Friday News Roundup — November 1, 2019
Analyzing the Raid to Kill al-Baghdadi; What’s Next for ISIS; plus news you may have missed.
Good Friday Morning from the “District of Champions,” where the Nationals’ World Series victory has reminded us that odds are there to be overcome. While the city continues to be united around its baseball heroes, politics has become even more heated as the House voted—almost along party lines—to set the rules for the rest of the impeachment inquiry and public hearings.
At CSPC, this has also been one of our busiest weeks as we’ve welcomed our Presidential Fellows from colleges and universities across the United States and the globe to our Fall Fellows’ Conference this week. This conference’s theme has been the idea of “disruption,” as trends in technology, politics, economics, and society are reshaping the paradigms for our future leaders. Having had the opportunity to meet with and work with these campus leaders, it’s heartening to know that future leaders are ready to tackle the challenges society faces.
With Dan and Chris on assignment with our fellows, this week’s roundup has in-depth contributions from our military fellow Ethan Brown, who looks at the details of the successful raid eliminating ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while Joshua Huminski analyzes the future of the so-called Islamic State. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.
The Surgeon’s Scalpel
While most attention related to the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, understandably focused on the outcome, insufficient attention is being paid to the sheer complexity of the raid itself. As with Operation Neptune Spear — the mission to take down Osama bin Laden — the raid was a foregone conclusion for many. The public at large doesn’t typically understand or see the myriad factors that go into planning the actual operation or the extensive training the operators undertake to prepare for these operations. Undoubtedly many of the details will come out in the news cycles that follow, but it is worth taking a moment to fully appreciate just how complex these activities are.
Planning & Preparing a Direct Action Raid — A Primer
The execution of a direct action raid against a specific target is one of the most challenging and demanding activities commonly executed by Special Mission Units of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). These missions require detailed planning and the integration of a multitude of resources. These raids begin with the establishment of the Commander’s intent. This usually stems from a strategic level — often presidential — and is delegated to the lowest possible level of tactical decision-making based on the U.S. Military doctrine of centralized control/decentralized execution.
Other planning considerations are the source of intelligence driving the mission force to a particular target, where the timeliness, verifiability, historical patterns, and consistency of the information are constantly assessed. The mission leaders will then dive into the “nuts and bolts” of the raid itself: target location, times of flight for air assets (including transit of lift assets, as well as supporting assets covering the duration of the active mission window for close air support and mission data sharing), all subject to the restrictive timeline for mission execution.
Additional critical factors include weather, enemy disposition, areas of cover and concealment, avenues of approach, likely routes of egress for high value individuals fleeing their impending doom, and which specific buildings will be contained and cleared in support of the specific mission objective. Most often these missions are carried out under cover of darkness, where the technological advantages of the U.S. military are enhanced to their maximum benefit. These aforementioned considerations are only a brief glimpse at the components subject to rigorous planning and rehearsal, while a multitude of other factors are classified and may not be included in this analysis.
Make no mistake, the sheer complexity and “moving parts” of a direct action raid on a sensitive target cannot be understated, and is among the most challenging and dynamic events carried out by the men and women of the United States military. The nearest analogy is being tasked with planning to play in the Super Bowl in the next few days, at night with the lights off, without the benefit of pre-positioning the team in the hosting city, and the other team has designs on your permanent health.
The al-Baghdadi Operation
Using the aforementioned criteria, for this operation the mission objective was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the declared leader of the Islamic State’s Caliphate and the world’s most wanted terrorist. Reporting from media outlets credit the successful raid to the elite 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (colloquially referred to as “Delta Force”), the Central Intelligence Agency, and supported by the until recently clear allies of the United States — the Kurds.
The success of this mission must consider several factors: the sourcing and development of the intelligence that led to the location of al-Baghdadi, the location itself, the incredible range and scope of the operation based on the U.S. forces’ recent withdrawal from the relative area, and the reported outcome of the mission itself.
General Malzoum Abdi, commander of the SDF in Syria, stated in a tweet that his forces had spent five months aiding in the preparation for this raid, which checks the box of initial analysis based on several indicators:
- the U.S. is traditionally heavily reliant on intelligence from reliable partner forces while conducting operations. The Kurdish forces aligned with the United States have proven their reliability in previous operations and once again have shown their ability to aid in the efforts to defeat the Islamic State.
- The Central Intelligence Agency supported the intelligence claim based on a collective effort with other intelligence services, which often requires extremely dangerous reconnaissance of potential targets, along with the management of incredibly complex source networks which require validation of the reported intelligence.
- When the decision is made to begin preparations to conduct a raid on a specific target, resources, including air assets and further collection on the ground, must be dedicated to the area to ensure the conditions are met before committing such a valuable force to a target.
Generally, the Idlib province resides 250 miles or more from any ‘warm’ base from which the United States might have launched this operation, which included 8 helicopters carrying the assault force, as the President indicated during his press briefing on the raid. While the range capabilities of U.S. assets is classified, the sheer distance transited based on reasonable conjecture is staggering, and speaks volumes about the capabilities and tenacity that members of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) bring to our nation.
Based on a visual inspection of the reported location thanks to local footage post raid, the compound in which al-Baghdadi chose refuge rests on a long hill with sloping sides that feed into a broader valley complex inherent to this region of Syria. For a component of eight helicopters carrying the mission force, landing in a position of advantage (not to mention overcoming the challenge of dense vegetation) is truly a dangerous endeavor; this is but one of several dangerous parts of the operation, as opposed to the President’s assertion that the transit itself was the most dangerous.
Every phase of this operation contained heightened levels of risk, but the insertion and eventual extraction of the force in this location reside highest on the list. With walls connecting the two identifiable compounds to the surrounding fields and nearby rock/sand pit, every avenue of approach likely available to the assault force will have presented risk, so the force will have taken steps to ensure the area was fully contained by overlapping security in order to allow the assault element to gain entry and secure the objective. Based on the President’s assertion that the raid was conducted in a two-hour window, this leaves no margin for error on the assault element in getting to the right building, the air assets providing timely and accurate support, and each individual member of the team operating at peak levels.
The critical juncture of the mission, with the target isolated in a no-exit tunnel — with three children in tow, a common tactic of insurgents when coming face to face with this situation — resulted in U.S. Forces going through the proper escalation of force, first calling out to the individual, requesting surrender, then the target eliminating himself and the children in a suicide vest detonation.
The removal of al-Baghdadi achieves significant tactical and operational objectives, but the strategic impact remains to be seen—and is covered separately in this roundup. It is remarkable how efficient and effective U.S. Special Operations forces have become. Honed through years of an active, frequent, and aggressive operational tempo, there is very little that these forces are incapable of achieving. Indeed, it is less a question of their capabilities and simply the viability of the target itself.
These opinions are of the author and do not reflect the views, position, or policy of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.
Zero Bark Thirty
Perhaps the most amusing, if slightly unusual, detail of the raid to kill al-Baghdadi is the role of a Belgian Malinois named Conan. Announcing the raid on Sunday, President Trump revealed that a dog had participated in the operation and had been wounded. Later, the president tweeted a declassified photo of the dog saying that its name was withheld for security reasons. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley reported during a press conference on the al-Baghdadi raid that “We’re not releasing the name of the dog right now. The dog is still in theater.” It later emerged that the female Malinois was named Conan, and she would be visiting the White House in the first week of December.
Canine servicemembers have a storied history within the U.S. armed forces both as mascots but more importantly as working dogs, serving alongside front line combat units and special operations forces. Conan joins the ranks of Cairo, another Belgian Malinois, who participated in Operation Neptune Spear which killed Osama bin Laden. We can expect that Conan will receive many treats and is truly a good doggo.
