How close is US government to order drone strikes in Syria against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria?

1 – “You should kill these people. We’ll do it if you don’t” – December 2012

Five months before the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in December 2012, US intelligence officers were openly discussing drone strikes against Jabhat al Nusra with Syrian rebel commanders during meetings in Jordan (excerpts from The National, May 9, 2013). JAN was then the only al Qaeda-affiliate Syrian group. The Americans began discussing the possibility of drone strikes on Al Nusra camps inside Syria and tried to enlist the rebels to fight their fellow insurgents. “The US intelligence officer said, ‘We can train 30 of your fighters a month, and we want you to fight Al Nusra’,” the rebel commander recalled.

Opposition forces should be uniting against Mr Al Assad’s more powerful and better-equipped army, not waging war among themselves, the rebel commander replied. The response from a senior US intelligence officer was blunt. “I’m not going to lie to you. We’d prefer you fight Al Nusra now, and then fight Assad’s army. You should kill these Nusra people. We’ll do it if you don’t,” the rebel leader quoted the officer as saying.

Other meetings with Western and Arab intelligence services have shown a similar obsession with Al Nusra, the commander said.

“All anyone wants is hard information about Al Nusra, it seems to be all they are really interested in. It’s the most valuable commodity you can have when dealing with these intelligence agencies,” he said.

 

2- A new Cia unit to target Al Qaeda operatives in Syria and Iraq – March 2013

In March 2013, the Los Angeles Times (March 15, 2013) reported that Cia was collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, President Obama has not authorized drone missile strikes in Syria, however, and none are under consideration. The Counterterrorism Center, which runs the CIA’s covert drone killing program in Pakistan and Yemen, recently shifted several targeting officers to improve intelligence collection on militants in Syria who could pose a terrorist threat, the officials said.

 

The targeting officers have formed a unit with colleagues who were tracking Al Qaeda operatives and fighters in Iraq. U.S. officials believe that some of these operatives have moved to Syria and joined Islamic militias battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

The targeting officers focusing on Syria are based at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., officials said. The agency has not deployed many American operatives into the war zone, but it works closely with Saudi, Jordanian and other regional spy services active there. CIA officers meet with Syrian rebel leaders in Turkey and Jordan, current and former officials say.

The increased U.S. effort comes as radicalized Islamic fighters have won a growing share of rebel victories. The State Department says one of the strongest militias, Al Nusra Front, is a terrorist organization that is indistinguishable from the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

CIA targeting officers normally assemble bits of intelligence — including agent reports, cellphone intercepts, video footage, public records, tips from foreign spy services — to create folders known as “targeting packages,” for a variety of reasons.

They can be used if policymakers determine further surveillance, arrest or other action is warranted. The CIA has created nonlethal targeting packages, for example, for drug cartel leaders in Mexico and nuclear scientists in Iran. The agency views skilled targeting officers as critical to almost any current intelligence operation.

 

3 – Iraq asks for American drone strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on the border – April 2013

 In April 2013, Associated Press (April 2, 2013) reports that Iraqi Army also is requesting American drone strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

Two Iraqi intelligence officials said the cooperation [between Syrian and Iraqi jihadi groups] reflected in the attack on the wounded Syrian troops prompted their government to request U.S. drone strikes against the fighters. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to talk to reporters about the subject.

A U.S. official confirmed that elements within the Iraqi government had inquired about drone strikes. But the official said the U.S. was waiting to respond until the top level of Iraqi leadership makes a formal request, which has not happened yet.

The two Iraqi intelligence officials said the jihadi groups are sharing three military training compounds, logistics, intelligence and weapons as they grow in strength around the Syria-Iraq border, particularly in a sprawling region called al-Jazeera, which they are trying to turn into a border sanctuary they can both exploit. It could serve as a base of operations to strike either side of the border.

 4 – “US government ready to confront Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” – August 2013

After a day of coordinated attacks in Iraq, US State Department notes that the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is now based in Syria and that the United States is prepared to work closely with the Iraqi Government to confront soon the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist groups.

From this US State Department Press statement (August 10, 2013)

Most of these attacks have been perpetrated by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224. He is also listed at the United Nations Security Council 1267/1989 al-Qa’ida Sanctions Committee.

 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu D’ua, is now based in Syria and has changed the name of AQI to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). He has taken personal credit for a series of terrorist attacks in Iraq since 2011, and most recently claimed credit for the operations against the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, the suicide bombing assault on the Ministry of Justice, among other attacks against Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi citizens going about their daily lives.

The United States has offered a $10 million reward for information that helps authorities kill or capture Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This reward is second only to information leading to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the chief of Al Qaeda’s network, and symbolizes our ongoing commitment to helping our partners in the region eliminate this threat from their territory.

In this regard, the United States is prepared to work closely with the Iraqi Government to confront the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist groups. We look forward to discussing bilateral cooperation in this and other areas, pursuant to the Strategic Framework Agreement between our two countries, during the upcoming visit of Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari next week in Washington.

 5 – Islamic State in Iraq and Syria “is the greatest threat to US national security” – August 2013

In August (excerpts from the Wall Street Journal: August 6, 2013) the Central Intelligence Agency’s second-in-command warned that Syria’s volatile mix of al Qaeda extremism and civil war now poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security.

Michael Morell says the risk is that the Syrian government, which possesses chemical and other advanced weapons, collapses and the country becomes al Qaeda’s new haven, supplanting Pakistan.

Supplanting Pakistan, huh? The US government has made hundreds of attacks on targets in northwest Pakistan since 2004, using drones controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency. But now Al Qaeda in Syria (number 1 on the list) is most dangerous than the global Al Qaeda leadership based in Pakistan (numer 3 on the list), says the Cia Second in Command (he left the job last week, after 30 years):

Mr. Morell detailed his strategic assessment of Syria and al Qaeda in an outline of the top threats facing the U.S. in an interview in his office at Langley as he prepares to end his 33-year tenure at the agency on Friday. Second on his list was Iran, followed by the global al Qaeda threat, North Korea, and cyberwarfare.

 And this is a remarkable passage from the New York Times (August 8, 2013): The stakes are high. American intelligence officials said this week that Ayman al-Zawahri, the overall leader of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, has had regular communications with the Nusra Front in Syria, reflecting how favorably the Qaeda leadership views the long-term potential for Syria as a safe haven.

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