Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said more raids against ISIS like the deadly mission to rescue hostages should be expected, but “it doesn’t represent us assuming a combat role.”
The U.S. Special Forces operation to rescue hostages from an ISIS prison near Hawija, Iraq, early Thursday was launched at the request of the Kurdistan regional government. Delta Force Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Okla., was wounded in the operation and died later while receiving treatment.
The Pentagon said 70 hostages were rescued (the Kurds said 69), including more than 20 members of the Iraqi security forces. Four Peshmerga were wounded. Five ISIS fighters were detained, the Pentagon said, while the Kurds said six were taken into custody. The Kurds said “more than 20” ISIS were killed.
The Defense Department has been hush on many details of the raid; ISIS said it started at 2 a.m., while the Kurds said it wrapped up at 4 a.m.
“I made the decision to assist our Kurdish partners after receiving specific actionable intelligence that a mass execution was imminent,” Carter told reporters today, adding that “a significant cache of intelligence was collected” in the raid.
“We have now heard from rescued hostages. They expected to be executed that day, after morning prayers. Their grave had already been prepared. Not only did our support help provide another mass killing, we enabled those partners of ours to deliver ISIL a clear defeat, and prevented them from broadcasting a horrific massacre to the world,” he said.
Carter said the actionable intelligence included spotting the graves that “were right next door to the compound.”
“It happens that we had seen them beforehand, because we were watching this compound once the — the Peshmerga informed us that they believed that there were prisoners of ISIL there,” he said. “And the — so that was another indication to us what appeared to be the — basically the digging of graves. You can’t be sure by just looking at it, but it sure looked like that. That was another indication.”
“Then we had other indications, as well, I can’t go into. But the main thing is that the — that our Peshmerga partners, they were the ones who had information that this particular location was being used, basically, as a prison camp, and seemingly planned to be an execution center by ISIL.”
Carter noted that “the stuff you get” is the “great value, by the way, of raids of this kind.”
“And I expect that we’ll do more of this kind of thing,” he added.
Questioned on how that fits with the administration’s pledge for no boots on the ground, the Defense secretary said such raids are simply “a continuation of our advise and assist mission.”
“When we find opportunities to do things that will effectively prosecute the campaign, we’re going to do that. And this is an example of a case where we could do something we alone had the capability to do, and I’m absolutely prepared to do that. So raids is — is — is one of those categories,” Carter said. “And I suspect that we’ll have further opportunities in the future, and we would want to avail ourselves of them.”
Carter and his wife plan to be with Wheeler’s family Saturday when his body arrives in the United States.
“Everything I know about this incident was that as the compound was being stormed, the plan was not for the U.S. advise and assist and accompanying forces to enter the compound or be involved in the firefight,” he said.
“However, when a firefight ensued, this American did what I’m very proud that Americans do in that situation. He ran to the sound of the guns, and he stood up, and all the indications are it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the mission successful.”