United States intelligence agencies were caught by surprise when fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seized two major Iraqi cities this week and sent Iraqi defense forces fleeing, current and former U.S. officials said this week.
With U.S. troops long gone from the country, Washington didn't have the spies on the ground or the surveillance gear in the skies necessary to predict when and where the jihadist group would strike.
The speed and ease with which well-armed and highly trained ISIS fighters took over Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and Tikrit, the birthplace of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, have raised significant doubts about the ability of American intelligence agencies to know when ISIS might strike next, a troubling sign as the Islamist group advances steadily closer to Baghdad.
And it harked back to another recent intelligence miscue, in February, when U.S. spy agencies failed to predict the Russian invasion of Crimea. Both events are likely to raise questions about whether the tens of billions of dollars spent every year on monitoring the world's hot spots is paying off -- and what else the spies might be missing.
The CIA maintains a presence at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but the agency has largely stopped running networks of spies inside the country since U.S. forces left Iraq in December 2011, current and former U.S. officials said. That's in part because the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command had actually taken the lead on hunting down Iraq's militants.
With the JSOC commandos gone, the intelligence agencies have been forced to try to track groups like ISIS through satellite imagery and communications intercepts -- methods that have proven practically useless because the militants relay messages using human couriers, rather than phone and email conversations, and move around in such small groups that they easily blend into the civilian population.
Policymakers in Washington and other allied capitals were similarly unsure of the group's true strength or how to respond. In late May, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with defense officials from Arab countries in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where they agreed that ISIS and other Islamic fighters in Syria and Iraq posed a threat to the entire region, a senior U.S. official said. But no plan on how to counter those groups emerged from the meeting, and there's no indication that U.S. intelligence agencies stepped up monitoring of ISIS fighters in Iraq, who also seized control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in January.
"We got caught flat-footed. Period," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who studies ISIS and other al-Qaida-linked groups. Although for the past three years U.S. officials had assessed that ISIS was strong enough "to go toe-to-toe" with the Iraqi military -- a fact the group demonstrated with its operations in Fallujah and Ramadi -- there has been no indication that the U.S. intelligence agencies knew ISIS was about to mount a major offensive to take over two more cities simultaneously, Gartenstein-Ross said.
In the wake of this week's attacks on Mosul and Tikrit, U.S. intelligence agencies have increased the number of high-resolution images taken from satellites, which could help find the location of ISIS forces on the ground, a U.S. official said. But it was unclear whether this information is being provided to Iraqi forces to help them plan airstrikes or other operations.
Two senior U.S. officials acknowledged that the intelligence agencies' assessment of ISIS has been overly broad and lacked the type of specifics that could have actually helped the Iraqi military know when and where to expect an attack. But the greater concern to the Obama administration has been the strength of the Iraqi forces and their actual will to fight, they said.
"This has never been about whether we thought ISIS had the capability to launch attacks. It's always been, do the Iraqis have the capability to defend their country?" one official said. On that score, the U.S. assessment was more on the mark. Obama administration officials have hesitated to provide Iraqi military forces with advanced weapons -- including fighter jets and attack helicopters -- because they've never shown an aptitude for using them or sufficient resolve to fight their enemies, the officials said. The Obama administration had also long feared that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite with clear antipathy towards the country's Sunni population, would use the armaments against his own people.
The intelligence agencies' inability to predict the latest crisis in Iraq is likely to fuel critics of the Obama administration's management of other global crises, including in Syria and Ukraine. In the case of Russia's seizure of Crimea, in which U.S. spies were also caught by surprise, sophisticated electronic eavesdropping systems run by the National Security Agency were of little use because Russian forces limited their time on telephones and adopted the techniques of jihadists, sending couriers back and forth between their units.
But the responsibility for failing to counter ISIS in Iraq cannot solely be placed at the feet of U.S. intelligence agencies. When American forces were stationed in the country, they built one of the most successful battlefield intelligence systems in the history of American warfare. The NSA monitored every phone call, email or text message in Iraq, and it provided leads on the location of jihadists and insurgents to drone pilots and special operations forces, who captured or killed them. U.S.
commandos working hand in hand with the CIA also developed an extensive network of human spies.
But when U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011, all that intelligence power went with them. The Iraqi government failed to secure an agreement that would have allowed the United States to maintain some physical presence in Iraq, which it needed to run the intelligence networks at full throttle. Today, that intelligence capability has withered.
"The United States has so many intelligence collection efforts occurring simultaneously. It's especially difficult to collect in a place where we have no presence," said Christopher Harmer, a former Navy officer and an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. Given the lack of human spies in particular, Harmer said that the United States would be outmatched in Iraq against ISIS because of its reliance on couriers and the diligence with which it avoids phones and email, which can be tracked.
"What ISIS is best at is exactly what we are worst at. We just don't have a good human intelligence network" in Iraq, Harmer said.
If the United States has any hopes of gaining some intelligence insights into Iraq, it might look to the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. "The Kurds begged the U.S. to keep a base in Kurdistan" prior to the troop withdrawal, said David Tafuri, who served as the Rule of Law Coordinator for Iraq with the State Department in 2006 and 2007, and is now a partner with the law firm Squire Patton Boggs. "They would have given the U.S. whatever it wanted to have a base here. And if we did, we'd be in a much better position to monitor this situation," Tafuri said.
Iraqi officials have been eager to get their hands on U.S. military and intelligence equipment to assist in their struggle against jihadists. On May 8, Foreign Policy reported that the Iraqi government was actively seeking armed aerial drones from the United States to combat al-Qaida militants in the increasingly violent Anbar province, where fighters from Syria were believed to be spilling over into Iraq.
And in a significant reversal, Iraqi officials said they would welcome American military drone operators back into the country to target the militants on its behalf, according to people with knowledge of the matter. But to date, the United States has only agreed to give Iraq 10 small ScanEagle drones, which are launched from a catapult and carry no weapons. Those should arrive by the end of the summer, the White House said this week.
Iran, the United States' most nettlesome adversary in the entire region, is moving much faster. According to press reports, a 150-man unit of the Quds Force, the elite wing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, had been sent to Iraq to bolster the Maliki government and fight ISIS. Other accounts suggest that a joint Iranian-Iraqi force has retaken all or most of Tikrit.