Category: Terrorism

Erbil Rocket Attacks: Iranian Munnition, Usual Suspects

On the night of 15 February, approximately 14 rockets landed in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). TARGET: ERBIL Three projectiles hit the military annex of Erbil…

On the night of 15 February, approximately 14 rockets landed in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

TARGET: ERBIL

Three projectiles hit the military annex of Erbil International Airport that the Coalition built to service counter-ISIS operations. Three housing facilities were destroyed in the attack, killing one contractor (non-US) and injuring others. 

Battle Damage Assessment: Contractor housing facilities destroyed at Erbil Air Base

At least two other rockets landed in residential areas, destroying public and private properties and injuring bystanders.

IRANIAN ROCKETS

The unexploded ammunition recovered by Kurdish counter-terrorism forces is identical to the Iranian-made “Haseb” 107mm rocket artillery, a copy of the Chinese Type 63. This type of munition is ubiquitous among Iraqi Shiite militias courtesy of the IRGC-Quds Force. 

Iranian rockets used in the attack

The Haseb has a short-range (7-10 km), which meant the aggressors launched the attack from proximity. As Haseb rockets can be launched from the back of a minivan or pick-up truck, they can easily be smuggled in denied areas. 

دەزگا ئەمنییەکان ئەو ئۆتۆمبێلەیان دۆزییەوە کە مووشەکەکانی ئاراستەی هەولێر کردبوو

بە گوێرەی زانیارییەکانی پەیجی…

Posted by ‎دژه تیرۆری کوردستان Kurdistan CT‎ on Monday, February 15, 2021

 

Images released by Kurdish authorities show the launch vehicle, a light food truck, with a disguised rocket artillery system. The vehicle appears to have infiltrated the city under the cover of delivering food to a local market. 

USUAL SUSPECTS: IRAQI SHIITE MILITIAS

A group calling itself “Saraya Awliya al-Dam” (Custodians of the Blood) claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the Washington Institute, Saraya Awliya al-Dam is just a cover used by Asaib al-Haq (AHH), a seasoned Iraqi Shiite militia with strong ties with Iran. The U.S. Department of State designated AHH as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on January 3, 2020. 

Iranian-backed attacks on Coalition forces in Iraq are not new. The targeting of Erbil is, however, largely unprecedented (the Sept 2020 attack is the only exception) and could indicate an expansion of Iranian-approved targets. If that’s the case, Iraq’s most stable area is now in Tehran’s crosshairs. 

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Iran Tests Carrier-Killing Missile, Suicide Drones (and Other Insights from Exercise “Great Prophet 15”)

During the latest military exercise(“Great Prophet” 15), the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) demonstrated how Iran would attack U.S. military bases and warships in the region. Great…

During the latest military exercise(“Great Prophet” 15), the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) demonstrated how Iran would attack U.S. military bases and warships in the region. Great Prophet 15 (GP15) was Iran’s third drill in almost two weeks – at a time of rising tensions due to the U.S. President Donald Trump’s departure from the White House.

  1. GP15 is part of a series of annual wargames organized by the IRGC to test new capabilities and tactics. Initiated on 15 January, this year’s exercise featured two stages during which the IRGC-AF simulated a combined drone and missile attack on enemy “U.S.” air defenses, bases, and warships in the Middle East. 
  2. The IRGC-AF successfully test-fired some of its newest and most sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and ballistic missiles (B.M.s), including a long-range anti-ship variant that could theoretically target U.S. aircraft carriers. 
  3. The IRGC-AF exercise had three main objectives: To respond to the tensions with the United States, reinforce Iran’s strategic deterrent, and test new ballistic missile technologies. 

STAGE ONE: AIR DEFENSE ATTACK

(1)In the first phase of GP15, the IRGC-AF simulated a drone swarm attack on enemy radar sites and air defenses. Footage released by Iranian media showcased the following UAVs: 

  • Shahed 161 combat reconnaissance drone (at least four) flying in formation. One of the many drone variants that the IRGC-AF developed based on the U.S. RQ-170 captured in 2011. 

Shahed 161 during GP15

  • Shahed 129 medium altitude long-endurance (MALE) drone. At least one was shown taking off, armed with Sadid-345 glide bombs, and then airborne. Similar with the Israeli Hermes 450 and American MQ-1 Predator, the Shahed 129 is one of Iran’s most seasoned UAV. The IRGC-AF operated the Shahed 129 extensively in the Syrian Civil War, and it continues to support it with upgraded ordnance and sensors

Shahed 129 with Sadid-345 bombs participates in GP15

  • Unidentified loitering munition (aka “suicide drones”) neutralizing target buildings and a mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. 

A rare sighting: the IRGC’s coy suicide drone makes a cameo at GP15, destroying a variety of targets.

  • This unidentified model is similar to the suicide drone Saudi Arabia recovered after the Iranian attack on petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq-Khurais and Afif in 2019. Unable to identify the drone, the Saudis have labeled it “Delta Wave UAV.” Experts have pointed out that Delta Wave might be an evolution of the Toofan-2 suicide drone that Iran unveiled in 2015. 

Comparison between the suicide drone from GP15 and the airframe wreckage from Abqaiq-Khurais and Afif, Saudi Arabia (2019)

(2) The use of drones and specifically “suicide drones” for S/DEAD roles (suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses) is a logical tactic for Iran. Due to their stealthy characteristics, suicide drones can fly below the radar to strike enemy air defenses and heavily defended targets. With the drone-cruise missile attack in 2019 on Saudi Arabia, Iran has already proved this works in a real-world engagement. 

(3) An advantage of loitering munition is that it is inexpensive, especially compared to ballistic missiles tipped with anti-radiation warheads like the IRGC used for SEAD in previous exercises.  

(4) After the SEAD mission, the IRGC-AF fired its second kinetic package, a barrage of rockets and missiles, to destroy the enemy base. The ballistic missile attack could have also played a support role in saturating the enemy air defenses. Footage from the exercise shows the coordinated launch of thirteen Zolfaghar/Dezful missiles on 15 January. 

Dezful ballistic missiles lined up to fire in anger (frame from @Imamedia video)

(5) IRGC-AF claims to have tested new high-performing variants of the Zolfaghar and Dezful ballistic missiles (B.M.), as well as Zelzal (guided artillery rocket). Iran alleges that these new variants feature radar-absorbent material and a detachable warhead. Video analysis of exercise footage confirms the latter capability. 

Freeze frame: IRGC-AF demonstrates separable warhead capability

 

STAGE TWO: KEEPING U.S. AIRCRAFT CARRIERS AT BAY 

(6) In the second and final stage of GP15, the IRGC-AF turned its attention to the maritime domain. At least three Sejil-2, two Gadhr, and one Emad medium-range B.M.s struck naval targets in the Gulf of Oman and the northern Indian Ocean on 16 January 2021. 

(7) The main event of GP15 was the maiden launch of a long-range anti-ship ballistic missile (AshBM). The missile traveled for 1,800 km to the northern Indian Ocean, where it reportedly hit a floating target. 

