Outraged by the beheading of American journalist James Foley, the US is determined to strike the Islamic State and the Levant (ISIS) in Syria, but finds itself hamstrung by lack of specific intelligence about the outfit.
Senior Obama administration officials have said in recent days that the ISIS cannot be crushed without dealing with it in Syria, raising the possibility of coming airstrikes there.
“This is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated,” said chairman of the joint chiefs Martin Dempsey last week, adding, it cannot be defeated, however, “without addressing that part of their organisation which resides in Syria”.
But American spy agencies don’t have the capability yet to provide the kind of specific information needed to target ISIS leaders and facilities effectively, said the Washington Post.
It would take “some number of months” to build that kind of information network, the Post said citing unidentified US intelligence and military officials.
ISIS leaders, including the rarely seen Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are known to frequent Syria, and even live there, slipping in and out through its non-existing border with Iraq.
The US knows of some of those locations but doesn’t have sustained surveillance to be sure to get them in a strike. A mission to rescue Foley and other hostages failed in July for precisely that reason — the Special Operations team did not find them at the location where they were supposed to be.
To hit the organisation effectively, as the airstrikes that took out senior and mid-level al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Yemen, the intelligence will be much better than what is available now.
The United States has stepped up surveillance over the border in recent months, specially after ISIS fighters swept through Iraq taking control of large parts of the country using drones and high-flying unmanned aircraft.
The Central Intelligence Agency is also sending informants drawn from moderate rebel factions after training them in Jordan.
But intelligence on the ISIS remains a work in progress.