US has secret drone campaign in Syria targeting Islamic State leaders – report

The US-led military alliance against Islamic State has carried out multiple airstrikes over the past year. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that a separate drone campaign is under way against leaders of the militant group. 

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/File
An unmanned US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan on a moonlit night, in 2010.

The CIA and US special forces are operating a coordinated, targeted assassination drone campaign in Syria against Islamic State militants, in a program that is separate from the US-led military coalition fighting the group in Iraq and Syria, according to a new report.

The Washington Post reported late Tuesday that several members of the self-declared Islamic State have been killed in drone strikes carried out under the joint CIA and US anti-terror cell Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) program. The Post cites unnamed US officials as saying the program "is aimed primarily at leadership figures in the Islamic State as well as operatives suspected of being involved in efforts to build a terrorist network beyond the borders of its declared caliphate. Al-Qaeda militants also are approved targets."

According to the unnamed officials, the program marks a major escalation of the CIA's involvement in the war in Syria, a country where it has little presence. The Post writes that under the program, the CIA is primarily involved in “finding and fixing” terrorist targets in coordination with JSOC, but JSOC is responsible for the "finish," or actual strike, against the targets.

The Post notes that the CIA's involvement is a reversal for the White House, as President Obama had earlier sought to curb the spy agency's post-9/11 paramilitary role in favor of more traditional espionage, thus leaving drone attacks to the Pentagon. However, Congress objected that the CIA's involvement in strikes was a means to monitor the US drone war in a way that they couldn't if it were solely under Pentagon control.

The US began airstrikes against IS in Iraq in August 2014; the campaign was expanded to Syria the following month. France, Britain, Australia and other countries have since joined the air campaign in Iraq, the Associated Press reports. The coalition bombing Syria includes the US, Jordan, and United Arab Emirates. 

So far, the Post adds, the CIA-JSOC drone program is only responsible for a small percentage of the more than 2,450 attacks carried out by US-led forces in Syria over the past year, most of which were executed by conventional military forces.

The Post report says the program is responsible for "several recent strikes" in Syria, though the only target identified by name is Junaid Hussain, a 21-year-old British hacker said to be a key figure in IS's online propaganda efforts. The Guardian, reporting on Hussain's death last week, said he was "much more than just a computer hacker and was a key figure inside the movement," and was the second most important British citizen in IS after the militant known as "Jihadi John."

As part of Isis “Cyber Caliphate”, Hussain is also believed to have aided Isis in obtaining the passwords of the US Central Command’s Twitter and YouTube accounts in January and briefly using them to send pro-Isis messages.

In Britain, the 21-year-old Hussain had been part of the hacker group Team Poison, where, using the handle Trick, he gained access to the address book of former prime minister Tony Blair and published information from it. The hack earned him six months in jail in 2012.

That same year, Team Poison tied up the phone lines of an MI6 anti-terror hotline. “You’re being phone-bombed right now, mate,” a man identifying himself as Trick said in a recording uploaded to YouTube. The man can be heard laughing and asking hotline operators if they were mad.

A senior US official described Hussain to the Post as “more than a propagandist. He was actively involved in recruiting [Islamic State] sympathizers in the West to carry out attacks, and he was specifically focused on orchestrating operations targeting U.S. service members as well as government officials.”

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