(8)The U.S. military confirmed the event, adding that two Iranian missile splashed down 32 km from a commercial vessel and 160 km from the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (CSG). The missile test did not pose a threat to the Nimitz carrier or its escorts. 

Overview: Possible Iranian AshBM attack route towards the Arabian Sea and the location of the U.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier the day after the missile test

(9)Iran already possesses short-range AshBM, namely the Khalij Fars (200 km) and Zolfaghar Basir (700 km), ideal for overwhelming enemy targets in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. However, a functional long-range capability would be a game-changer. 

(10) If the new Iranian AshBM is indeed a credible threat, the U.S. would need to withdraw its aircraft carrier from the 1,800 km engagement range in the event of a war. Having to operate from such a distance would significantly reduce the effectiveness of offensive naval operations. Fighter jets would have to travel farther, reducing sortie rate and operational tempo, while most ship-launched missiles would be entirely out of range. 

(11) Pushing American carriers and destroyers far away from Iranian shores adds another layer to Iran’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. While Iran has produced a massive and diverse arsenal of short-range missiles (both cruise and ballistic) that brings the entire Gulf region in the IRGC’s crosshairs, long-range advancements are relatively rare. 

Iranian anti-ship cruise missile engagement ranges (© Defense Intelligence Agency/DIA)

Iranian ballstic missile engagement ranges (© Defense Intelligence Agency/DIA 2019)

(12) There is nevertheless reason to be skeptical about the Iranian claims. Currently, information on the AshBM is minimal. We know that a missile test took place and that a warhead crashed into the Indian Ocean after a 1,800 km flight. There is no image or video of the missile. It is not even clear if the long-range AshBM is an entirely new model or a spinoff of one of the missiles launched on Saturday.

(13) Furthermore, the kill chain to strike a U.S. carrier guarded by Aegis-capable destroyers is very complicated especially in wartime conditions, as the WarZone eloquently explained. While the recent exercise may not represent a clear and immediate threat to carrier operations in the region, it does indicate that Iran is getting closer to limiting the U.S. Navy’s freedom of movement in the area. 


by HARM

editing by Gecko

Cover image and video frames @Imamedia

Media analysis sources for reference: video 1, video 2

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Attack on Vienna: 9 Minutes of Terror (SOCMINT)

On 2 November 2020, at around 2000 CET, a gunman opened fire in downtown Vienna, killing four people and injuring 23. The Austrian special forces responded swiftly and neutralized the…

On 2 November 2020, at around 2000 CET, a gunman opened fire in downtown Vienna, killing four people and injuring 23. The Austrian special forces responded swiftly and neutralized the attacker approximately nine minutes after the shooting started. 

Hours before the attack, the gunman pledged allegiance to ISIS and terrorist leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi in an Instagram post. Like in similar cases, this enabled ISIS to take credit for the attack. 

THE GUNMAN

Austrian Police identified the gunman as Kujtim Fejzulai (KF), a 20-year old Austrian. He had Albanian roots and held both Austrian and Macedonian citizenships. 

KF was known to the Austrian Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism since 2018 when he attempted to travel to Syria to join ISIS. Turkish intelligence apprehended FK before he could cross the border and extradited him to Austria. FK was sentenced to 22 months in jail on terrorism charges but was paroled eight months later.  

In July 2020, KF traveled to neighboring Slovakia to buy ammunition for a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle. He nevertheless returned empty-handed as he did not have a gun license. The Slovak police say they informed their Austrian colleagues immediately, which the Austrian Interior Ministry corroborates. 

Despite the tip-off from the Slovaks, the Austrians failed to exploit the intelligence and arrest the attacker. KF went free, attended radical mosques, and eventually procured weapons. FK also met with known foreign Islamists last summer – two from Germany who were under surveillance and two from Switzerland who have been arrested. 

THE OBJECTIVE

Neither the timing nor the target area was a coincidence. KF launched the attack four hours before new coronavirus restrictions came into effect. As the Viennese enjoyed a last night out, bars and restaurants were packed. 

The attack started near a Jewish Cultural Center on Seitenstettengasse, which was initially considered the gunman’s target. It became clear later that KF’s aim was broader. Thanks to Social Media footage and openly available mapping services, we can partially recreate the attacker’s path. 

THE ATTACK

1. Aprox. 20:00 hours (CET), Seitenstettengasse, 48°12’42.2″N 16°22’28.5″E

Tactical overview 1: Vienna gunman begins his rampage

CCTV footage from the Jewish Cultural Center shows Fejzulai, armed with an AK-47, wearing a white robe and a ski mask, running down Seitenstettengasse. At approximately 20:00 CET, KF guns down his first victim in front of Meinz Cocktail Bar. 

 2. Aprox. 20:05, Schwedenplatz tram station, 48°12’43.5″N 16°22’33.8″E

Tactical overview 2: Gunfight between terrorist and police officers

The attacker appears again on social media. An eyewitness recorded a gunfight between the Austrian police and the terrorist at the Schwedenplatz tram station. The fire exchange resulted in the injury of one officer. The eyewitness filmed the gunfight from the 1st floor of the McDonalds across the street.

3. Aprox. 20:07, Stephandsom Strasse, 48.212196’’N, 16.375128’’E

Tactical overview 3: Gunman flees location of gunfight

An eyewitness video shows the gunman fleeing the gunfight scene via Stephandsom Strasse. KF passes in front of a Billa supermarket and a theatre before taking a left turn toward St. Ruprecht church, where he is ultimately gunned down by the police. 

4. Aprox. 20:09, St. Rupert’s Church, 48°12’43.6″N 16°22’28.6″E

Tactical overview 4: Tango down

The Austrian police guns down KF near St. Rupert’s Church. A photo shared on Twitter shows the suspect laid flat on the cobblestone.  

HUNT FOR SECONDARIES?

Initial reports indicated there were multiple active shooters. Social media photos show the arrest of several suspects. 

Austrian policemen arrest several suspects in connection with the ongoing security situation on 2 November 2020

Over the next few days, the Austrian authorities continued the hunt for potential accomplices through airborne patrols and follow-up raids. At least two helicopters were spotted on flight trackers, displaying behavior consistent with aerial surveillance.

Callsign “FLYCOM2,” operated by a private airborne monitoring company, surveilled the southern city of Graz and the Slovenian border. This sortie was very likely connected with follow-up counter-terrorist activities.  

Callsign “FLYCOM2” flying in a holding pattern over Graz before returning back to Slovenia (ADS-B Exchange screenshot)

The second helicopter flew with no identity and crossed into Slovakian airspace. The helicopter loitered over Bratislava before it returned to the Vienna metropolitan area. While we cannot tell with certainty who was operating the aircraft or what equipment it was carrying on board (SIGINT, IMINT), it is highly likely that this was also a follow-up counter-terror operation. 

“Anonymous” helicopter flies over Vienna after completing a sorties in Slovak airspace (ADS-B Exchange screenshot)

Austrian police also analyzed an estimated 20,000 video materials from eyewitnesses of the attacks, searched over 18 properties, and detained 14 persons believed to be connected with the gunman. 

