U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter admitted to the Senate that U.S. armed forces have only trained 60 Syrians to fight against the Islamic Caliphate in Syria, and there might be a particularly big reason why the U.S. can’t find more trustworthy fighters: biometric intelligence gathered during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is identifying many Syrians as terrorists.
Carter recently admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) that the Department of Defense has only trained 60 Syrians to fight the Islamic Caliphate in Syria. The small number is a sign of the ongoing failure of the Obama administration’s strategy in Iraq and Syria. But while people have noted the failure they haven’t looked too deep into why it’s such a small number of trained Syrians.
Some of the testimony in the SASC transcript indicates Syrians don’t trust the U.S. to back them in Syria and thus they don’t want to fight under U.S. terms. But other testimony shows the U.S. is unable to use many Syrians because of their ties to terrorism. Both these reasons likely are true but the second reason is particularly interesting.
U.S. armed forces have captured the biometric data of many Afghans, Iraqis, and other nationalities since 2001. They’ve enrolled this information in a DOD database called the Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS).
Open source media accounts claim a variety of numbers when speculating on how many people’s biometric data are now in ABIS, but a 2007 article in Stars & Stripes reported the actual “number of Iraqi and Afghan individuals in the database is classified.” That likely remains true today—and for all nationalities.
Regardless, ABIS is a rich source of intelligence. And that intelligence has already proved valuable for U.S. troops in foreign lands and for U.S. authorities attempting to catch terrorists who continue targeting the U.S. for attacks.
So even if the DOD hasn’t specifically said it’s using biometrics enabled intelligence in its efforts to vet Syrians, it undoubtedly is. However, how big of a part that’s playing in rejecting Syrians whose data have previously been captured and linked to terrorism remains unknown.
The number of people biometric data have helped screen out in the effort to train Syrians to fight the Caliphate is strategically important because if - if - it is high, it is yet another piece of information that points to the concept of training Syrians as being an unrealistic idea.
Hopefully senators and representatives are asking the DOD about this. And if they aren’t, they should be.
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