Syria Raid Should Reignite AUMF Debate

May 18, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

[Updated] Some have referred to the Special Operations Forces raid that took place on early Saturday morning in Syria, which led to the capture of an Islamic State (IS) group wife, the death of a mid-level IS leader, and a trove of intelligence as a “game changer” and a limited achievement.  The high risk incursion into an IS group (also known as ISIS or ISIL) stronghold spurred debate regarding the highly toxic “boots on the ground” discussion given the U.S. forces’ direct engagement with the enemy.  The highly daring raid, should reignite congressional debate for passing an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) tailored specifically against the IS group and the threat it poses. Its threat is different from that of the previous authorizations against al-Qaeda that the administration currently relies on.

The boldness of the raid has many wondering if the U.S. is signaling a new offensive posture against the group.  Many members of Congress have been critical of the administration’s handling of the deteriorating security situation in Syria and especially of that in Iraq. Consider when the Anbar capital of Ramadi fell, which was also coincidentally the day of the aforementioned Syria raid, the anti-IS chief of staff provided a bit of misguided optimism stating “After a period of relative stability in the tactical situation in Ramadi…ISIL has made some gains, and Ramadi remains contested as the terrorists attempt to consolidate and defend some of their recent, temporary gains east and south of the city.”

The Islamic State group has also gained significant support from other radical terrorist entities around the world and the capture of Ramadi upgrade’s the group’s standing.  “ISIS is not just in Iraq and Syria…[I]f your strategy is to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS and you’re not looking at the broader picture of places like North Africa, Libya, essentially what you have is a containment strategy not an effort to degrade and defeat ISIS,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said on Face the Nation this weekend.

In contrast to Nunes’s point, however, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Michael Lumpkin told lawmakers at a Senate Subcommittee hearing in April regarding an offensive posture against the group that “the key is and I think that’s one of the reasons why the president submitted the authorized use of military force against ISIL that was not geographically bounded…[I]t was against the organization of ISIL as we see it metastasizing in these areas that lack governance – these places like Libya.”  Lumpkin continued by saying “I think this was an initiative to have the flexibility should they [IS] metastasize to prove a threat against the United States that we can effectively respond.”

The president’s draft AUMF, does not include a geographic boundary to which Lumpkin alluded.  It authorizes the president to target “ISIL or associated persons or forces” defined as “individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.”

If the U.S. is ready to take a more offensive posture, what are the guidelines?  Where can the U.S. hit members of IS?  What type of force can be used?  The answers to these questions are not clear given the fact the U.S. is relying on an authorization that is 13 years old intended for a specific threat. 

Another key issue that is still left undetermined is detention authority.  It is widely understood that the remaining detainees held at Guantanamo Bay are held under the 2001 AUMF, despite no new detainees being admitted under President Obama.  Regarding the current conflict, there is some debate concerning what the legal domestic and international justifications would be for detaining captured members of IS and interrogating them for intelligence purposes*.  As previously reported in February, the U.S. was outsourcing all detention and interrogation to Iraqi and Kurdish officials despite the over 3,000 U.S. Special Operators sent to Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers.

Currently, FBI interrogators are questioning the captured wife of the supposed IS target who was killed in the raid, who herself is considered a member of the terrorist group.  It is believed that once the FBI has concluded questioning and intelligence collection, she will be released to the Iraqi government.  But what would have happened if the intended target, described as the IS group’s chief financial officer, was captured alive?  Would he have been brought to the United States?  Would he have been detained in a sort of legal limbo aboard a naval vessel as several other suspected captured terrorists have been under the Obama administration?  The legal rationale is murky at best.

Operation Inherent Resolve is entering its ninth month with no official buy-in from Congress.  Aside from the president’s proposal, there are three others introduced in the current Congress – and all have collected dust.  As the offensive heats up, the legal lines will continue to blur.  There is still no real sign that Congress is ready to put their skin in the game against fighting the IS group.   


*Update: According to the Washington Post, the U.S. is currently relying on the 2001 AUMF for domestic authority and “consent of the government of Iraq in the context of ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria against ISIL in individual and collective self-defense” for international justification for the current detention authority.