Despite these efforts, the police have been unable to conclusively determine whether the gunman had any accomplices. 

THE AFTERMATH

KF’s attack marks the return of mass shootings in Europe after a period of relative calm. The Vienna shooting follows a series of terrorist attacks that have shaken France in recent weeks. 

There is reason to believe that ISIS might attempt to capitalize on the recent tempo and order or coordinate a new attack. However, given the group’s precarious situation in Syria and Iraq, it is unlikely that the “central leadership” will produce more than propaganda and calls to action to incite followers abroad. 

SITE Intelligence Group reports that ISIS propaganda has already launched a social media offensive earlier this month. Pro-ISIS media is inciting lone-wolf attacks against the West, with emphasis on Madrid and Paris

Another important lesson to draw from this attack is that no country, not even neutral ones like Austria that refrain from foreign intervention, are safe from jihadi terrorism.


T-Intelligence congratulates the Austrian security forces for enlisting the crowds’ help in the blitz chase for the shooter. At the height of the attack, the Viennese Police asked social media users to send images and videos related to the attack. User-generated content of the shooter posted on social media, proved to be valuable Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) for live situational awareness, trial evidence, and forensics data.

Learn more about OSINT here.  


by HARM

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What We Know About the Secret Israeli-Saudi Meeting in Neom

On 22 November 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), and Israeli Prime-Minister Netanyahu met in Neom (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). The…

On 22 November 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), and Israeli Prime-Minister Netanyahu met in Neom (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). The meeting was the first known official or semi-official encounter between Israel and Saudi Arabia and came at a critical time for the Middle East. 

NETANYAHU’S SECRET VISIT

Although the Israeli presence was a secret, the Prime Minister’s Gulfstream IV private jet (T7CPX) was spotted on flight trackers. ADS-B data shows the flight path of T7CPX from Tel Aviv-Yafo to Neom, where the plane remained grounded for two hours. The aircraft returned to Israel around 22:05 UTC. 

Flight tracking data confirms that Israeli PM Netanyahu’s private jet travelled to Neom on the evening of November 22 (T-Intelligence)

Netanyahu’s presence in Neom has since become an open secret, as multiple sources from the cabinet confirmed the story for Israeli news outlets. Israeli media also reported that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen joined PM Netanyahu for the meeting in Neom. 

The main point on the agenda was likely the normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations. Secretary Mike Pompeo has pursued MBS to follow the example of his neighbors, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, to establish formal ties with Israel. However, Riyadh has publically stated that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is a precondition for a Saudi-Israeli deal. 

GOING AFTER “PROJECT AMAD?”

There is increasing speculation that the parties also discussed the Iranian threat.

After years of backchanneling, Saudi Arabia and Israel may be negotiating the possibility of direct action against Iran’s nuclear program (Iranian codename Project “Amad”). The Israelis are interested in using Saudi airspace to refuel and return after striking the nuclear facilities in central and south Iran. 

Israel may have already discussed or will discuss similar arrangements with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

A potential Israeli campaign against Iran’s nuclear program would require more than 20 fighter aircraft, including F-35I stealth fighters, and many other logistical support assets like aerial tankers. These assets need to be forward deployed and their flight paths carefully coordinated to ensure the operation’s success and a safe return for the Israeli pilots. Additionally, the operation would likely require special operations forces (SOFs), who would insert from nearby states. 

From Israel’s perspective, the issue of military action against Iran has become more pressing after President Trump’s electoral loss. President-elect Biden will likely have a softer stance on Iran. Biden has already promised to re-join the nuclear deal with Iran if Tehran promises strict compliance. At the moment, these plans are nevertheless speculation. There are no troop movements or logistical preparations that suggest an imminent attack against Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia are likely trying to establish common ground should the military option be on the table in the future.  

MISSILE STRIKE ON JEDDAH

Hours after the Neom meeting ended, the Yemeni Houthi militia launched a cruise missile strike on an Aramco petrochemical plant in Jeddah. Geolocation of social media material confirms the event and location. 

Geolocation confirms authenticity and location of an Instagram video that claims to show a fire at the Aramco facility in Jeddah (T-Intelligence)

The Yemeni Houthi militia claims to have debuted the Quds-2, one of the many missiles Iran is secretly developing for its proxies. Quds-2 is believed to be a spin-off of Iran’s Soumar or Ya-Ali missiles. 

Launched from an undisclosed location in northern Yemen, the Quds-2 missile traveled 640 km (400 miles) to Jeddah, the militants claim. 

While the Houthi already possess ballistic missiles (BM) that can strike targets 1,000 km away, the increased range of the militants’ low-observable (LO) munition is concerning. LO munition like cruise missiles and so-called “suicide drones” can bypass the Saudi PAC-2 air defenses designed to counter BMs. 

Battle damage assessment shows minimal damage at the Aramco plant in Jeddah. One crude oil storage tank was disabled, and the blast scarred a second tank. 

Battle Damage Assessment shows minimal damage on Aramco facility in Jeddah (imagery: Planet Labs, Inc.; assessment: T-Intelligence)

The attack was a clear message from Iran. It serves as a reminder of Iran’s massive missile stockpile and proxy network in the Middle East. 


by HARM

Editing by Gecko

Our findings were first published as a Facebook post on 23 November 2020.

This article was produced using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT). Learn more about OSINT here

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U.S. Maintains Pressure on al-Qa’ida’s Most Overlooked Franchise

A covert US airstrike has killed the leader of Tanzeem Hurras al-Din (HAD), al-Qa’ida’s leading Syrian franchise, in Idlib province on 14 June 2020. Abu al-Qassam (also known as Khaled…

A covert US airstrike has killed the leader of Tanzeem Hurras al-Din (HAD), al-Qa’ida’s leading Syrian franchise, in Idlib province on 14 June 2020. Abu al-Qassam (also known as Khaled al-Aruri) was a seasoned al-Qa’ida (AQ) operative who was plotting attacks against the West. 

According to social media sources, an MQ-9 Predator drone armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, likely operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), was present over Idlib that day.

Impact marks on the target vehicle, blade cuts, and ordnance debris suggest that the US employed the secretive, blade-wielding derivative of the AGM-114 Hellfire, known as the R9X

AGM-114R9X HELLFIRE AKA THE “FLYING GINSU” 

While the United States never officially acknowledged its existence, the R9X is an open secret. The R9X trades the “Hellfire” warhead for six sword-like blades that eject upon impact and slice the target into pieces. Because there is no explosion, the weapon minimizes collateral damage. 

The R9X debuted in February 2017, when it neutralized AQ deputy commander Abu Khayr al-Masri near al-Mastouma in Idlib province. Since then, JSOC and the CIA have repeatedly used the weapon against high-value targets in northwestern Syria, Afghanistan, and reportedly the Horn of Africa. 

R9X schematic via The Wall Street Journal

WHY IS THE US TARGETING TANZEEM HURRAS AL-DIN (HAD)?

