The CIA and U.S. Special Operations forces have launched a secret campaign to hunt terrorism suspects in Syria as part of a targeted killing program that is run separately from the broader U.S. military offensive against the Islamic State, U.S. officials said.
The CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) are flying drones over Syria in a collaboration responsible for several recent strikes against senior Islamic State operatives, the officials said. Among those killed was a British militant thought to be an architect of the terrorist group’s effort to use social media to incite attacks in the United States
The clandestine program represents a significant escalation of the CIA’s involvement in the war in Syria, enlisting the agency’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) against a militant group that many officials believe has eclipsed al-Qaeda as a threat.
Although the CTC has been given an expanded role in identifying and locating senior Islamic State figures, U.S. officials said the strikes are being carried out exclusively by JSOC. The officials said the program is aimed at terrorism suspects deemed “high-value targets.”
The decision to enlist the CIA and JSOC reflects rising anxiety among U.S. counterterrorism officials about the danger the Islamic State poses, as well as frustration with the failure of conventional strikes to degrade the group’s strength.
Against that backdrop, the Obama administration has turned again to two of its preferred weapons against terrorist groups: the CTC, which pioneered the use of armed drones and led the search for Osama bin Laden, and JSOC, which includes the elite commando unit that carried out the raid that killed the al-Qaeda chief.
The new adversary, however, poses different challenges. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has extensive territory, a seemingly endless stream of recruits, and a deep roster of senior operatives, many of whom served in the military of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
The program so far accounts for only a handful of strikes, a tiny fraction of the more than 2,450 conducted in Syria over the past year. That broader U.S.-led assault, which also includes an additional 4,000 strikes in Iraq, has relied on conventional bombs to dislodge the Islamic State from territory it has seized.
The involvement of the CIA complicates one of 44’s remaining counterterrorism policy goals of gradually reversing the agency’s evolution from spy service to paramilitary force. Last year,44 signaled his intent to have the agency cede control of drone strikes to the Defense Department and return the spy service’s focus to more traditional categories of espionage.
Instead, Syria is a new front in a spreading campaign of secret operations and drone strikes that encompasses Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and parts of North Africa.
Faced with those obstacles, administration officials now see the hybrid approach in Syria as a possible way to salvage at least part of 44’s plan. The agency will remain deeply involved in “finding and fixing” terrorism targets in collaboration with JSOC but will leave the “finish” to the military, at least in Syria