Déjà Vu All Over Again: Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction

The special ops forces hunting for ISIS leaders in Iraq are very much 'boots on the ground'

(Illustration: Tara Jacoby)
Mar 14, 2016 at 12:31 PM ET

Two short years ago, if you’d told Barack Obama that he would soon deploy U.S. combat forces to Iraq in part to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of Islamic terrorists, you’d have been laughed out of the Oval Office. After all, Obama campaigned for president based on his staunch opposition to the Iraq war and George W. Bush’s false narrative of Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of doomsday weapons. He won reelection as the president who withdrew the last U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.

But despite all that came the latest news: U.S. Delta Force commandos, deployed to Iraq last December, captured the head of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program. For a war-weary American public, the news seems like a blast from the distant past, perhaps invoking a dizzying sense of déjà vu. But, in truth, it reveals how the terrorist threat continues to evolve, and the persistent nature of the global conflict against Islamic terrorists.

The activities of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)—the headquarters of the U.S. military’s elite counterterrorism forces—are cloaked in secrecy. Relatively little was thus made of the announcement last December that the Pentagon was deploying a small “Expeditionary Targeting Force” to Iraq. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter would say only that “this is a no-kidding force that will be doing important things.”

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In fact the deployment of the ETF represented the crossing of an important Rubicon. Unlike the roughly 3,500 U.S. “train and assist” troops redeployed to Iraq beginning in the summer of 2014, or the 50 Special Operations troops deployed to Syria, the clandestine JSOC task force of “black operations” commandos represents combat boots very much on the ground in Iraq.

Their mission is not to retake or hold territory, but rather to capture and interrogate ISIS leaders and gather intelligence that enables follow-on raids further targeting ISIS leadership and the group’s key command and operational nodes. After a decade-and-a-half of fighting, JSOC and its direct-action counterterrorism units—the Army’s Delta Force and Navy’s SEAL Team 6—have become very good at this “F3EA” (Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit and Analyze) model of operations.

Last month JSOC’s task force in Iraq captured a high-level ISIS official who was identified by Iraqi sources in press reports in mid March as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, the head of the group’s chemical weapons program. Based on intelligence gathered in the raid and in subsequent interrogations of al-Afari, U.S. aircraft destroyed two facilities reportedly associated with the group’s chemical weapons program in early March. Follow-on raids targeting other ISIS leaders can be expected as intelligence gathered from al-Afari’s capture and interrogation is further analyzed and exploited.

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“We are not confirming the reports of the detainee’s identity, and we will not discuss details of these missions, but the Expeditionary Targeting Force works in partnership with Iraq to conduct operations such as raids, capturing detainees, and rescuing hostages,” Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS wrote in an email from Baghdad. “These types of operations, unlike airstrikes, can result in significant gathering of information that can be used to conduct follow-on operations that can save lives.”

The focus on ISIS’ chemical weapons program is also revealing. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a great admirer of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who famously declared that acquiring weapons of mass destruction for the defense of Muslims “is a religious duty.” In the 1990s al-Qaeda matched deeds to its leader’s words, running two WMD research and development programs exploring chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons, and teaching the rudiments of these weapons in its training camps. In embracing bin Laden’s ideology, al-Baghdadi seems determined to realize the arch-terrorist’s vision of an expansionist Islamic caliphate armed with WMDs.

ISIS has already weaponized mustard and chlorine agents, for instance, and has used them more than a dozen times in battles against Kurdish forces. In analyzing shell fragments from those attacks, U.S. intelligence officials detected a unique signature of mustard agent, concluding that ISIS had its own chemical weapons production facility.

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U.S. officials knew that many former Baathists, members of the party associated with the regime of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, had joined forces with ISIS. The officials worried that the group might include chemical and biological weapons experts. Those fears were realized when it became clear that captured ISIS leader al-Afari once worked on chemical and biological weapons for Saddam’s defunct Military Industrialization Authority. While Iraq’s extensive stockpiles of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent, botulinum toxin and anthrax spores were never found after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and are assumed destroyed, the idea that a known expert in chemical and biological weapons was in league with a nihilistic, virulently anti-Western Islamic terrorist group like ISIS was cause for alarm.

“It is very clear aspirationally [ISIS] would like to do more, and it is a concern to us in the United States because the indications are that they would like to use chemical weapons against us,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said recently at the 52nd Munich Security Conference.

“Just a few years ago, U.S. officials were talking about al-Qaeda being on the verge of strategic collapse, but ISIS is al-Qaeda on steroids,” Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert, author, and the director of Georgetown’s Security Studies Program, told Vocativ. “It has the same apocalyptic vision that makes weapons of mass destruction so attractive. They understand that even if these weapons don’t ultimately kill a lot of people, they can deliver a devastating psychological blow.”

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For current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials engaged in combating Islamic terrorists for well over a decade, the sense of déjà vu over the rise of ISIS accompanies recognition that the war that began in earnest on 9/11 is far from over. President Obama acknowledged as much when he sent elite U.S. combat troops back to Iraq, and halted the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last year in light of al-Qaeda and Taliban gains in that country. The next occupant of the Oval Office will inherit that war, just as surely as the current one did, and the president before that.

“The deployment of the ‘Expeditionary Targeting Force’ to Iraq will give us a tactical advantage, because we were way behind in our human intelligence collection and interrogation operations regarding ISIS,” said a former senior Special Forces officer. “Unfortunately this fight has now spread like a malignant cancer. So my concern is we’re still following a ‘too little, too late’ strategy.”