Tanzeem Hurras al-Din (HAD, or “Guardians of the Religion Organization”) was founded in February 2018, when a group of AQ loyalists splintered from Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham, the most influential terrorist group in Idlib. The hardliners left because HTS publicly cut ties with AQ central. 

Now AQ’s leading Syrian franchise, HAD aims to overthrow the Syrian regime and establish a regional Islamic State. In contrast to HTS, HAD is outspoken about its intent to attack the United States and the West. 

Despite its malign intentions, international observers and the press often overlook HAD. According to a UN intelligence report, HAD’s numbers are currently small (between 1,500 and 2000 fighters), the group exercises little territorial influence and depends on HTS funds to operate.

In the long term, HAD could nevertheless establish itself as a more radical alternative to HTS. While HTS cooperates with Turkey on the Sochi peace process, HAD opposes negotiations with the “infidels.” HAD favors a full-out confrontation with the pro-government forces. Part of this strategy is to mobilize the Syrian opposition under its wing and AQ banner.

COUNTERING AL-QA’IDA IN SYRIA (AQ-S)

The United States intelligence and military collectively refer to HAD, HTS, and other ex-Jabhat al-Nusra groups as al-Qa’ida in Syria (AQ-S). Despite their different policies and marketing strategies, the jihadi groups are still cooperating to achieve AQ’s global agenda. 

In response to the growing terrorist threat in northwestern Syria, the US has deployed kinetic options to weaken AQ-S groups. The campaign began in 2014, when American drones targeted the Khorasan Group, then Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The operational tempo increased in 2019. American drones prosecuted four targets: A HAD training camp in June, a HAD safehouse in August, a foreign trainer of the “Red Bands” (HTS’ special forces) in December, and a car carrying Ahrar ash-Sham members later that month

With the latest strike on 14 June 2020, it becomes clear that HAD has absorbed the lion’s share of US airstrikes in Idlib. The focus on HAD indicates that Washington is increasingly concerned about the group’s intentions to attack the West. 



Intelligence suggests that HAD has recruited ISIS fighters who escaped from the siege on Baghuz al-Faqwani – diehards with extensive combat experience, and possibly networks of terrorist cells. HAD fighters also enjoy a fast gateway to Europe and other locations in the Middle East, due to their proximity to Turkish territory. Likely, the reduction of violence in Idlib has given HAD breathing space to build external terrorist networks and plan strikes against the West. 

Defeating HAD will require close coordination with Turkey, which de facto patrons Idlib province, and supports HTS, HAD’s “frenemy.” 


by HARM

Editing by Gecko 

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Evacuation “Shattered Glass”: The US/ Coalition Bases in Syria [Part 2]

DISCLAIMER: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception…

DISCLAIMER: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception is the well-known al-Tanf garrison in the 55-km exclusion zone. Positions in eastern Syria, which are still manned by the Coalition, will only be published after the forces have withdrawn. T-Intelligence has been aware –  down to exact grid coordinates – of the location of CJTF-OIR/ US bases in Syria since their construction. However, out of respect for OPSEC and force protection, we have refrained from revealing their locations. 


This is the second part of our Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) release on the military installations of the Coalition Joint task Task Force-Operation “Inherent Resolve” (CJTF-OIR) in Syria. You can find the first part of the series, which covers the military bases in Aleppo province and provides a background of the Coalition’s mission in Syria, here. The second part features the former CJTF-OIR bases in Raqqa province. 


COALITION BASES IN RAQQA PROVINCE

Combat operations in Raqqa province began in mid-2015, when the CJTF-OIR and its local partner forces (YPG Kurdish militia and select Sunni Arab groups) liberated Tel Abyad and parts of the Turkish borderlands from ISIS. Afterwards, the CJTF-OIR focused on the main strategic objective of expelling the jihadist terror group from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. 

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the Coalition’s airpower and special operations forces (SOFs), initiated a five-phase offensive to besiege ISIS forces in Raqqa. Operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” commenced on 6 November 2016 from the city of Ain Issa, which had been liberated in the previous months. Ain Issa was a key location for the Raqqa campaign as it hosted a significant CJTF-OIR mission support site, a logistics center, and a major internally displaced people (IDP) camp. 

AIN ISSA COP

Ain Issa COP on 24 February 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36.3854, 38.87328

Type: COP

Built: January 2017

Purpose: Multi-purpose Mission Support Site (MSM)

Infrastructure: The pre-existing site, a 400 square meter walled courtyard with a large two-story building, likely served an administrative role for nearby grain silos. After liberating the area from ISIS, the Coalition expanded the infrastructure in terms of size and structures. The CJTF-OIR has built around five large buildings/warehouses, several barracks tents, and a plethora of prefabricated one-story structures. A second walled site, primarily used for parking lorries and storing shipping containers, was built west of the dirt road. The outpost also includes five houses with courtyards southwest of the parking lot. A wider security perimeter was built to secure the entire area. The location is ideal to defend Ain Issa from attacks from the southeast. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF-OIR in November 2019. Under SDF control since then. 


AIN ISSA LB 

Ain Issa LB on 14 October 2018 via CNES/ Airbus

Coordinates: 36°25’49.5″N 38°47’07.9″E

Type: Logistics base (LB)

Built: February 2018

Purpose: Host and dispatch logistics along the line-of-communications to in-teather mission support sites and other facilities such as the nearby IDP camp near Ain Issa. 

Infrastructure: Previous to ISIS and the Coalition occupation, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) used the site for training. The Coalition took advantage of the semi-prepared land and established a large logistics base (LB). The LB consists of three clusters of buildings (at least 10 buildings each), traversed by a dirt road leading to a large asphalt pen. The latter was intended to host military and logistics vehicles, but also helicopters if necessary. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF-OIR in November 2019. Currently under SDF control. 


The first objective of phase one, neutralizing ISIS defenses south of the M4 highway, was achieved on 16 November 2016, when the SDF liberated a terrorist stronghold in the village of Tel Salman. With the preparations for the second phase of the operation underway, the CJTF-OIR went to work and built a major fire base near Tel Salman. 

TEL SALMAN FB

Tel Salman FB on 24 February 2018 via CNES/ Airbus and Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°15’37.3″N 38°55’44.6″E

Type: Fire base (FB)

Built: March 2017

Purpose: Fire support 

Infrastructure: The FB was initially an empty plain with a 1 km-long runway. The base was constructed around the runway in record time to forward deploy fire support assets in support of the siege of Raqqa, namely the M142 HIMARS multiple rocket launcher system (MRLS), mortars and howitzers. Multiple layers of sandbags and dirt walls separate the small housing units from ammunition depots and the many artillery firing positions on the FB’s ground. The base also dispatched field artillery units to the frontline. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF in November 2019. Under Russian or pro-government control since December 2019. 


The second phase of the offensive targeted Raqqa’s western countryside, aiming to cut ISIS’ lines-of-communications to Aleppo province and further reduce the group’s territory. This phase was concluded when the SDF reached the outskirts of Tabqa in mid-January 2017. As the advance brought the SDF 30 km west of Raqqa, the CJTF-OIR established forward logistics bases and more artillery nests close to the frontline. 

BIRSAN LB

Birsan LB on 4 April 2018 via CNES/ Airbus

Coordinates: 35°59’03.0″N 38°35’31.0″E

Type: LB (forward in-theater)

Built: 3 June 2017 

Purpose: Support the CJTF-OIR and SDF ground offensive against ISIS in Raqqa city. 

Infrastructure: The position was established shortly after Bîrsan (also known as Bir Sana/Ber Viya), a Kurdish village, was liberated from ISIS on 3 January 2017. Dirt revetments were built to define the site’s layout and to serve as a fortification layer. The pre-existing eight houses were re-purposed. The existing infrastructure was augmented with several new structures, including a 100 square meters warehouse, to extend site storage capacity. Some areas were kept clear of structures to store large shipping containers and other logistics crates and to provide a parking space for M114 Humvees, MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, NSTVs (Non-Standard Tactical Vehicles), and other military vehicles. The dirt road that connects the site to the main road is secured by a checkpoint and anti-VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) obstacles. 

Status: Under SDF control. 

During phase three in March 2017, which isolated Raqqa city from its western and eastern extremities, the Coalition launched an airborne operation that dropped SDF fighters and U.S. Army Special Forces deep behind enemy lines. After a few days of fighting, the CJTF-OIR captured the so-called “Tabqa triangle”: The city, the dam and the airfield. The latter was a Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) base that had housed the 12th Attack Squadron and the 24th Helicopter Brigade until it was seized by ISIS in August 2014. 


TABQA AIR BASE

Tabqa AB on 5 April 2017 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 35°45’21.7″N 38°34’25.9″E

Type: Air Base (AB)

Built: seized by CJTF-OIR on 26 March 2017 

Purposed: Rotary-wing aircraft FARP (minimal use)

Infrastructure: The AB has been rendered inoperable by successive bombing campaigns against ISIS, first by the SyAAF and then by the CJTF-OIR. The vast majority of buildings and structures have either collapsed or are in an advanced state of degradation. No significant reparations (if any) have been observed on the AB since the Coalition seized it. The high repair costs and immediate proximity to enemy territory (ISIS and SAA) were likely the main reasons why the Coalition did not invest in the AB. However, it was likely used as a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) for attack helicopters, while on close air support (CAS) duty over Raqqa. 

Status: Re-occupied by the SAA in November 2019. 

The fourth phase, which targeted the rural belt around Raqqa city, took nearly three months to complete. The fifth phase and subsequent battle for Raqqa took place between 6 June and 17 October 2017, ending with a costly victory for the SDF. The vast majority of the city was leveled by airstrikes, artillery fire, and IEDs, while thousands of ISIS fighters evacuated to the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) under a secret deal with the SDF. We documented the fight in a daily journal, which you can find here (volume 1) and here (volume 2). 


OBSERVATION POSTS 

In November 2018, in response to Ankara’s threats of invasion, the CJTF-OIR established at least three observation posts (OPs) on the Turkish border. Manned by less than 50 U.S. Special Forces (SFs), the aim of the OPs was to alleviate Turkey’s security concerns over cross-border weapons smuggling between the YPG (the SDF’s main fighting force) and Turkish PKK cells. The U.S. and Turkey also conducted joint patrols on both sides of the border and exchanged intelligence as part of a “security mechanism” deal to de-conflict northern Raqqa province. 

Observation posts: Tel Musa (upper left), Tel Abyad (lower left) and Tel Arqam (right)

However, as in the case of the Manbij de-confliction agreements, the border “security mechanism” failed to satisfy Turkey’s security needs. In anticipation of Turkey’s air-ground assault on the Tel Abyad- Ras al Ayn (Serekaniye) axis, the U.S. SFs withdrew from their border outposts on 8 October 2019. The forces were repositioned south of the M4 highway, which would become the boundary of Ankara’s Operation “Peace Spring.”


by HARM and Gecko 

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U.S. Kills Al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Leader in Yemen

The United States conducted a counterterrorism operation in Yemen that eliminated Qasim al-Raymi, the leader of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a deputy to al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri….

The United States conducted a counterterrorism operation in Yemen that eliminated Qasim al-Raymi, the leader of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a deputy to al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The operation took place on January 29, 2020, as a kinetic strike, but al-Raymi’s death was only confirmed on February 7, 2020. His death further degrades AQAP, the global al-Qa’ida (AQ) movement and their ability to stage external attacks. 

T-Intelligence has reported about the growing U.S. counterterrorism mission in Yemen since 2018, when we exclusively presented an airfield near Mukalla used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to eliminate AQAP targets, including Qasim al-Raymi. You can find that assessment here



Qasim al-Raymi is the latest foreign terrorist leader and high-value target (HVT) to be neutralized by the U.S in the past year. JSOC and CIA killed several Tanzeem Hurras al-Din (THD) and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants in Idlib province (Syria) throughout 2018 and 2019. The 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta (or “Delta Force”) neutralized ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a direct action raid on his compound in Barisha (Idlib) in late 2019. A U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone killed IRGC-Quds Force Major-General Qassim Soleimani near Baghdad International Airport on January 3, 2020.

High-value targeting (HVT) operations aim to throw organizations in disarray by “beheading” leadership figures and therefore complicating ongoing or planned operations. In the case of highly personalized groups, HVT campaigns can demoralize their supporters. HVT campaigns should not be viewed as a solution to a problem, but as an instrument of pressure that is highly efficient in the short-term. 

HVT- QASIM AL-RAYMI

  1. Born and raised in Yemen, Qasim al-Raymi was a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, where he fought and trained alongside AQ central headed by Usama Bin Laden. 
  2. Returned in the Arabian peninsula, Raymi became a major jihadi figure in southern Yemen, orchestrating attacks and seizing territories. In 2005, Raymi was imprisoned on terror charges. 
  3. A year later, Raymi and other 22 AQ-affiliated figures broke out of prison and worked towards creating AQAP. 
  4. Al-Raymi became the group’s top emir in June 2015, after Abu Basser al-Wuhayshi was killed in a U.S. kinetic strike. Under his leadership, AQAP reached an apogee of territorial expansion, which included Yemen’s fifth-largest city, al-Mukalla in 2015. The seizure or urban locations enabled AQAP to impose ISIS-style governance over large populations. 
  5. AQAP was only forced out of Mukalla in April 2016, when the Arab Coalition-backed by U.S. air power launched an offensive to recover the city. Since then, al-Raymi has been the target of an aggressive U.S. SOF campaign.
  6. In January 2017, the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU, or “ SEAL Team Six”) launched a direct action operation on the village of Yalka to capture or kill Raymi. While the target was not found, the operation was a major success in terms of intelligence collected. 

