The U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force operations to target, capture or kill top ISIS operatives have begun in Iraq, after several weeks of covert preparation, an administration official with direct knowledge of the force’s activities told CNN.
The official said the group has spent the last several weeks preparing, including setting up safe houses, establishing informant networks and coordinating operations with Iraqi and Peshmerga units. It’s the same strategy that Special Operations forces have used in previous deployments to combat zones.
Several Pentagon and military officials declined to discuss specifics of the so-called Expeditionary Targeting Force with CNN.
But Defense Secretary Ash Carter seemed to confirm in comments made at the Pentagon on Monday that the Special Operations forces had begun missions.
“The only thing I’ll say is the (Expeditionary Targeting Force) is in position, it is having an effect and operating, and I expect it to be a very effective part of our acceleration campaign,” he said during a press conference.
According to Carter, the force will conduct raids, seize places and people, and free ISIS-held hostages and prisoners.
Carter also told reporters that the force would cause ISIS “to fear that anywhere, anytime, it may be struck.”
A U.S. official told CNN that Carter’s statement reflects that Delta operations have begun.
CNN is not detailing any precise locations or operations. Based on several interviews with U.S. officials however, a growing role is rapidly emerging for Special Operations forces in Iraq and Syria.
CNN has learned that Delta Force plans to replicate the strategy that Special Operations forces used for years in Iraq and Afghanistan. The plan: Gather enough intelligence to stage raids on terror compounds and hideouts. Then from intelligence gathered at those sites, such as laptops and cellphones, forces will try to rapidly learn more about ISIS networks and quickly attack additional related targets.
It’s a strategy that worked in May 2015, when Delta raided a compound in Syria, killing ISIS operative Abu Sayyaf and capturing his wife.
U.S. military officials have said material gathered at the raid and the interrogation of his wife provided extensive intelligence of ISIS networks that has been used in subsequent missions.
The Abu Sayyaf raid is the only known ground combat operation inside Syria for U.S. forces outside of a failed hostage rescue attempt. All other operations to kill ISIS operatives have been conducted by overhead drones. Putting forces on the ground is seen as a way to go more directly after key individuals, although it poses the risk of any ground combat operation.
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