Elite US military unit tasked with targeting terrorists

New JSOC task force could also offer intelligence, strike recommendations and advice to forces of traditional Western allies, or conduct joint operations with them

Image Credit: AFP
US Special Operations forces in the village of Fatisah in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa this year.
Gulf News

Washington: President Barack Obama’s administration is giving the elite Joint Special Operations Command — the organisation that helped kill Osama Bin Laden in a 2011 raid by Navy Seals — expanded power to track, plan and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe, a move driven by concerns of a dispersed terrorist threat as Daesh militants are driven from strongholds in Iraq and Syria, US officials said.

The missions could occur well beyond the battlefields of places such as Iraq, Syria and Libya where the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has carried out clandestine operations in the past. When finalised, the decision will elevate JSOC from a highly valued strike tool used by regional military commands to the lead of a new multi-agency intelligence and action force. To be known as the ‘Counter-External Operations Task Force,’ the group will be designed to take JSOC’s targeting model — honed over the past 15 years of conflict — and export it globally to go after terrorist networks plotting attacks against the West.

The creation of a new JSOC entity this late in President Obama’s tenure is the “codification” of best practices in targeting terrorists outside of conventional conflict zones, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration deliberations. It is unclear, however, whether the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will keep this and other structures set up by Obama. They include guidelines for counterterrorism operations such as approval by several agencies before a drone strike and “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed. This series of presidential orders is known as the “playbook.”

The new JSOC task force could also offer intelligence, strike recommendations and advice to the militaries and security forces of traditional Western allies, or conduct joint operations with them, officials said. In other parts of the world with weak or no governments, JSOC could act unilaterally.

The global focus is reminiscent of when US forces first went after Al Qaida in the months after the September 11, 2001, attacks. As the approaching US troops forced militants to flee their safe havens in Afghanistan and scatter across the globe, the United States followed in pursuit, using CIA assets to grab suspected Al Qaida operatives in dozens of countries, sometimes capturing and imprisoning them under murky legal authorities and using interrogation techniques widely seen as torture.

Some in the Pentagon hope to see the new task force working in tandem with the CIA, elevating a sometimes distant relationship to one of constant coordination to track and go after suspected terrorists outside traditional war zones.

In recent years, the agency’s involvement in global paramilitary operations has waned — with fewer strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, and its armed drones in Syria transferred to the Pentagon. It is unclear how much the CIA may be willing to cooperate with JSOC and more broadly with the Pentagon after the White House’s decision.

The agency, with its broad contacts overseas, espionage networks and long experience in covert operations, has much greater reach than JSOC.

The CIA declined to comment.

The new JSOC task force will report to the Pentagon through the US Special Operations Command, or Socom, according to US military officials, creating a hybrid command system that can sidestep regional commanders — with their coordination — for the sake of speed.

In the past, units such as the Army’s Delta Force — which is part of Socom and its subordinate command JSOC — were usually deployed under those regional commanders, known as geographic combatant commands. The new task force, however, will alter that process by turning Socom’s chief, Army Gen. Raymond ‘Tony’ Thomas, into a decision-maker when it comes to going after threats under the task force’s purview. While Thomas will help guide certain decisions, the operations will ultimately have to be approved by the Pentagon and the White House.

The task force will essentially turn Thomas into the leading authority when it comes to sending Special Operations units after threats.

“Now [Thomas] can request whatever he wants and... unless there’s some other higher competing priority, the combatant commanders have to cough it up,” said a former senior defence official.

Turning Socom into a command with a global reach has been on the table for the past 15 years. In 2001, Air Force Gen. Charles Holland, then Socom’s commander, was hesitant to create a command structure that would effectively put Socom on the same level as the geographic combatant commanders. He believed it would cause too much friction with regional commanders. Instead, he decided that only in rare instances would Socom actually direct Special Operations forces.

It remains to be seen whether the new organisation will generate tensions between Socom and the generals in charge of US forces in places such as the Middle East and Europe. In his March congressional confirmation testimony, Thomas suggested that assigning more authorities to Socom would allow for “synchronised operations” against non-state threats that span geographic boundaries.

But regional commanders, all four-star generals, guard their turf carefully.

Officials hope the task force, known throughout the Pentagon as ‘Ex-Ops,’ will be a clearinghouse for coordinating intelligence against and targeting groups or individuals attempting to plot attacks in places such as the United States and Europe.

According to officials familiar with plans for the task force, it will initially draw on an existing multinational intelligence operation in the Middle East that tracks foreign fighters, called Gallant Phoenix, and one of JSOC’s intelligence centres in Northern Virginia.

While in the past the smaller task forces such as Gallant Phoenix were staffed by representatives from different intelligence agencies, the new task force aims to have decision-makers present, ensuring that the targeting process happens in one place and quickly.

“Layers have been stripped away for the purposes of stopping external networks,” a defence official said. “There has never been an ex-ops command team that works trans-regionally to stop attacks.”

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