U.S. Snags Key ISIS Leader as Fight for Mosul Gets Underway
American Special Forces are preparing the ground for Iraq’s campaign to retake key city from the Islamic State.
The capture of an Islamic State militant by commandos from the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force didn’t just take a wanted fighter off the battlefield. It also highlighted that the battle to reconquer the pivotal city of Mosul has already begun.
U.S. warplanes have been pounding Islamic State militants in and around the northern Iraqi city for months while Kurdish and Iraqi forces have sought to strangle key supply routes between Mosul and the group’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria.
The revelation Wednesday that U.S. commandos recently nabbed what the Pentagon described as a “mid-level” Islamic State operative reflects a strategic shift from what was strictly an air operation to one that includes ground combat forces, something President Barack Obama pledged not to do. The move will allow American ground forces to gather badly needed intelligence on the group in advance of the Mosul offensive. Reliable, detailed intelligence has often been lacking in the fight against the Islamic State, and commanders hope the raids by the commando force will paint a clearer picture of the militants’ networks and operations. The Pentagon refused to name the militant or provide more details about his role within the Islamic State.
The raid also adds to the growing pressure on the group across northern Iraq, as the Iraqi Army begins to move into place for its eventual assault on the country’s second-largest city, which has been held by the Islamic State for nearly two years.
U.S. airstrikes have hit Islamic State positions in and around the city more than 120 times over the past month, and Iraqi infantry units — along with their American military advisors — are setting up an operations center at a new staging base south of the city.
The raid by the U.S. Delta Force team was conducted about three weeks ago, a Defense official told Foreign Policy. Other details of the operation remained shrouded in secrecy, but officials suggested it was part of efforts to help prepare the battlefield for the coming offensive on Mosul.
The new efforts to target the city come a year after several military officials confidently told reporters that a force of about 25,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops would retake the city by the spring of 2015. Within days, Defense Secretary Ash Carter angrily walked that plan back, signaling that Washington and Baghdad were content to play a longer game, as the Islamic State at the time was still eating up territory across Syria and Iraq and the Iraqi Army had largely collapsed.
Since then, the group’s advances have been largely reversed in Iraq, with it losing the cities of Ramadi, Tikrit, and Baiji after an intense Iraqi ground assault backed up by American air power. The Islamic State’s supply lines between Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, which serves as its de facto capital, have also been cut.
At the same time, President Barack Obama has deployed about 4,000 U.S. troops to Iraq — including the 200 commandos — who have retrained about 16,000 Iraqi troops and 4,000 Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Several American military officials have said that the Iraqi Army will likely need to deploy between eight and 12 brigades to wrest the city from the grip of the Islamic State, a number which is generally in line with the previous troop estimate of 25,000.
The first glimpses of an actual battle plan for Mosul are also taking shape. The commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, is reviewing the Iraqi plan of attack and offering his own recommendations, defense officials have said. And late last month, Maj. Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of the effort to train Iraqi forces, outlined two ways the country’s ground forces might move on the city.
One option would be for Iraqi forces to move north from their current positions near Baiji, which would require them to move up Highway 1 and fight through Islamic State-held territory along the Tigris River. The second option would be to “go completely [through] the Kurdistan region,” Clarke said, which would require Baghdad to reach political accommodation with the Kurdistan Regional Government. “We are making plans for Mosul,” Clarke said. “We’re doing that each and every day.”
U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder told reporters Wednesday that there have already been discussions between the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and Kurdish leaders that have allowed Iraqi forces to stage troops at a base near the Islamic State-held town of Makhmour, about 70 miles southeast of Mosul.
“Makhmour is a good example of where the coalition is working with the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces to put pressure on” the Islamic State, Ryder said. A small contingent of American military trainers are already in place at the base, which is expected to eventually house thousands of Iraqi troops.
A city of more than 1 million residents, Mosul is a challenge unlike any that Iraqi forces have faced, however. With a multiethnic population dominated by Sunni Arabs and Kurds, the city is also about three times the size of Ramadi, which was cleared after a weekslong assault by the Iraqi Army’s elite counterterrorism forces left much of the city in ruins. Mosul has also been under Islamic State control for almost two years, as opposed to Ramadi, which fell to a handful of Islamic State fighters in May 2015 and was cleared of the militants by January. That means the Islamic State has had a large amount of time to harden its defenses on the approaches into the city.
Washington is looking for more international help in the fight against the Islamic State, as well. Obama’s special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, Brett McGurk, arrived in Baghdad Wednesday to meet with Iraqi government and military officials, along with American officers in the country. Over the weekend, he’ll meet up with Vice President Joe Biden in the United Arab Emirates to encourage the Emiratis to step up their efforts in the fight.
Top Pentagon officials have also expressed their eagerness to take on a larger role in the fight for Mosul than Baghdad allowed in Ramadi. “We fully expect to be doing more [in Mosul],” Defense Secretary Carter said Monday. Carter’s offer of U.S.-piloted Apache helicopters and American military advisors for Iraqi ground units fighting in Ramadi was rejected by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in December, who faced opposition from Iranian-backed Shiite elements in his government.
Appearing alongside Carter during Monday’s press conference, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said if American officials had their way, U.S. forces “would do more in Mosul than Ramadi, just because of the order of magnitude of the operation” in the city.
First, though, Washington and its allies will continue trying to collect intelligence from the militant recently nabbed by U.S. special operations forces, as well as others arrested on the battlefield.
The Islamic State operative is being held in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region. After being questioned by U.S. personnel, the militant will likely be turned over to Iraqi or Kurdish authorities within days. The defense official said that one of the goals of the 200 Delta Force operators now in Iraq is “to capture ISIL leaders. Any detention would be short-term and coordinated with Iraqi authorities.”
The capture, however, raises serious questions about how Washington will detain and interrogate enemy combatants plucked from the battlefield. As several former military and intelligence officials told FP earlier this year, the best way to get information from detainees is to hold and interrogate them for months on end, something that may not be possible under existing arrangements with the Iraqi government.
If U.S. forces hand over the captured militant to Baghdad, Iranian intelligence officials will almost certainly get access to the detainee, given Tehran’s ties to the Iraqi government, said Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst who worked in Iraq.
Peritz also said that even if numerous senior leaders are rolled up by U.S. commandos, it will be up to the Iraqi Army to take advantage of whatever information has been collected in their assault on the city. “There are limits to what intelligence can do. You still need a ground force to take this massive urban area,” he said.
The latest raid follows a similar operation in May 2015, when a Delta Force team killed an Islamic State leader named Abu Sayyaf at his compound in Syria, capturing his wife, Umm Sayyaf. After she was held by U.S. forces and questioned for several weeks, she was handed over to the Kurdish government for detention. The operation produced a vast amount of intelligence for U.S. forces, eventually leading to weeks of airstrikes on Islamic State oil facilities in eastern Syria last summer.
But last month, the Justice Department filed charges against Umm Sayyaf, saying that she was part of a conspiracy that resulted in the death of Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker kidnapped by the Islamic State in Syria and who died in captivity in 2015. The Islamic State claims she was killed in a coalition air raid, but the cause of Mueller’s death remains unclear.
Since the end of the eight-year U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2011, the United States has stopped operating prisons in Iraq to house captured extremists. U.S. officials have said Iraqi authorities will oversee the detention of militants but have left open the possibility that some senior figures could be tried in a U.S. federal court.
Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce