Obama Ramps Up Spying on ISIS, Paving the Way for Possible Airstrikes

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In ordering hundreds of military advisors to Iraq and dramatically ramping up intelligence-gathering on jihadist fighters threatening Baghdad, President Barack Obama sent his strongest signal yet that U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) may be likely.

Since ISIS fighters took control of two key Iraqi cities last week, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have blanketed portions of the country with spy satellites and drones, giving them what one senior administration official called “round-the-clock coverage” of locations where ISIS is active. The military personnel headed to Iraq — as many as 300, Obama said — will work alongside Iraqi military forces in special intelligence centers, using drone video feeds and spy satellite photographs to track and attack ISIS fighters. They’ll also be in a prime position to help carry out U.S. airstrikes the moment Obama orders them.

In remarks from the White House Thursday, Obama didn’t say that airstrikes are imminent. He stressed that the only long-term solution to Iraq’s stabilization will come from political reconciliation between the Shiite-led government and the marginalized Sunni minority. But he left no doubt that he’s putting all the pieces in place to launch the first significant military action in Iraq since U.S. forces left there in 2011.

“We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it,” Obama said. Echoing the commander-in-chief, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement: “The Department of Defense will continue to plan and prepare further military options should they become necessary and we will remain ready to protect our diplomats, our citizens, and our interests in Iraq.”

In the short term, spies, not soldiers, will likely fuel any gains against ISIS. Prior to possible airstrikes, there will be “a broader intelligence mission that includes a significant amount of [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], and then we’ll be making decisions about specific targets,” a senior administration official told reporters after Obama’s remarks.

Primarily led by the Pentagon, intelligence collection in Iraq grew “exponentially” over the past 36 hours, another senior administration official told Foreign Policy. Last week the intelligence agencies began collecting more information from drones and satellites in earnest, officials said, while the Pentagon is trying to intercept ISIS communications. However, the group’s general avoidance of phones and text messaging will make that task more difficult. ISIS members mostly rely on couriers to communicate. But if ISIS has any hope of taking more Iraqi cities, or Baghdad, it will almost certainly have to coordinate attacks over the phone or radio, making the group more vulnerable to America’s digital spying nets.

Satellite images and video surveillance are essential for tracking ISIS’s locations and perhaps even predicting where it will attack next. But in order to precisely target airstrikes against ISIS fighters, and importantly, to distinguish between them and Iraqi military forces or innocent civilians, the military needs real eyes on the ground to help coordinate and call in airstrikes. That’s where the advisors could come in.

The advisors will “help give us better visibility into the situation on the ground” and provide intelligence about “potential military action,” a second senior administration official told reporters. Technical sources of information won’t give U.S. forces the level of precision they need to launch such targeted airstrikes, former defense and intelligence officials said.

Whether advisors will be used to call in airstrikes has not been decided yet, a senior official said. But, the official noted, they would be able to share intelligence with the Iraqis to help them develop targets and plans for attacking ISIS positions.

“To figure out what ISIS would do next, you need to get there and figure out the lay of the land,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official with extensive experience in Iraq. “You can do some of that with intelligence collected at a great distance. But you really need some footprint on the ground” to inflict real damage.

A first group of several dozen advisors, whom the official described as “special operators” — a reference to the military’s various elite commando forces — will go into Iraq “very soon” and will come from units already in the region attached to the U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for military actions in the Middle East. The advisors’ first job is assessing the state of the Iraqi security forces, and then helping U.S. military leaders decide whether to send more advisors on top of the 300 that Obama has already ordered. “We’re going to start small and then we’ll see what we learn from that,” the senior official said.

Obama and his aides gave no indication that any military advisors will combat ISIS fighters directly. But they are clearly moving closer to the frontlines of the fight. Some of the advisors will work in Iraqi military headquarters in Baghdad. Some may move into posts at the brigade level. And others will help set up two “joint operations centers” in the capital and in northern Iraq. It’s in these locations where all the various sources of intelligence — satellite photos, video feeds from drones, and any intercepted ISIS communications — are likely to converge. Analysts will use all those tools to create as complete a picture as possible about where ISIS fighters are located, how they’re moving, and where they might strike next.

The beefed-up intelligence, combined with military advisors, gives Obama the requisite ingredients to order precise airstrikes and avoid collateral damage. “If there were to be a situation where we were to decide to take action, of course that would also provide us with the ability to be very careful that Iraqi security forces and civilians would not be put unnecessarily at risk,” a senior administration official said.

It would take the United States probably several months to set up networks of Iraqi spies who could further help locate ISIS positions or even identify individual leaders. But that, too, could be in the offing. Current and former officials have said that the administration is considering setting up so-called intelligence “fusion cells,” or teams of analysts that use satellite imagery, intercepted communications intelligence, video footage from drones, and information from human sources to help target enemy forces. The more sources of information are added into the mix, the more nuanced — and potentially useful — the intelligence becomes.

The concept was pioneered in Iraq during the troop surge of 2007, and used to great effect by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) commandos led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Using a combination of intercepted phone calls, satellite imagery, and drone footage, as well as spies and informants, JSOC forces quickly located and captured or killed insurgents and terrorists. “McChrystal helped develop that into a fine art,” said the former intelligence official with experience in Iraq. A spokesperson for McChrystal, who is retired from the Army and helps run a consulting firm, said he was unavailable to comment.

What’s being contemplated now is a much smaller version of the model used in the Iraq War, but conceptually, it’s similar. And with 300 military personnel in Iraq, with possibly more on the way, the U.S. could eventually generate a lot of intelligence and pinpoint the locations of ISIS fighters more reliably.

Gordon Lubold contributed reporting.

Getty Images / Getty Images News

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