Qasim al-Raymi in a 2017 video via The Long War Journal

THE AQAP TERRORIST THREAT

AQAP is a foreign terrorist group and one of the strongest AQ affiliates worldwide. The group was formed in 2009 from the merger of AQ’s cells in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Yemen. As a militant jihadi group, AQAP plans to purge the Arabian peninsula of “Christians and Jews” and establish an Islamic Caliphate. AQAP’s strategy includes disbanding the Yemeni state, overthrowing the Saudi royal family, assassinating Western nationals and striking Western targets at home and abroad. The terror group has been actively plotting and executing both internal and external attacks intended to cause mass casualties. The group’s most infamous attacks include:

  • October 12, 2000: a water-borne improvised explosive device manned by two AQ operatives rams into the USS Cole in the Port of Aden, killing 13 U.S. service members. 
  • December 6, 2004: A group of AQAP gunmen attacks the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, KSA, killing 5 non-American staff members. 
  • September 17, 2018: AQAP militants detonate two vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) outside the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a. 
  • August 27, 2009: AQ militant Abdullah Asiri attempts to assassinate KSA’s Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, then Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, by detonating an explosive belt. Bin Nayef was only injured. 
  • December 6, 2013: AQAP ram a VBIED into attack into a hospital of the Yemeni Defense Ministry in Sana’a and then storm the building with assault rifles. The attack left over 50 people dead. 
  • January 7, 2015: Said and Cherif Kouachi attack the office on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing at least 12 people. The Kouchi brothers received firearms training in Yemen and were acting on behalf of AQAP. 
  • December 6, 2019: A Saudi airman opens fire on a classroom building at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, U.S, killing three people. 

COVER PHOTO: As seen through a night-vision device, U.S. coalition forces and Afghan commandos get dropped off at their target by a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter to conduct a night operation in the Sairobi district of Afghanistan’s Kabul province, Dec. 2, 2013. (U.S. Department of Defense)

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Evacuation “Shattered Glass”: The US/ Coalition Bases in Syria [Part 1]

Disclaimer: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception…

Disclaimer: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception is the well-known al-Tanf garrison in the 55-km exclusion zone. Positions in eastern Syria, which are still manned by the Coalition, will only be published after the forces have withdrawn. T-Intelligence has been aware –  down to exact grid coordinates – of the location of CJTF-OIR/ US bases in Syria since their construction. However, out of respect for OPSEC and force protection, we have refrained from revealing their locations. 


THE MISSION

The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) led by the United States (U.S.) has built around 20 major military sites in northern and eastern Syria since the fight against ISIS began in 2014. This includes semi-prepared landing zones (LZs), forward operating bases (FOBs), fire bases (FBs), and combat outposts (COPs).  The installations have housed military personnel, received and administered frontline logistics, provided medical facilities, and were used to mount and execute combat operations. The military infrastructure was key in supporting three main operational objectives: 

  • Combat operations against ISIS
  • Capacity building for local partner forces
  • Deterring attacks from adversarial forces

At the apogee of the campaign against ISIS in 2018, around 2,000 CJTF-OIR multinational forces were stationed in Syria, consisting of SOF (special operations forces), SF (special forces), JTAC (joint-terminal attack controllers), logisticians, engineers, airfield support personnel and clandestine servicemembers. Their numbers began to decrease after the defeat of ISIS’ physical caliphate in early 2019 (read more about the battle of Baghuz here). In October 2019, President Donald J. Trump ordered the U.S. troops, which account for the bulk of CJTF-OIR forces in Syria, to leave the country. 

What should have been an orderly and gradual withdrawal turned into an emergency evacuation, when Turkey announced a military offensive in northern Syria. Operation “Peace Spring” was a unilateral and poorly coordinated move that threatened CJTF-OIR personnel and bases. U.S. forces were forced to retreat from northern Syria, particularly from Aleppo and Raqqa provinces. The United Kingdom, France and other in-theater CJTF-OIR partners also withdrew their troops. The retreating Coalition forces had no time to dismantle or destroy their bases. As videos would later show, they left behind furniture, personal items, provisions, and occasionally “easter eggs” for the new occupants. Russian soldiers have since taken over the abandoned Coalition bases. 

Around 500 CJTF-OIR forces – mainly U.S. troops – continue to operate in eastern Syria, where they are tasked with securing the local energy infrastructure against ISIS resurgents. The forces are stationed in the Mid-Euphrates River Valley and near the Syrian-Iraqi border. 


ALEPPO PROVINCE (WEST OF EUPHRATES) 

The CJTF-OIR made its operational debut in Syria during the siege of Kobani (northeastern Aleppo province) in 2014. After partnering up with the Kurdish YPG militia and select Arab Sunni groups, the CJTF-OIR liberated the Upper Euphrates Valley and northern Raqqa province, where the Coalition established its first military bases.

MISTENUR HILL (KOBANI) FOB

Mistenur Hill FOB on November 25, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°52’31.4″N 38°21’50.4″E

Type: FOB

Built: Between late 2014 and early 2016

Purpose: Secure Kobani from the south and forward deploy SOF elements on Syrian soil.

Infrastructure: The FOB was built from scratch next to a radio antenna site in Kobani’s southern hills. CJTF-OIR forces have erected a central two-story building surrounded by several small structures. A tall, thick concrete wall serves as the compound’s external fortification layer. Observation towers overlook the perimeter in all cardinal directions. Unconfirmed information suggests that the FOB started as a joint French-U.S. SOF garrison. 

Note: During Turkey’s Operation PEACE SPRING, FOB Mistenur hill came under ‘danger close’ artillery shelling from across the border (read more about the incident here). 

Status: Evacuated. 


KOBANI LANDING ZONE (KLZ) 

Kobani Landing Zone (KLZ) on January 6, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°39’00.7″N 38°18’12.4″E

Type: LZ

Built: March to September 2016

Purpose: Enable heavy airlift operations and serve as close air support (CAS) staging area. 

Infrastructure: U.S. Air Force engineers have built the semi-prepared airfield from scratch near the village of Sarrin. The 2,000-meter long dirt runway received America’s largest heavy lifters (C-5 and C-17) that brought the bulk of logistics required for CJTF-OIR’s operations, including vehicles, munnition, construction materials, and other equipment. The U.S. has also built a large campground (more than 50 tents, warehouses, and depots), which provided housing facilities for personnel and logistics. Landing pads, reinforced revetments and a few hangars were added to station rotary-wing aircraft. 

Note: KLZ was the last CJTF-OIR facility to be vacated in Aleppo province. It stayed open until the last vehicles and personnel had evacuated from Aleppo province. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian control since November 15, 2019. 


LAFARGE CEMENT FACTORY (LFC)-HQ 

LaFarge Cement (LFC) Factory on September 1, 2016 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates:36°32’43.7″N 38°35’15.7″E

Type: HQ

Built: 2010 (by LaFarge)/ occupied since 2015 

Purpose: Command and Control (C2) of in-theater counter-ISIS operations. 

Infrastructure: The cement factory, which was originally built by the French company LaFarge, was repurposed as the CJTF-OIR’s Syrian-headquarters and C2 center. The pre-existing buildings also served as barracks and logistics depot. The site’s large and wide parking facilities were used to store vehicles and helicopters. 

