American troops in Iraq are interrogating a leader of the Islamic State after capturing him in a special operations raid, according to national security officials in Washington.
The Pentagon will not say much about the ISIS leader, including his name, where in Iraq he was captured or what role he played in the terrorist group. Revealing too much about the raid would imperil a new push to target and capture ISIS leaders, officials warned.
One thing national security officials will say is that they do not intend to keep the ISIS captive in American custody any longer than necessary for interrogation. Once American military and intelligence officers have finished their questioning, the U.S. plans to hand the man over to the custody of the Iraqi government for trial, although American troops would still have access to him in the Iraqi system.
Washington has no desire to get back into the terrorist detainee business if it can avoid it, national security officials say. President Obama is pushing to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and his administration does not want to run prisons like the one in Abu Ghraib, in Iraq, which became infamous after abuses by American troops.
The special operations raid and capture, first reported on Tuesday by CNN and The New York Times, marks the launch of a deliberate new strategy by the U.S. to send the Army’s secret Delta Force after ISIS leaders in Iraq and Syria. The elite special operations troops make up part of what Defense Secretary Ash Carter has called a new “expeditionary targeting force” based in Iraq.
The U.S. has conducted much of its campaign against ISIS via airstrikes that kill terrorists and destroy their hardware, but the “targeting force” is charged with pursuing key opponents and bringing them back alive.
“Rather than only using bombs, what we’ve learned is sticking a group of [special operations force] people there to do an in-person visit can be very helpful in getting information,” one U.S. national security official told NPR. The officials who discussed the story asked not to be identified given what they called its operational sensitivity.
American troops raided an ISIS base in Syria last year to target a leader named Abu Sayyaf. Although he was killed in the attack, the U.S. team captured his wife, Umm Sayyaf, and what the Pentagon said was a wealth of intelligence about ISIS’s sales of oil to finance its operations.
American officers interrogated Umm Sayyaf and turned her over to Iraqi custody. Military planners used what they learned in that raid to launch what they’ve called punishing airstrikes on the Islamic State’s oil operations, cutting off a major source of funding. Now they want to do more.
“That creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids and more momentum,” Carter told Congress.