detained a ‘mid-level’ member of the so-called Islamic State and would be interrogating him for weeks or possibly months before turning him over to either Iraqi or Kurdish authorities.

Concerns that the resumption of SOF raids and the resulting increase in detainees could give rise to problems along the lines of Abu Ghraib or Camp Bucca at the height of the U.S. War in Iraq are understandable yet unwarranted. There is no comparison between the U.S. occupation and Iraq's current situation, both in terms of raw numbers as well as in stated mission. The U.S. will not be establishing its own prison system in Iraq, nor will it be detaining massive numbers of people. 

Rather, the capture of ‘significant’ members of the Islamic State provides the coalition with badly needed insight into not just the internal operations of the group, but also any details regarding external threats or plots. These details cannot be obtained by airstrikes, but only through minutely planned raids, effective and rapid sensitive site exploitation (SSE), and lawful interrogation techniques. The SOF teams now operating in Iraq are highly trained in all three aspects, and serve as a force multiplier for local liaison forces.

Successful raids tend to lead to more raids, as SSE from one provides intelligence on another branch of the network. The concern for some is that a dramatic increase in the number of detainees will result in a de facto U.S. detention system, even if unintended. Even with an increase, the number of raids and detainees in this current fight against the Islamic State will come nowhere close to the level during the last fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq. The ability to hand over detainees to local officials is paramount to keeping numbers in check, as is a narrow focus on targets of serious value.

U.S. operations in Syria will also likely see an increase in ‘kill/capture’ raids designed for intelligence purposes. The environment in Syria is dramatically different and more complicated than that in Iraq, but the potential value of intelligence gathered in Raqqa likely outweighs that gathered in Mosul when it comes to external threats. Insight into the group’s external intentions and capabilities is of paramount importance. The attacks in Paris and the large numbers of arrests across Europe demonstrates the Islamic State's ability to move trained individuals into position undetected. 

As the Islamic State’s fortunes look increasingly grim in Mosul and Raqqa, its external threat capabilities will assume a higher profile. Capturing and interrogating Islamic State members with possible information on the group’s external capabilities will be a focus of SOF raids. Coalition air power and improving local forces have diminished the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but dismantling its external networks will require intelligence obtained from high-risk, high-reward raids. Skilled interrogation can yield information that no airstrike ever could, and the combination of both will be applied with more frequency in coming months.


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