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US Special Operations Forces Captured a 'Significant' Islamic State Militant — Now What?

Americans captured a ranking member of the Islamic State, the first of what may be many such detentions, and that raises the question of where the US will hold detainees and how long detentions will last.

by Benjamin Gilbert
Mar 3 2016, 4:25pm

One of the three men that Democratic Forces of Syria fighters claimed were Islamic State fighters gestures while being held as a prisoner with fellow fighters near al-Shadadi town, Hasaka countryside, Syria, February 18, 2016. (Rod Said/Reuters)

US special operations forces in Iraq have captured a ranking member of the Islamic State, the first of what may be many such detentions, and one that raises the questions of where the US will hold such detainees, how long detentions will last, and what will be done with them.  

Around 200 special operations forces troops, dubbed a "specialized expeditionary targeting force" or ETF by the Defense Department, deployed to Iraq in January with the purpose of rescuing hostages, conducting raids, and killing or capturing Islamic State militants in order to gather intelligence. Their goal, defense officials say, is to help cripple the organization in Iraq as part of the overall Inherent Resolve operation aimed at destroying the Islamic State. They are the first significant US combat infantry forces to be based in Iraq since the American-led occupation ended in 2011. 

The New York Times described the detained Islamic State militant as a "significant" individual within the organization. Defense officials told the newspaper that he is now being interrogated at a temporary detention facility in Erbil, in Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.

The officials are quoted as saying that the militant could be interrogated for weeks or months before being handed over to Kurdish or Iraqi government authorities, and that the US military does not intend to build or operate a detention facility in Iraq, like Camp Bucca or the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, where detained Iraqis and others were held during the US occupation. 

Related: The US Military Is Laying the Groundwork to Take Back Iraq's Second Largest City

A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed to VICE News that US special operations troops had begun operations in Iraq, but could not discuss details in order to preserve what he said was operational security.

"One of the goals of the ETF is to capture ISIL leaders," Pentagon Spokesperson Major Roger Cabiness said, using the acronym the US government employs for the Islamic State. "Any detention would be short-term and coordinated with Iraqi authorities."

When asked during a press briefing Tuesday what "short term" meant, Central Command spokesperson Colonel Patrick Ryder was unable to provide details, and referred reporters to policymakers. He did say, however, that what is relevant is the "intent" of the detention. 

"It's not to create long-term detention operations," he said. "It's to gather intelligence and to enable operations."

Last week, President Barack Obama outlined his plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and called on Congress to work with him to shut the facility. A senior administration official told VICE News that individuals detained by US special operators in Iraq would not end up at Guantanamo, but didn't rule out the possibility of longer detentions, or of bringing detainees back to the US.

"Disposition of any detainee would be determined on a case-by-case basis, in coordination with Iraq," the official said. "Options include transfer to another country for appropriate disposition, prosecution in a military commission, prosecution in federal court, continued law-of-war detention at an appropriate location, or release. We would not transfer any detainee to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay."

"Law-of-war detention" refers to the treatment of prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, which calls for the repatriation of prisoners "after the end of hostilities," according to the International Committee of the Red Cross — which, given the ongoing nature of the war against Islamic State and other groups like al-Qaeda, could mean indefinite detention.

Related: Air Force Vet Stands Trial in Brooklyn for Trying to Join the Islamic State

One other person affiliated with the Islamic State, although not a member of the group, has been detained by US special operations forces in the past.

In May 2014, an Army Delta Force team flew from Iraq to Syria and killed Abu Sayyaf, who the US military said was the Islamic State's emir, or top leader, for oil and gas.

The US troops captured Sayyaf's wife, Nasrin As'ad Ibrahim, also know as "Umm Sayyaf," and she was detained and interrogated for three months by American officials.

She was transferred to the Kurdistan Regional Government in August, and in February the US Justice Department charged her with conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization due to her involvement in the death of Kayla Mueller, a US citizen who was killed last year while being held hostage by Islamic State.   

A US official told the Daily Beast that the charge against Sayyaf were more of an "insurance policy" in the event that she escaped from prison or Iraq failed to charge her. 

When contacted by VICE News on Thursday, the US Justice Department would not say whether the Iraqis had charged Sayyaf with a crime. "We have a firm belief that she will be held to account for her crimes, though we cannot guarantee any particular result," said Justice Department spokesperson Marc Raimondi. "We continue to cooperate with authorities in Iraq to support a prosecution through to its completion and to assist in ensuring that justice is served."