Secret US drone operation stalking ISIS in Syria – report

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator © Effrain Lopez
In order to track and lethally target high-level members of the Islamic State in Syria, the US has initiated a secret drone operation that involves the CIA and American Special Forces, the Washington Post reported.

Additionally, the campaign is being run separately from America’s overall mission against the terrorist group, with the newspaper citing increasing concern over the fact that some 2,500 airstrikes have been unable to significantly pushback the militant organization.

Already, the mission has conducted several recent strikes, according to the newspaper, which cited unnamed officials as its source. The most recent strike involved the targeted killing of a British-born, 21-year-old hacker named Junaid Hussain, who was believed to have been leading the Islamic State’s cyber division.

In reference to Hussain, a US official told the Post that “these people are being identified and targeted through a separate effort.”

That effort is apparently the product of a collaboration between the CIA and the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which houses elite military units such as the one that ultimately killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

Unlike in Pakistan and Yemen, where the CIA conducts drone strikes on its own, the agency is not actually carrying out the attacks in Syria. That responsibility falls to JSOC, while the CIA has taken on the challenge of finding and locating specific “high value targets.”

Though Hussain himself was not believed to have been directly part of any violent attack, the Post stated that "even militants only involved in the Islamic State’s media efforts are regarded as legitimate US military targets."

The National Security Agency has also begun participating in the battle against the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL), the Post stated, specifying that it “has been tasked with penetrating the communications networks” of the group.

According to the newspaper, getting the CIA involved in the drone campaign, even if the agency is not directly conducting the airstrikes, will make it harder for President Barack Obama to transfer drone operations out of their capacity. In the past, reports have suggested that Obama wanted to put the Pentagon in charge of the agency’s drone program, but opposition in Congress has continuously stalled that agenda. Lawmakers have specifically inserted language into legislation stating that funds cannot be used to take control of the program away from the CIA.

If true, the CIA’s participation represents another sign of an increasing American presence in Syria. In May, the US conducted a raid against a senior IS commander who was in charge of the group’s oil and gas operations. The US has also continued to conduct airstrikes against militants and maintained that it will keep training any moderate Syrian rebels that it can to join the fight.

Meanwhile, former CIA Director General David Petraeus has reportedly been pushing US officials to consider using Al-Qaeda fighters to attack IS inside of Syria. According to the Daily Beast, Petraeus’ argument involves poaching “moderate” members of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.

Petraeus told CNN that the US should “under no circumstances try to use or co-opt Nusra,” but that nevertheless there are “some individual fighters, and perhaps some elements, within Nusra today [that] have undoubtedly joined for opportunistic rather than ideological reasons.”

So far, Petraeus’ suggestions have not gone over well with officials in the Obama administration. The US has launched airstrikes against Al-Nusra in the past and has labeled the organization a terrorist group. According to the Beast, US officials believe the idea is “politically toxic, near impossible to execute, and strategically risky.”