Note: The factory survived the war and continued to produce cement under ISIS occupation thanks to the protection taxes that the company paid to local armed groups including ISIS. LFC officials admitted to this practice in 2017, after French prosecutors charged the company’s former CEO with terrorism financing. French officials intervened on behalf of the company to stop the U.S. from bombing the factory in 2014.  The CJTF-OIR evacuated LFC on October 16, 2019, after the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) advanced to the M4 highway and came dangerously close to the facility. To sanitize the area and destroy the material left behind, two USAF F-15E jets bombed LFC.

Status: Evacuated. Likely under SDF control. 


ALEPPO PROVINCE (EAST OF THE EUPHRATES) 

Successive victories against ISIS east of the Euphrates allowed the Coalition and the SDF to expand operations in Manbij district, west of the river valley. Due to its large population and proximity to the Turkish border, Manbij was a key city for ISIS. The terrorist group used Manbij to plot attacks on European targets (e.g. Bataclan theater attack) and to receive foreign terrorist fighters transiting through Turkey. 



The SDF liberated Manbij in August 2016 with the intention to cleanse the entire area of ISIS. Alarmed by the SDF’s advance towards the Turkish border, Ankara mobilized its assets in the Syrian armed opposition and launched Operation “Euphrates Shield.” The Turkish offensive blocked the SDF’s advance westwards and threatened to capture Manbij. This forced the CJTF-OIR to change its posture in Aleppo province from post-ISIS stabilization operations to deterring a Turkish-backed attack.  To this end, the U.S. installed a multi-layer security perimeter around Manbij city: Two combat outposts (COPs) west and north of Manbij, armed checkpoints, and air-land patrols. 

WEST MANBIJ COP

Manbij COP West on March 23, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°29’42.9″N 37°49’32.1″E

Type: COP

Built: May 2017 (expansion started) 

Purpose: Post-ISIS stabilization operations,  monitor and de-conflict the M4 highway that links Manbij to Arimah (under Syrian-Russian control) and al-Bab (under Turkish-SNA control). 

Infrastructure: The CJTF-OIR has enhanced a pre-existing “T-shaped” compound that encompassed three buildings and two large transmission antenna towers. The Coalition erected around 20 tents and halls in the compound and sectioned the site with multiple sandbag layers. A 300-meter-long driveway with anti-VBIED barriers at both ends links the compound to the motorway. The COP was continuously expanded throughout 2019, until U.S. forces received the order to withdraw. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian and/or Manbij Military Council (MMC) control since October 15, 2019.


NORTH MANBIJ COP

Manbij COP North on September 1, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°36’40.0″N 37°55’39.8″E

Type: COP

Built: March to November 2018

Purpose: Monitor and de-conflict the Sajur River Valley (SRV) and the North-South access points to Manbij city. 

Infrastructure: The COP was built from scratch near the village of Dadat. Within just several months, the camp was visibly consolidated and sectioned in multiple areas with sandbag layers. The living quarters (sleeping tents, chow hall) and operations center in the middle, armory in the second layer, and multiple fortified combat positions were established in all cardinal directions. Annex sites were established south and west of the road. The COP continued to expand throughout 2019, until the evacuation. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian and/or Manbij Military Council (MMC) control since October 15, 2019. 

All diplomatic and military efforts (e.g. “Manbij Roadmap”, combined-joint patrols) failed to de-escalate the dispute between Turkey and the U.S. over Manbij. The risk of “blue-on-blue” incidents remained high until the last Coalition forces left the area. 

In the aftermath of the withdrawal, the SDF’s Manbij Military Council (MMC) struck a deal with pro-government forces to secure the Manbij pocket. While the city remains under the MMC’s exclusive control, the Russian military police and the Syrian Arab Army are now patrolling the Sajur River Valley and the M4 highway. Negotiations about the fate of Manbij are still underway between Qamishli and Damascus.


by HARM and Gecko

The second part will feature the CJTF-OIR installations in Raqqa Province.  

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IRGC-Quds Force General & PMU Commander Killed in US airstrike in Baghdad

IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General Qasim Soleimani, and Kata’ib Hizbollah (KH) Commander/PMU Deputy Chairman, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad International Airport. The targets are confirmed…

IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General Qasim Soleimani, and Kata’ib Hizbollah (KH) Commander/PMU Deputy Chairman, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad International Airport. The targets are confirmed killed by all sources. Soleimani and his associates were planning to attack and kidnap American diplomats in Iraq. 

This is the biggest targeted killing operation since the death of Bin Laden. As the commander of the IRGC’s external operations branch, Qasim Soleimani was in charge of exporting the Khomenist revolution and IRGC model for two decades. He did this by founding, arming and training Shiite fundamentalist militias – including terrorist organisations – in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Qasim Soleimani and his Iraqi partners are responsible for thousands of American and Coalition deaths since the start of the Iraqi War. 

With Soleimani coordinating all of Iran’s extra-territorial operations and overseeing the Syrian battlefield, his death will have a major impact, at least in the short-term, for the IRGC. Plans, drafted by Soleimani himself, nevertheless remain that call for the destruction of Israel and for the removal of US forces from Iraq. Washington and Jerusalem could have killed Soleimani many times before, but refrained from “pulling the trigger” out of fear of retaliation. However, in light of the recent attacks on international shipping, Coalition bases and on the US embassy, the gloves were off. 



STRIKE PACKAGE

We can confirm with a high degree of confidence that the kinetic package that killed Qasim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis consisted of four AGM-144 “Hellfire” air-to-ground missiles. Since the blast area was determined to be a target-rich environment, the strike platforms fired standard Hellfire missiles that had explosive warheads – ensuring maximum effect – and not the secretive (CIA-exclusive) AGM-144X9 “Flying Ginshu” with pop-blades – lately featured in air raids against al-Qa’ida militants in Idlib. The missiles were fired by a MQ-9 “Reaper” UCAV and/or AH-64 Apache attack helicopter participating in the operation. Besides Soleimani and Muhandis, the kinetic strike killed three Hizbollah and PMU militants. The operation was overseen by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). 

Minutes before the strike, Qasim Soleimani and three Hizbollah militants flew from Damascus to Baghdad on board ChamWings flight 6Q501. They landed between 12.30 and 12.40 (local time) at Baghdad Airport. From touchdown, JSOC had a very short strike window to bomb the two-vehicle motorcade brought by al-Muhandis to greet Soleimani, without damaging the airport or losing them in Baghdad’s civilian-dense traffic.

RETALIATION STILL EXPECTED

  • The airstrike was launched to prevent further counter-retaliations directed by the IRGC and executed by its Iraqi proxies such as KH on American and Coalition targets. Based on the US assets deployed to the area, we determine that the US prepared to face hostage situations, kidnappings and an armed assault on the embassy. The US has also called for its citizens to immediately leave Iraq
  • The biggest fear is that Iran will make use of its ultimate deterrence plan and launch missile attacks on US facilities in the Middle East. To mitigate this risk, the US scrambled F-35As and F-22s to police the regional air space.
  • Intense military air traffic, involving multiple aerial assets, over Europe. US SOF elements have been forward deployed from Souda Bay (Greece) to Jordan, while KC-135 tankers were moved from the UK to Greece and Cyprus. Over 22 C-17 heavy lifters formed an “air-bridge” between the continental US and the Middle East, in the past 72 hours. ISR platforms are online 24/7 over the Persian Gulf, Eastern Mediterranean and Iraq. 



