Teams of U.S. special operators could be in place within weeks, aiming to strike at the brain trust and nervous system of the Islamic State terror group, in an intensified effort to destroy what many see as a growing global threat.
The “specialized expeditionary targeting force" will consist of approximately 200 special forces personnel and could be in place in Iraq within weeks, according to officials familiar with the plans.
The goal will be to take advantage of intelligence on short notice in order to “degrade key leadership and command-and-control elements of ISIL” in both Iraq and Syria, a U.S. official told VOA on condition of anonymity, using an acronym for the terror group.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter first announced the deployment of the new force Tuesday during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, promising to strike fear across Islamic State’s ranks.
"You don't know at night who's going to be coming through the window, and that’s the sensation we want all of ISIL's leadership and followers to have," he told lawmakers.
"These special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders," he said. “That creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids and more momentum."
Carter said the specialized force would work with both Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq and be capable of unilateral action in Syria.
The move builds on plans announced in October to send fewer than 50 special operations forces to assist opposition groups battling IS. Those forces are still preparing to begin operations, but U.S. officials said the time was right to take the next step.
The use of a targeting force is not without precedence in the U.S. effort against IS. Carter said the new force would be capable of actions like the raid earlier this year in Syria that killed top Islamic State finance official Abu Sayyaf, led to the capture of his wife and allowed U.S. forces to recover what was described as "a substantial amount of intelligence."
There also was a joint raid raid carried out by U.S. forces and Iraqi peshmerga in October that resulted in the death of a U.S. service member.
“ISIL has been cut off strategically in a number of key areas,” a senior administration official told VOA. “This is a good point in the campaign to bring in American special operators, who really are force multipliers.”
The official said progress on the ground by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as well as by U.S.-backed opposition fighters in Syria, has also given intelligence officials a chance to learn more about the terror group and its vulnerabilities.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi praised his forces in a statement Tuesday, and said that while Iraq welcomes support from its international partners, it does not need foreign combat troops on the ground. He said that kind of support and special operations must be done with the government's approval and in coordination with Iraqi forces.
Still, U.S. officials cautioned that the move to insert more special operators was not an indication that Islamic State is at any sort of tipping point, ready to fall.
Despite the success of local forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and a U.S.-led air campaign that has killed an estimated 23,000 Islamic State militants, the terror group has been resilient.
"We have not contained ISIL,” U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford told the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “Strategically, they have spread since 2010." He called Islamic State the “ultimate opportunists.”
Will it work?
The ability of IS to survive concerns critics and analysts, who wonder whether the additional U.S. special forces will do much to further the terror group’s demise.
“It’s a capability we should have had in place a year and a half ago,” said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer who was embedded with peshmerga forces in Mosul, Iraq, from 2005 to 2006.
Now an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington policy and research group, he said that even if the new U.S. force was successful in eliminating high-value targets, it might not be enough.
“It took 10 to 15 raids a night for five years with 130,000 troops on the ground and 90,000 Sunnis in a U.S.-led security force to decimate al-Qaida [in Iraq],” he said. “This is one-twentieth of that.”
Others see the potential for at least a “marginal” increase in the effectiveness of U.S. operations, pointing to the capability for better intelligence and more precise targeting. But Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington said that to truly put a dent in Islamic State operations, more special forces and resources would have to be sent to the region.
“You need several thousand people,” said Harmer, a former U.S. Navy commander. “You’ve got to have the special operators at the tip of the spear. You’ve got to have the intel resources to guide them to the target You’ve got to have a significant quick strike reaction capability.”
The U.S. has about 3,500 troops at six locations in Iraq to support Iraqi forces, with tens of thousands of troops stationed across the Middle East.
VOA Capitol Hill correspondent Cindy Saine contributed to this report.