Anatomy of an air strike: Three intelligence streams working in concert


In a fast-moving war with an elusive foe like the Islamic State militants, information is as important as guns, jet fighters and bombs.

Sometime early this summer, U.S. Special Operations Forces launched a raid into Syria in an effort to rescue several American hostages being held by the Islamic State militant group. But the commandos’ information was out of date. The captives were no longer in the target area.

The attempted rescue, which the Obama administration revealed one day after a graphic video was posted depicting an Islamic State member beheading kidnapped American journalist James Foley, underscores the importance of timely intelligence. The Pentagon’s escalating campaign against Islamic State fighters in Iraq depends completely on reliable information.

It’s about collecting as much intelligence as possible and piecing it together. Two schools of intelligence have often vied for primacy — signals intelligence from electronic eavesdropping and aerial surveillance versus human intelligence. Yet the most effective military attacks call on all sources of information.

U.S. spies, eavesdroppers and airstrike controllers now have a lot of work to do together to catch up to the situation on the ground in northern Iraq.

American intelligence agencies and military spies had largely withdrawn from Iraq when the last regular U.S. combat troops left the country in late 2011.

Iraq became a U.S. blind spot. Only recently have U.S. intelligence assets returned in response to the jihadist Islamic State’s attacks.

The reinvigorated intelligence effort includes aerial surveillance and probably air-based and ground-based electronic eavesdropping — what the military calls “signals intelligence” — plus traditional “human intelligence,” people on the ground who spot the target with their own eyes.

Now American intelligence collectors are back at work in the embattled country, accompanying U.S. Special Operations forces that are advising Iraqi and Kurdish troops. The intelligence experts are helping to find and track militants and guide U.S. close-air support — or CAS, in military parlance — as well as attacks by Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

Besides human spotters on the ground, the main U.S. intelligence..

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