According to a September 1, 2015, story in the Washington Post that should surprise no one with even a passing knowledge of U.S. counterterrorism efforts over the last fifteen years, it appears the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) are using unmanned aerial vehicles to target and kill Syrian-based leaders of the Islamic terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS, also known as ISIL and IS).
The story notes that the effort is being run separately from the conventional military’s larger campaign in Iraq and Syria, which also primarily involves airstrikes, and points out that the move represents an “escalation” of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) activities against ISIS.
This latter point is debatable, as one would assume the CTC has been in the ISIS-fighting game from the get-go, given the CTC’s core counterterrorism mission. More likely, the CTC has played a large part, and possibly even the lead role, from the start. They’ve no doubt been utilizing a stable of human assets to provide locational intelligence on ISIS leadership ever since the group came to prominence in recent years.
The article, by Greg Miller, goes on to point out that the new program of targeted strikes belies President Obama’s reported effort to move the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS) away from paramilitary-style operations, and back to more traditional human intelligence gathering. Baked into that flawed effort is the false assumption that these drone strikes can be carried out without exactly the kind of human intelligence that only the CIA collects as well as it does.
Miller also notes in the article that Syria remains a “denied area” for the CIA, stating that “it has no established presence in the country.” This author would refine that definition somewhat to more accurately describe the term “denied area” as simply meaning that the CIA must use extraordinary operational measures and tradecraft to ensure its presence in the country remains discreet. That is an important distinction, and one worth remembering when one is assessing the effectiveness of CIA human collection efforts across the globe.
Finally, it is also worth noting that the fight against ISIS is a bread-and-butter mission for the likes of CTC and JSOC, and this reportedly new campaign is nothing new in terms of what these agencies do. There may very well be refined tactics and procedures being put in place, streamlined command and control efforts used, and more seamless cooperation evident between various national security agencies, but these developments are the result of 15 years of war and counterterrorism operations as much as anything else.
The long war goes on.