- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The recent killing of an Islamic State leader in Syria and the capture of another by American forces in Iraq mark the first steps forward in a long-discussed shift to defeat the extremist group: the targeting of specific terrorist leaders instead of exclusively striking assets and training local troops.
On Wednesday, Iraqi security officials identified a recently detained Islamic State leader as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, who was captured by the U.S. Army’s Delta Force in northern Iraq several weeks ago. He is currently being held in a temporary U.S. detention facility in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil and will eventually be turned over to Iraqi or Kurdish authorities.
Afari is a chemical weapons expert who once worked for Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is not known if he ran the Islamic State’s chemical warfare program.
The Islamic State has attacked Kurdish forces with chemical weapons repeatedly in recent months, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Last month, Clapper told a congressional panel that the Islamic State has “used toxic chemicals in Iraq and Syria, including the blister agent sulfur mustard.” He said it was the first time a terrorist group had used chemical weapons in an attack since the extremist Aum Shinrikyo group used sarin in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also has been accused of unleashing sarin against his people, including a deadly 2013 attack that brought a reluctant White House to the brink of launching massive airstrikes against the regime.)
Kurdish forces repeatedly have asked Washington for gas masks as protection from chemical-laced artillery shells fired at their troops. Several thousand have arrived.
It is unknown how long Afari will be held by U.S. forces. But broadly, Pentagon officials hope to glean intelligence from detainees to use in planning raids against the Islamic State’s secretive leadership structure. That is the same model once used by the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan, which tore through al Qaeda’s leadership hierarchy in a wave of night raids that scooped up high-level detainees.
The Delta Force team that captured Afari is part of an “expeditionary targeting force” of about 200 troops sent to Iraq late last year, tasked specifically with killing or capturing Islamic State leaders.
On Capitol Hill, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a Senate panel that he has “concerns about our broader strategy against ISIL” — but stopped short of recommending any changes to the current plan. ISIL, as well as ISIS, is another name for the Islamic State.
Votel’s comments came during his testimony Wednesday in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering his nomination to head U.S. Central Command. A day earlier, he told the same panel that the Pentagon has no real plan for holding terrorism suspects beyond the near future — even though there “is a requirement for long-term detention.”
As the incoming leader for the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, Votel will be in position to develop a long-term detention plan — despite years of White House reluctance.
Meanwhile, U.S. airstrikes are pounding some of the Islamic State’s key leaders.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon confirmed a March 4 strike in Syria killed Abu Omar al-Shishani — also known as Omar the Chechen. Shishani had been a major figure in the Islamic State’s military command and was often described as the group’s “minister of war.”
Shishani is believed to have died along with about 12 other militants in a series of U.S. airstrikes near the town of Shadadi, which was recently retaken by U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces. The Islamic State reportedly sent him to Shadadi to help stem battlefield losses and bolster fighters’ morale.
The killing of Shishani “is huge,” said New America Foundation research fellow Barak Barfi, who has interviewed numerous Islamic State defectors. “He has been made the public face of ISIS’s foreign fighters, and the foreign fighters really identified with him.”
While a respected military leader — as a onetime member of the Georgian army, he reportedly received some training from U.S. Special Forces — Shishani also displayed another trait so important to groups like the Islamic State: He had charisma and a connection with his troops, Barfi said, adding: “That’s an intangible that can’t be replaced.”
Photo credit: U.S. Army