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explosion isis

The best way to defeat ISIS is through the systematic elimination of its leaders. Doing so would create problems in the chain of command of the organization, presently rigid and compartmentalized, and fuel a sense of insecurity in the top brass of the terrorist group. It twould also combine both the practical outcome deriving from the death of a person, to the psychological impact of a constant threat to one’s life.

To think that the menace comes from the sky, be it a silent drone or a long range missile, enhances the fear of an invisible enemy, an uncertainty that can have an impact on one’s efficiency. Those who become, or think they have become, a target lose their self-confidence, spend more time trying to hide and end up spending less time with the combatants on the ground. In other words, a commander that cannot lead his men is just a dead man walking.

Some might argue that martyrdom, especially for high ranking ISIS officials, is an inevitable outcome. They know there is no redemption or forgiveness. Only the escape to some other war zone across the globe where a similar sectarian and religious struggle is ongoing could offer a chance of survival. The brutality of ISIS and its actions rule out any alternatives. You either win, or die. To die on the battlefield, facing the enemy, is acceptable. Being struck by an unknown force out of the blue is different. It finds you unprepared, helpless.

Recently, several high ranking ISIS men have been killed. This implies that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s luck is running out. There is also always a correlation between military defeats and increased intelligence by the enemy. The debacle increases treason, defection, less attention is paid when talking over the phone or radio, panic takes over caution. This also implies your opponent has more sources at hand (greater HUMINT), more information from communications traffic (greater SIGINT), the same goes for data (ELINT) or drone/satellite/airplane imagery (IMINT). The identification of a target, be he a person or a structure, relies on all these sources of intelligence.

The US chain of command

The United States have recently defined the decision-making process when dealing with the elimination of high ranking ISIS officials. A chain of command that involves both the military and political leaders in the country.

During the initial stages of the process, the military gathers inputs from various intelligence agencies, turns them into informations and then carries out a preliminary evaluation. The organism entitled to conduct these tasks is the Joint Special Operations Center (JSOC). The JSOC is under the umbrella of the Pentagon’s Intelligence Surveillance, Reconnaissance Task Force and is supposed to develop the details of an operation: identify the target and how to take it out.

Once this is done, the report is passed on to the operatives. CENTCOM, the central command, whose authority spans from Egypt to Pakistan, including Central Asia and former USSR states, is responsible over the Middle East. CENTCOM is currently in charge of the “Inherent Resolve” operation, launched in October 2014 to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups. Headquartered in Tampa, Florida, it has also a base in Qatar. Once the JSOC report is received, CENTCOM begins its evaluation of the operation and its feasibility. It basically turns it into a military operation.

The last step in the chain of command is the transmission of the new report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose role is to give the nod and offer the plan on a silver platter to the political authorities who will have to rubber-stamp the operation.

The political level

There are a series of political authorities involved in offering their counsel – the National Security Council, the Counter-terrorism advisor – or advice – like the State Department and so forth. However, any political decision on this kind of operations is either approved by the Secretary of Defense or directly by the President.

The Commander-in-Chief is only involved in high profile cases, like Osama bin Laden in the past or future ops involving say Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (worth 25 million USD under the Rewards for Justice program) and Ayman al Zawahiri (another 25 million). In these cases the President personally follows the operation. In other circumstances he simply grants the authorization to eliminate the terrorists. Where, when and how is left to CENTCOM and reports are to be filed to the Secretary of Defense.

If this were not the case, if indeed this was the procedure to follow every time an ISIS official was identified, if the lengthy bureaucracy in the chain of command was followed to the letter, any operation would be destined to fail. Especially when you’re dealing with terrorists on the run. The only variable to be taken into account are the political consequences of an operation, whether it could provoke reactions in the local government. But this is definitely not the case in Syria and Iraq. But if this was the case, there would be a far greater involvement of the State Department and the local ambassador would be informed.

