US special ops step up strikes on al-Qaeda and ISIS, insiders say

PHOTO: A Navy Seal with a helicopter behind him in an undated photo.PlayTom Weber/Getty Images
WATCH Two nights of air strikes in Yemen

The Pentagon has quietly ordered new commando deployments to the Middle East and North Africa amid an unprecedented series of American airstrikes in Yemen, counterterrorism officials tell ABC News.

The moves appear to signal that the U.S. military is kicking off a more aggressive counterterrorism campaign -- with the encouragement of President Trump -- in a stepped up effort against the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) terror group in lawless Yemen, as well as ISIS strongholds in Syria and areas in North Africa where both groups have spread to in recent years, current and former special operations veterans said.

The Trump administration in late January launched the first known ground force operation in Yemen in two years followed by an unprecedented two-dozen or more airstrikes this week targeting al-Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate, including airstrikes Thursday night. This week also saw the killing of al-Qaeda's overall deputy leader in a U.S. drone strike in northwestern Syria.

A veteran of 20 years of secret military operations said authority to broaden counterterrorism operations overseas had occurred in recent months.

"Authorities have changed in special operations' favor with the new administration," he told ABC News. "We're doing work on the bad guys."

Retired Army Special Forces Col. Mark Mitchell, an Obama National Security Council counterterrorism director and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross in Afghanistan, said the chaos and lack of a functioning government in Yemen has "eliminated any real pressure on AQAP."

"The increased counterterrorism operations are compensating for the absence of a Yemeni counterterrorism capability and highly restricted operations under the Obama administration," Mitchell said today.

Un-announced fresh deployments of elite American commando units from the Army's Delta Force and Navy SEAL teams continue, officials told ABC News, to Syria and Iraq to strike ISIS, and to the Horn of Africa region to target al-Qaeda, with some in the military welcoming Trump's tough talk on counterterrorism.

"We don't know for sure what will happen, but the boys really think we're going to see a lot of action on this deployment -- because of the new administration," said one member of a special mission unit that deployed overseas recently.

Trump, speaking aboard the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier this week, said, "We are going to have very soon the finest equipment in the world, we will give our military the tools you need to prevent war and if required to fight war and only do one thing and do you know what that is, win, win, we’re going to start winning again."

But the first known ground force operation in two years on Jan. 28 raid by the Navy's "black ops" counterterror unit, SEAL Team Six, came at a high price.

The experienced operators were caught in a withering mountain gunfight with fighters from AQAP, the only terrorist group which has succeeded three times in smuggling sophisticated bombs aboard U.S.-bound jetliners, which were defused before they exploded.

"There were women straight up shooting at the boys," said a counterterrorism official briefed on the fight, describing the unusual battle, which resulted in one SEAL killed in action, some children in the compound killed by crossfire as the SEALs tried to search buildings and then broke contact, leaving the site aboard MV-22 Osprey aircraft. One Osprey had to make a hard landing, which injured three SEALs and the aircraft had to be destroyed in place by the operators.

Two officials told ABC News on Thursday that one computer hard drive and phones containing a wealth of contact information for al-Qaeda operatives around the region were recovered by the SEALs -- which was their primary objective, not the killing of senior leadership, many officials have said.

While the Yemen operation has become politicized in Washington as having "failed," with some Democrats questioning whether any intelligence gains were worth the high cost of SEAL Ryan Owens' life, a $75 million aircraft crashed and children killed in crossfire, military analysts continue "docex" -- document exploitation -- in an eavesdrop-proof sensitive compartmented information facility.

Even intelligence officials with the highest clearances involved in operations are not read in on the full results of the forensic exploitation and analysis effort so far, which has been compartmented to a handful of officials because of leaks by higher-ups, one official briefed on the effort said.

A senior official yesterday insisted, however, that, "the raid produced valuable intelligence."

The targets of this week's American airstrikes in several Yemeni provinces known to be safe havens for AQAP were long eyed for military action and were not new targets developed from any intelligence the SEALs recovered in January, two officials told ABC News.

"It is good to see the Trump Administration increasing pressure on ISIS and AQ senior leaders through air strikes and surgical ground strikes by some of our nation's most elite forces. But after 15 years of unilateral counterterror strike operations, our leaders must learn that 'cutting the head off the snake' is not how you defeat violent Islamist extremists," said Scott Mann, another retired senior Green Beret officer.

Mann, a highly respected counter-insurgency thinker and author of "Game Changers: Going Local to Defeat Violent Extremists," said team Trump and his defense secretary James Mattis must also deploy "expeditionary diplomats" willing to take some risks to engage key populations and leaders who can help crush al-Qaeda and ISIS.

ABC News reported earlier this year that a new task force called “Ex-Ops” was created last fall by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command," to use special operations forces to hunt ISIS foreign fighters leaving the "Caliphate" of Iraq and Syria, who might conduct external terror operations in neighboring countries in the region.

The hunt for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also continues in earnest. Raqqa is now surrounded by Kurdish and Free Syrian forces and Mosul is crumbling, a military official told ABC News, promising al-Baghdadi's death at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition is "just a matter of time."

"Hitting Al Qaeda and ISIS targets will be accelerated under the Trump Administration with Mattis and his new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, clearing obstacles for commanders to execute timely intelligence-driven raids and attacks," said Michael Pregent, a career former military intelligence officer who worked with Mattis and McMaster in Iraq.

"Stepping up attacks in Yemen delivers the message that the U.S. can fight Islamist groups anywhere and at the same time," he said.

ABC News Pentagon producer Luis Martinez contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the date of the Navy SEAL operation in Yemen, Jan. 28.

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