It Still Takes a Network: Defeating the Progeny of al-Qaeda in Iraq

by Travis Douglas Wheeler

Testifying before the Senate in June days after the Islamic State seized Iraq’s second largest city, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, implored lawmakers to temper their expectations regarding the American use of force. “It’s not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then striking it,” the chairman explained. He went on to warn against airstrikes until the United States was able to “clarify this intelligence picture.”

The need to do so explains why hundreds of special operators and an increasing array of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets are now in the region surveying the Islamic State as the intelligence community monitors the group’s polished propaganda campaign and the ghastly humor of its young fighters. Regrettably, these activities are insufficient for the task at hand. As chairman Dempsey understands, developing an accurate intelligence picture requires more than drone and Twitter feeds.

Today’s context differs from a decade ago, but it’s not the first time the world has faced a too-extreme-for-al-Qaeda jihadist intent on igniting sectarian conflict in Iraq and the wider region. Washington and Baghdad defeated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and they will deliver the same fate to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, provided they recognize one truth: It still takes a network.

When Gen. Stanley McChrystal arrived in Iraq in 2003 as the commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF), he found a cadre of dedicated warriors nonetheless poorly positioned to win an intelligence-dependent war against a clandestine organization like al-Qaeda in Iraq. According to Gen. McChrystal’s memoir, the JSOTF amassed troves of documents, flash drives, and cell phones on counterinsurgent raids, but they were often tagged with Post-it notes and left to gather dust in a closet instead of being exploited for intelligence. As a non-networked entity, it lacked both the capacity to process the evidence it collected and the interagency relationships that could remedy the situation.

Gen. McChrystal implemented dramatic changes to the JSOTF. McChrystal’s men began transmitting real-time intelligence from forward operations directly to CIA analysts, FBI special agents, and other force multipliers stationed with the JSOTF at Balad Air Base. Gen. McChrystal secured an agreement from the National Media Exploitation Center to translate materialsseized on raids from Arabic into English. Additionally, he set up on-site detention facilities so that human intelligence obtained by interrogators could be vetted by analysts and used by operators to cue ISR assets on Zarqawi’s network—and, ultimately, Zarqawi himself—without a time-wasting “blink.” By leveraging the expertise and resources of the entire U.S. government, the JSOTF transformed itself into the central node of a network capable of a breakneck operational tempo fed by rapid exploitation and analysis of all-source intelligence. The result was a constant stream of kill/capture missions against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The same methods can work today. Encouragingly, the United States and Iraq have set up Joint Operations Centers (JOCs) in Baghdad and Kurdistan to enhance intelligence cooperation, an indication that the two countries are moving toward a networked model. Moreover, some Iraqi units are proving adept at fusing operations and intelligence. The recent arrest of an Islamic State courier led to an Iraqi raid that netted 160 flash drives containing the identities of its foreign fighters, the initials of its moles in the Iraqi government, and financial details. As McChrystal’s team demonstrated a decade ago, media-document exploitation and detainee sources are essential to generating and validating reliable intelligence.

There are now 825 American soldiers in Iraq, with 160 special operators working alongside Iraqi partners in the JOCs. The forthcoming assessment of Iraqi forces will determine whether the Obama Administration further expands the U.S. presence, though more special operators and intelligence personnel may be needed to help the Iraqis counter the Islamic State.

President George W. Bush once asked Gen. McChrystal how Zarqawi’s reign of terror would end. “I’d like to capture him, Mr. President,” the JSOTF commander replied. “He knows things we want to know.” Baghdadi and his commanders know things the United States needs to know. If it wants to learn them, it must rebuild the U.S.-Iraqi network—and regain the intelligence advantage it alone can provide—before the Islamic State menaces more than Mosul and Raqqa.

About the Author

Travis Douglas Wheeler is a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) candidate at The Fletcher School and a senior editor of the Fletcher Security Review.

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