Obama expands elite unit's powers to hunt terrorists

US special operations forces in Raqqa, Syria. The Joint Special Operations Command will get expanded power for missions that could occur well beyond the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Libya.
US special operations forces in Raqqa, Syria. The Joint Special Operations Command will get expanded power for missions that could occur well beyond the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Libya. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Special command to go after terror cells worldwide as ISIS militants are driven from Iraq and Syria

WASHINGTON • President Barack Obama's administration is giving the elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) - the organisation that helped kill Osama bin Laden in a 2011 raid by Navy Seals - expanded power to track, plan and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe.

The move is driven by concerns of a dispersed terrorist threat as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants are driven from strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

The missions could occur well beyond the battlefields of places such as Iraq, Syria and Libya, where the JSOC has carried out clandestine operations in the past.

When finalised, the decision will elevate JSOC from a highly valued strike tool used by regional military commands to the lead of a new multi-agency intelligence and action force.

To be known as the Counter-External Operations Task Force, the group will be designed to take JSOC's targeting model - honed over the past 15 years of conflict - and export it globally to go after terrorist networks plotting attacks against the West.

The creation of a new entity this late in Mr Obama's tenure is the "codification" of best practices in targeting terrorists outside of conventional conflict zones, according to United States officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It is unclear, however, whether the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will keep this and other structures set up by Mr Obama.

These include guidelines for counter-terrorism operations such as approval by several agencies before a drone strike and "near certainty" that no civilians will be killed.

The new task force could also offer intelligence, strike recommendations and advice to the militaries and security forces of traditional Western allies, or conduct joint operations with them, the officials said.

In other parts of the world with weak or no governments, JSOC could act unilaterally.

The global focus is reminiscent of the time when US forces first went after Al-Qaeda in the months after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks. As the approaching US troops forced militants to flee their safe havens in Afghanistan and scatter across the globe, the United States followed in pursuit, using Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assets to grab suspected Al-Qaeda operatives in dozens of countries, sometimes capturing and jailing them under murky legal authorities and using interrogation techniques widely seen as torture.

Some in the Pentagon hope to see the new task force working in tandem with the CIA, elevating a sometimes distant relationship to one of constant coordination to track and go after suspected terrorists outside traditional war zones.

In recent years, the agency's involvement in global paramilitary operations has waned - with fewer strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, and its armed drones in Syria transferred to the Pentagon.

It is unclear how much the CIA may be willing to cooperate with JSOC and more broadly with the Pentagon after the White House's decision.

The agency, with its broad contacts overseas, espionage networks and long experience in covert operations, has much greater reach than JSOC.

The new JSOC task force will report to the Pentagon through the US Special Operations Command, or Socom, creating a hybrid command system that can sidestep regional commanders for the sake of speed.

It will turn Socom's chief, Army General Raymond "Tony" Thomas, into a decision-maker when it comes to going after threats under the task force's purview.

While he will help guide certain decisions, the operations will ultimately have to be approved by the Pentagon and the White House.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline 'Obama expands elite unit's powers to hunt terrorists'. Print Edition | Subscribe