The Death of al-Baghdadi
Over the weekend on 26 October, the United States launched a raid deep into Idlib, Syria aimed at Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State and its ideological head. This raid, detailed in a separate piece within the round-up, led to his death. Separately, another raid disclosed by the President on Tuesday morning, led to the death of a potential replacement to al-Baghdadi: Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, a spokesman for the Islamic State.
Less than five days later, the Islamic State propaganda arm released an audio recording announcing that Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi had taken the reins of the group, confirming that both al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir had been killed in separate raids. The Islamic State also warned the United States saying “Do not be happy America, for the death of Sheikh al-Baghdadi.” Very little if anything is known about al-Qurayshi, but the recording urged followers of the Islamic State to pledge their allegiance to the new caliph.
While his removal is to be welcomed, as is the prowess of the Special Operations forces, its ultimate impact is likely to be minimal and the strategic challenge from the Islamic State remains. The Islamic State has proven itself to be remarkably resilient, as has its ideology. There are a number of different paths that his death could place the Islamic State on.
At the outset, the removal of a leader — the so-called “kingpin strategy” — is rarely successful in horizontally integrated networks. Indeed, look at al-Qa’ida: the organization retained its operational capacity, ideology, and much of its network even following the death of Osama bin Laden. While there may have been a point in time when his death or the death of any of the caliphs may have resulted in a fatal blow to the organization, the Islamic State is well beyond this embryonic weakness.
Devolution, Independent Action, and the Virtual Caliphate
The Islamic State is a remarkably diffuse and decentralized organization. The Islamic State maintains a presence in fourteen active provinces and over 20 countries. Between April and May of 2019 alone it added four new provinces to the “caliphate”. While some of these provinces are dormant, the mere presence of the Islamic State in many of these strategically vulnerable or at least permissive environments portends an opportunity for continued operation.
The Islamic State is by no means a monolithic organization and has experienced internal divisions and tensions, in some cases by design. Its military commanders’ fortunes rose and fell depending on how many soldiers it could field and how they performed. If a commander lost soldiers, his position fell accordingly.
As an organization, it placed a premium on independent jihadist action, especially by its members and supporters. While spectacular assaults such as the Paris attacks in November 2015 are attractive, the organization inspired even greater numbers of “lone wolf” attacks using everything from knives to trucks. This is to say nothing of the horrific campaign of violence the Islamic State unleashed in Syria and Iraq against the Kurds, Yazidis, and anyone who disagreed with its apocalyptic worldview.
In some ways the “Islamic State 2.0,” in the words of Colin P. Clarke, is already underway. The organization seized upon modern social media and messaging techniques to broadcast its ideology in a way that al-Qa’ida never managed to achieve. It mobilized followers in their home countries to carry out Islamic State-inspired attacks and drew in adherents to its territory in Syria and Iraq in record numbers. Despite al-Baghdadi’s death, this ideology and message will live on online and virtually.
Could there be defections or internal schisms? Certainly. Hasan Haniyeh, an analyst based in Jordan, argued that al-Baghdadi actually had become a burden on the organization, overseeing its decline and defeats in Syria and Iraq. Some, according to Haniyeh, blame al-Baghdadi for the State’s defeat. How widespread this sentiment is remains to be seen.
Merging with Other Groups
How the Islamic State responds in the context of global jihad will equally be interesting. The movement sought to position itself as the new caliphate and, as a result, the true and pure leaders of global jihad.
In pursuit of this mantle the organization frequently clashed with other Islamist groups including the Nusra Front. In 2013 to 2015, the Islamic State clashed with the Nusra Front after al-Baghdadi claimed that the Abu Mohammed al-Julani, the leader of the Nusra Front had joined with the Islamic State. Al-Julani disputed this claim, reaffirming his organization’s fealty to al-Qa’ida. For its part, many Sunni Islamist terrorist groups expressed support for the Islamic State including Boko Haram, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Abu Sayyaf, and others.
