US Launches Secret Drone Campaign in Syria: Report

US Launches Secret Drone Campaign in Syria: Report

TEHRAN (Tasnim) - The CIA and US Special Operations forces have launched a secret campaign to hunt terrorism suspects in Syria as part of a targeted killing program that is run separately from the broader US military offensive against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, US officials said.

The CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) are flying drones over Syria in a collaboration responsible for several recent strikes against senior Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) operatives, the officials told Washington post.

Among those killed was a British militant thought to be an architect of the terrorist group’s effort to use social media to incite attacks in the United States, the officials said.

The clandestine program represents a significant escalation of the CIA’s involvement in the war in Syria, enlisting the agency’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) against a militant group that many officials believe has eclipsed al-Qaeda as a threat.

Although the CTC has been given an expanded role in identifying and locating senior ISIL figures, US officials said the strikes are being carried out exclusively by JSOC. The officials said the program is aimed at terrorism suspects deemed “high-value targets.”

The decision to enlist the CIA and JSOC reflects rising anxiety among US counterterrorism officials about the danger ISIL poses, as well as frustration with the failure of conventional strikes to degrade the group.

Against that backdrop, the Obama administration has turned again to two of its preferred weapons against terrorist groups: the CTC, which pioneered the use of armed drones and led the search for Osama bin Laden, and JSOC, which includes the elite commando unit that carried out the raid that killed the al-Qaeda chief.

The involvement of the CIA complicates one of President Obama’s remaining counterterrorism policy goals of gradually reversing the agency’s evolution from spy service to paramilitary force. Last year, Obama signaled his intent to have the agency cede control of drone strikes to the Defense Department and return the spy service’s focus to more traditional categories of espionage.

Instead, Syria is a new front in a spreading campaign of secret operations and drone strikes that encompasses Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and parts of North Africa.

US officials said there is no plan to impose that template in Pakistan or Yemen, where the agency operates fleets of armed drones largely autonomously. But officials said the cooperation between the CIA and JSOC in Syria is increasingly viewed as a model that could be employed in future conflicts.

US officials said the expanded CIA and JSOC efforts in Syria are part of a broader mobilization involving every major US spy service. The National Security Agency has been tasked with penetrating the communications networks of the ISIL, a group that has exploited Twitter and other social media platforms to broadcast propaganda and attract recruits.

The United States also flies drones from bases in Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where the al-Udeid Air Base serves as the Middle East headquarters of the US Special Operations Command.

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