Another option is to capture ISIS leaders. The Delta Force is active both in Iraq and Syria. The Expeditionary Targeting Forces are run by the JSOC and are responsible for locating and capturing terrorists. The chain of command for their operations is the same. But the high risk nature of these endeavors implies a stricter approval process.

predator drone
A US 'Predator' drone

Drone wars

Every US armed force is equipped with its own drones, plus those belonging to the CIA. Ever since the second Gulf War, UAVs and drones have been flying over Iraqi skies. In one instance, in 2004, two drones belonging to two different armed forces crashed while in flight.

We all know drones listen, observe, photograph, jam the communications and, of course, know how to shoot. Several functions for many different needs. And, above all, they are silent. It is hard to detect them, or hear them coming. This is why, once spotted, the potential victim of this deadly tool of war has no way out. His movements, habits are analyzed, his mobile phone becomes a GPS signal pointing to his precise location. And when the right time comes...

The sole technical itch is that a drone is piloted by a man, or a woman, sitting inside a cockpit miles away from the target. There is a minimal time delay from when a target is identified, the request to intervene is filed to a superior and the order to strike is given. When he’s not in the US, the drone operator sits in the Al Udeid base in Qatar, while the target is in Mosul, Raqqa or elsewhere. Any delay, even seconds, could allow the target to flee or save himself. And any evaluation of the context, such as potential civilian victims, could further extend the decision process.

Although we’re talking war, deciding when to accept collateral damage might seem a futile argument. However, every innocent victim killed because it was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time would generate hate against the perpetrators. Unlike a traditional bombing, where military outposts or infrastructure are targeted systematically but impersonally, a drone’s surgical strike sees a direct involvement of the pilot, his decisions on when it is best to hit.

The US is more concerned about collateral damage in Iraq, than the Russians are in Syria. Russia adopts the opposite approach: the more the victims, the more terror, the greater the impact on the morale of the opponent and on the feelings of the civilian population that should start taking on the rebels. Whether this works or not is debatable. Nonetheless, it is not a coincidence that every hospital in rebel-held Aleppo was systematically destroyed by Russian and/or Syrian bombardments prior to their conquest of the city.

abu bakr al baghdadi
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

A long list

The hunt for ISIS leadership is currently ongoing both in Mosul and Raqqa. It focuses on the last two remaining ISIS strongholds. Al Baghdadi’s men are trying to survive by hiding amongst the civilians and playing on the US fear for collateral damage. But this hasn’t saved the 15 or so high ranking ISIS members that have been terminated by US drones recently. And the list is still pretty long.

Not only al Baghdadi: when his turn comes he will probably have the US President witness the event. There is a long list of candidates to martyrdom, individuals that haven’t gone unnoticed and that surely are on the JSOP’s watchlist. They are all key figures in the caliphate. Some of them are military leaders, like Abu Fatima al Jayshi, in charge of military operations in southern Iraq, Abu Shami'a (aka Rhyad Nuaimi) responsible for armaments, Abu Qassem (aka Ahmed al Mashadani) who manages kamikazes and foreign volunteers, Abu Saja (aka Abdul Rahman al Afari) who oversees female martyrs, field commander Abu Abdallah the "Kosovan", Frenchman Salim Ben Ghanim who presides over executions of inmates in Syria, Abu Mohammed (aka Bashar Ali Hamadani) who’s in charge of detainees and their elimination in Iraq, and many more. There are then the emirs, who are both military and religious leaders: Abu Suleiman al Nasser, emir of Deir ez-Zor, Abu Massirah, emir of Baghdad, Abu Nabil emir of Salaheddin, Abu Luqman emir of Raqqa, Abu Jarnas emir of the border areas. Also in this case the list could continue. And, finally, the “politicians”: Abu Abdel Qader in charge of finances or Abu Himan al Atari, who promulgates fatwas.

Despite their war-names, intended to conceal their true identities, all of these individuals in the frontline are well known by their actual names, last names and nationality. Overall we’re looking at around 30 people that can be considered in the line of fire. Until the next rocket lands, that is. They will add to the toll of over 50 thousand jihadis that have been eliminated since 2014.

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