The U.S. intelligence community warned about the “growing threat” from Sunni militants in Iraq since the beginning of the year, a senior intelligence official said Tuesday — a claim that challenges assertions by top administration officials that they were caught off guard by the capture of key Iraqi cities.
Earlier Tuesday, in an interview with Fox News, Secretary of State John Kerry said “nobody expected” Iraqi security forces to be decisively driven out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, as they were earlier this month in Mosul.
But in a separate briefing with reporters Tuesday afternoon, the senior intelligence official said the intelligence community had warned about the ISIS threat.
“During the past year, the intelligence community has provided strategic warning of Iraq’s deteriorating security situation,” the official said. “We routinely highlighted (ISIS’) growing threat in Iraq, the increasing difficulties Iraq’s security forced faced in combating (ISIS), and the political strains that were contributing to Iraq’s declining stability.”
Asked who failed to act, the official did not explain.
Offering a grave warning about the current strength of the group — which is a State Department-designated terror organization — the official also said that barring a major counteroffensive, the intelligence community assesses that ISIS is “well-positioned to keep the territory it has gained.”The official said the ISIS “strike force” now has between 3,000 and 5,000 members.
Further, the official said ISIS, as a former Al Qaeda affiliate, has the “aspiration and intent” to target U.S. interests. Asked if Americans have joined, the intelligence official said it “stands to reason that Americans have joined.”
The information from the intelligence community adds to the picture of what is known about the ISIS threat, and what might have been known in the weeks and months before its militants seized Mosul and other northern cities and towns.
Kerry, speaking with Fox News on Tuesday in the middle of a multi-country swing through the Middle East and Europe as he tries to calm the sectarian crisis in Iraq, pushed back on the notion that more could have been done from a Washington perspective to prevent the takeovers. Pressed on whether the fall of Mosul and other cities to Sunni militants marks an intelligence failure, Kerry said nobody could have predicted Iraqi security forces would have deserted.
“We don’t have people embedded in those units, and so obviously nobody knew that. I think everybody in Iraq was surprised. People were surprised everywhere,” he said.
The secretary noted that the U.S. and Iraq did not sign a formal agreement allowing troops to stay in the country past 2011, so “we didn’t have eyes in there.”
“But the Iraqis didn’t even have a sense of what was happening,” Kerry said.
When asked what the U.S. did to shore up Mosul, after seeing other Iraqi cities fall earlier this year, Kerry added: “In the end, the Iraqis are responsible for their defense, and nobody expected wholesale desertion and wholesale betrayal, in a sense, by some leaders who literally either signed up with the guys who came in or walked away from their posts and put on their civilian clothes.
“No, nobody expected that.”
But aside from the apparent warnings from the U.S. intelligence community, reports in The Telegraph and Daily Beast claim that Kurdish sources did warn American and British officials that ISIS was gaining strength and ready to advance, but it “fell on deaf ears.”
A senior lieutenant to Lahur Talabani, head of Kurdish intelligence, reportedly told The Daily Beast that the Kurds passed on warnings about a possible takeover of Mosul to British and U.S. government officials.
“We knew exactly what strategy they were going to use, we knew the military planners,” the official said.
The Telegraph reported that Washington and London got warnings months ago about Sunni militant plans to try and take over the northwestern region of Iraq. The Kurds reportedly had been monitoring developments on their own.
At this stage, though, the question for Kerry and the Obama administration is how far they are willing to go to shore up the embattled Iraqi government. Kerry, in Baghdad a day earlier, pressed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to proceed with the formation of a new government — Iraq’s parliament is set to begin this process next week.
In the meantime, President Obama has committed up to 300 U.S. military advisers to help Iraq’s government fend off ISIS forces. The administration continues to weigh whether to authorize airstrikes.