With the appointment of al-Qurayshi as the new caliph, the likelihood of a merger with al-Qa’ida becomes increasingly remote. There was a possibility, prior to al-Qurayshi’s appointment, that if the Islamic State selected an “emir” in lieu of a caliph a major obstacle between the two groups would have been removed. Indeed, it was the desire to establish the State that also led to the split with al-Qa’ida, with the latter believing it was too early to establish such an entity, preferring a more grassroots approach to jihad.
An “emir” would have lacked the religious credentials and connotations associated with the caliph. This could have made inter-Sunni extremist relations more palatable, but could have equally opened the group up to questions about its legitimacy. Much of the Islamic State’s gravitas and attractiveness rested on its claim to religious authority and the territorial aspect of the State. It now appears that the group appears keen to retain its religious authority and credentials with the appointment of a new caliph. The appointment of anything else may have signaled the collapse of the Caliphate and its pending dissolution.
Efforts after 2014 to mediate the schism between the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida were quashed by al-Baghdadi, but his successor may be more favorably inclined to a merger or cooperation. Indeed, the Institute for the Study of War arguesthat the presence of al-Baghdadi in Idlib may suggest that cooperation between the two may already be underway, or at least tactically occurring.
Reinvigoration & Reconstitution
Perhaps counterintuitively, the Islamic State could be reinvigorated as a movement. In the coming days, the movement will seek to replace al-Baghdadi and his number two and, concurrently, work to secure its internal cohesion.
Here the decision by President Trump to withdraw American special forces from Northern Syria could serve as a catalyst for this reconstitution. By removing the U.S. presence, allowing Turkey to invade Northern Syria and concomitantly attack the Kurds (the Syrian Democratic Forces, in particular) — America’s allies on-the-ground — the window for a reconstitution by the Islamic State is opened. Indeed, with the SDF being forced into a defensive posture and withdrawing some presence from the prisons housing over 10,000 Islamic State prisoners, at least 100 have already escaped custody.
Equally, the ability of the United States to collect intelligence in Syria will also be compromised by the abandonment of the Kurds and the resultant questioning of American promises/commitment to those it seeks to recruit. This is especially damning if, as it appears, that the Kurds were particularly instrumental in the intelligence collection effort against al-Baghdadi.
At the very least, the prioritization of the withdrawal over an increased operational tempo, which would put the Islamic State further on the back foot, will allow the Islamic State freedom of movement and an opportunity to pause and recover. Originally, it had been expected that U.S. forces would reposition to Western Iraq and launch strikes from there, but this appears now not to be the case, after Baghdad refused permission for the increased presence.
News You May Have Missed
With lawmakers looking into the flaws of the Boeing 737 MAX’s computerized systems, Boeing CEO Dennis Mulienberg acknowledged that the company had made mistakes in developing the MCAS system that ultimately caused the crashes of Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian Airlines 302. Extra scrutiny has been applied to the relationship between Boeing and the FAA, at the same time the FAA is trying to demonstrate to foreign aviation authorities that its procedures can be trusted as the 737 MAX systems are reconfigured and returned to service.
At a Papally-convened synod that demonstrated the rifts between reformers and traditionalists in the Catholic Church, a gathering of Catholic bishops addressing environmental and ministerial issues related to the Amazon region. In addressing a lack of priests to minster to parishes and missions in the region, bishops approved policies that would allow for married deacons to be ordained as priests. The bishops also discussed the role of women in ministry, particularly the role of allowing women to serve as deacons.
In remarks delivered to fellow generals, General Carlos Gaytan is reported to have said, “Today’s Mexico worries us…as Mexicans we feel disrespected and as soldiers we’re offended.” These remarks come as Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is coming under increasing criticism for a recent raid where security forces captured, yet ultimately freed, the son of jailed drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman following violent retaliation by cartel gunmen. At a time when President Lopez Obrador has sought to deemphasize military and security responses to drug cartel activities, the apparent impotence of the Mexican state has raised concerns on both sides of the border.
The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.