President Barack Obama has authorized targeted killings of the leaders of the al Qaeda offshoot led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi using drone strikes or special operations, as the Iraqi terrorist on Tuesday urged jihadists to conduct worldwide attacks.
A U.S. official familiar with internal Obama administration discussions on Iraq said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS) leader and several other commanders are now on the kill list of those targeted as U.S. national security threats. The list was approved by the president and allows U.S. intelligence agencies and the military to conduct strikes against the targeted terrorists after they have been located and their identities confirmed.
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CIA and White House National Security Council spokesmen declined to comment on the kill list designations.
However, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed last week that attacking IS leaders is under consideration.
Currently, several hundred U.S. troops are providing security in Baghdad and assessing Iraq’s security needs, Dempsey said on NPR on June 28. The military is preparing "additional options" including the targeting of "high-value individuals," he said.
"Those options are being refined because the first step was to make sure we had the right intelligence architecture in place, and we're flying a great deal of both manned and unmanned ISR—intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets," Dempsey said. "And we're building a picture so that if the decision were made to support the Iraqi security forces as they confront ISIL, then we could do so."
Meanwhile, Baghdadi, who was declared the prophetic leader, or caliph, of all Muslims on Sunday by his group the Islamic State, issued his first public statement since January on Tuesday. He called on Muslims to extend jihad, or holy war, around the world.
The IS’s declaration of a caliphate—an Islamic state ruled by a single religious and political leader—represents a major escalation of global Islamist jihad.
"So raise your ambitions, O soldiers of the Islamic State for your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades," Baghdadi stated in a six-page message.
"Raise your head high, for today … you have a state and caliphate."
Baghdadi concluded the message by urging jihadists to continue fighting and said, "If you hold to it, you will conquer Rome and own the world."
The listing of Baghdadi and IS leaders, including military commander Abu-Umar al-Shishani and the group’s spokesman Abu-Muhammad al-Adnani, comes as the U.S. military began flying armed drone missions over Iraq.
The Predator drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, are used as "force protection" for U.S. military troops that were dispatched recently to Baghdad to bolster Iraq’s military.
However, officials said the deployment of armed drones also was done in anticipation that future intelligence operations by special operations commandos in Iraq will be used to identify and locate IS leaders and commanders for drone strikes.
The plans to attack the terror leaders were given added urgency by the early June military-style incursion into Iraq. The IS, backed by former Saddam Hussein military leaders and troops, seized Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul and other towns linking IS rebels in a swath of territory stretching from Aleppo in Syria through central Iraq and southward to areas west of Baghdad.
Analysts say IS will likely be rejected by the vast majority of Muslims who do not want a brutal terrorist as their spiritual leader. However, the danger of a new wave of international terrorist attacks by jihadists associated with Baghdadi is viewed as a major threat.
"While Baghdadi’s concerns may appear localized, his long-term objectives are most certainly not," said Charlie Cooper, a counterterrorism analyst with the British think tank Quilliam Foundation. "Now that he has claimed the caliphate, he has effectively positioned himself as the standard-bearer of jihadism the world over."
Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate and himself as caliph has been met with disdain by some analysts.
Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution specialist on the Middle East, said Baghdadi now claims to be a descendant of Islam’s founder Mohammad.
"With the announcement of a caliphate by ISIS we now have an alleged ‘true’ name for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi," Riedel said. "He is ‘really’ Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim Ali ibn Muhammad al Badri al Hashimi al Husayni al Qurashi. That means he is a descendent of the prophet, which is of course critical to being a caliph, and he comes from the same tribe, Qurashi, and the same family, Hashemites. This also makes him a blood relative of King Abdullah II of Jordan."
An earlier claimant of the same title, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, was known as "Abu Omar al Hashimi al Qurashi al Baghdadi." However, Riedel said "a drone did him in."
"So now a man whose real name we don’t know claims to be the leader of all Muslims," Riedel said, noting that the sole photograph of Baghdadi was provided by Iraqi intelligence, "So I doubt it really is a picture of him."
Bill Roggio, a terrorism analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also said Baghdadi remains shrouded in mystery.
"Much like the Taliban's Mullah Omar, Baghdadi isn't one to release a lot of speeches," Roggio said. "However, ISIS/the Islamic State has released numerous statements under its official media outlets."
Roggio said Baghdadi’s latest statement also includes a call for Muslims to travel to the Islamic State.
Retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, a former Delta Force commando and undersecretary of defense for intelligence in the George W. Bush administration, said the rise of Baghdadi, who was held in a U.S. military prison for four years before being released, highlights the danger posed by the administration’s release of five Taliban commanders from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Baghdadi is a difficult target who has avoided Western intelligence for years and can be expected to limit his use of electronic communications to avoid detection, Boykin said.
Noting that Secretary of State John Kerry last month dismissed concerns about the recent release of the five Taliban leaders in exchange for captured Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Boykin said Kerry also suggested that if the commanders returned to battle in Afghanistan they would be killed by drones.
"Oh really, Mr. Kerry?" Boykin asked. "Here we have a really bad actor [Baghdadi] who was in U.S. custody for four years and we can't find him nor take him out."
"So tell me why I should not be concerned about the five Gitmo thugs again," he said. "Baghdadi is very aware of the threat to him personally from a U.S. drone strike and he is smart enough to command through limited use of electronic comms."
Patrick Poole, a counterterrorism analyst, said Baghdadi and IS leaders are hiding from possible drone strikes but also must be on alert for attacks from rival al Qaeda groups.
"They have threats coming from at least two different directions," Poole said. "The actuarial tables on the life of jihadist leaders really weighs against these guys, and most rise up through these jihadist groups through the typically violent death of the predecessors."
Al Jazeera reported Saturday that armed drone strikes were recently carried out against IS terrorists in Mosul. The report could not be confirmed.
In his statement, Baghdadi said the world has been divided between two camps: Islam and "the camp of disbelief and hypocrisy." Jihadists must battle "the camp of the Jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of disbelief, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews," he said.
He defended the use of what in the West is called terrorism. "Terrorism is to refuse humiliation, subjugation, and subordination [to infidels]," he said. "Terrorism is for the Muslim to live as a Muslim, honorably with might and freedom. Terrorism is to insist upon your rights and not give them up."
However, the use of terrorism against other Muslims is not permitted, he stated.