ALERTS

RISK OF WAR is increasingly high. 

An ARMED ASSAULT on the US Embassy in Baghdad remains possible, but very difficult, given the influx of US forces in the region.  

TERRORIST AND ASYMMETRIC ATTACKS in Iraq or abroad, including suicide attacks and kidnappings, are very likely.


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The US Finally Retaliated against Iranian Proxies. Now what?

The American air strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), one of the strongest Iraqi Shiite militias, on 29 December are a “game-changer.” The strikes prove that the United States is finally…

The American air strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), one of the strongest Iraqi Shiite militias, on 29 December are a “game-changer.” The strikes prove that the United States is finally willing to retaliate militarily against Iran’s covert aggression. While the kinetic retribution will instate some degree of deterrence, Washington will likely remain passive towards Iranian activities in Iraq. In response to the air strikes, Iran could provide its Iraqi partners, such as KH, with air defense assets. 


FAILURE TO RETALIATE ENCOURAGED IRANIAN ATTACKS

Ever since he took office, U.S. President Donald Trump refrained from using force to retaliate against Iranian attacks. The President long believed that crippling economic sanctions are enough to bring the Mullahs to the negotiating table, while military options will only pull the U.S. further into the Middle Eastern quagmire/spiral of unwinnable and open-ended conflicts. Absent red lines and a credible deterrence, Iran was free to attack U.S. interests or allies –  as long as Tehran could cover its tracks. The September air raid on the Saudi Aramco petrochemical facilities, for example, proved how much damage Tehran can cause, while remaining unpunished. 


THE PMUs, AN ARMY OF “SPECIAL GROUPS”

After the Aramco attack, Iran moved to the next and most important point on its target list: Coalition facilities in Iraq. Through its ideological vanguard, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and its coalition of Shiite militias, the Islamic Republic in Tehran sought to render Iraq an inhospitable location for the Coalition. Those militias – referred to by the CIA as “Special Groups” (SGs) – provide the bulk force and command structure of the 100,000-men strong Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq. The PMUs are a coalition of militias established or reactivated by a 2014 fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that calls on Shiites to fight ISIS. 

COMPILATION of Iraqi Tier One SGs and their leaders. ANNEX shows groups of interest that patrol the Syrian-Iraqi border on behalf of the IRGC.

The strongest and largest SGs are KH, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), the Badr Organization (BO), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN) and Kata’ib Imam Ali (KIA). Their leaders are open about their close relationship with Iran and many have even served under IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasim Soleimani in the Iran-Iraq War. These groups and their predecessors are responsible for thousands of American casualties during the Iraqi war and are the culprit behind the hundreds of rocket attacks on Coalition bases in the past year. 

The SGs share ideological and strategic objectives with their Iranian allies: 

(1) to evict Coalition forces from Iraq (if necessary by force);

(2) to establish a Komeinist regime in Baghdad;

(3) to export the Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East;

(4) to destroy Israel. 


STEP ONE: EJECT THE COALITION FROM IRAQ

The Coalition (“Operation Inherent Resolve”; OIR), was formed by the U.S. to combat ISIS at the invitation of the Iraqi government in 2014. The Coalition gathered more than 40 international members to conduct airstrikes against ISIS and provide training and advice to the Iraqi Security Force (ISF). The Coalition and the IRGC-backed SGs both fought against ISIS and, despite their differences, even coordinated at times. However, with the threat of ISIS physical caliphate removed, Iraqi SGs resumed their campaign to force U.S. and Coalition forces out of Iraq. 

In 2019, the SGs began targeting Coalition installations in Iraq with rocket salvos. While the fire was mostly indirect and ineffective, it occasionally injured Coalition forces and killed Iraqis serving in the ISF. The rocket attacks targeted everything from airfields, government facilities, civilian sites to training camps. Left unpunished, the attacks escalated and multiplied in the second half of the year. Only when a 30+ rocket salvo fell on the K-1 air base near Kirkuk on 27 December 2019, leaving one American dead and others severely wounded, the IRGC and its partner forces crossed a “red-line.”


K-1 ATTACKS PROMPTS COALITION TO RETALIATE

The attack on K-1 air base prompted the United States to seek retribution, which came in the form of a F-15E “strike package” from Jordan. The American jets prosecuted five sites used by Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), two in Syria and three in Iraq. The target list was carefully picked to strike the IRGC where it hurts the most, namely the land line-of-communication (LOC) linking Iran with its allies in Syria and Lebanon.

All KH targets that were prosecuted by the F-15s are located in the immediate vicinity of the Al Abukamal and al-Qa’im crossings on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Control over these locations is vital for the IRGC to maintain its LOC open. Iran’s expansive transnational logistical operation requires regional warehouses and assets in place to facilitate the free flow of cargo. With the destruction of KH’s headquarters (HQ) and ammunition caches, Iran’s LOC took tactical – albeit only temporary – damage. 

South of Al Abukamal, the IRGC, KH and other groups jointly operate one of the largest Iranian-financed military installations abroad. The compound is known as “Imam Ali” and serves as a major logistics node for the military capabilities flowing on the land-bridge. The compound hosts several ammunition depots, barracks and – according to ImageSatIntel – is undergoing construction to shelter an underground tunnel network. Despite multiple Israeli Air Force covert raids, Imam Ali garrison continues to expand and distribute military capabilities to Iraqi SGs operating in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Sunday’s air strikes demonstrate that the US is willing to prosecute Iraqi SGs if they kill U.S. personnel in Iraq. However, this experience will likely prompt the SGs to expedite their effort to establish an air wing under Iranian supervision. 


AIR FORCE FOR THE PMUs

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the KH leader and PMU deputy commander, issued an order to establish an air force for the PMU on 4 September 4 2019. The air wing will be headed by Salah Mahdi Hantoush. Iraqi Prime-Minister Abel Abdul Mahdi rejected the idea, fearing that the PMU will further develop as a parallel armed force, similar to the duality of  IRGC and regular Iranian Armed Forces. Muhandis nevertheless defended his proposal, pointing to Israeli Air Force (IAF) attacks against several KH camps on Iraqi territory. Pressured by the PMUs, the Iraqi government imposed stricter airspace regulations that require “all Iraqi and non-Iraqi partners” (including the OIR-Coalition) to seek approval from the Iraqi command before flying in Iraqi airspace.

Despite the strong rhetoric from Baghdad, the PMUs perceive the Iraqi government as unable or unwilling to protect them from external attacks. The core SGs in the PMU also see the Iraqi government as an existential threat, as Baghdad seeks to integrate them into the Armed Forces. This would mean that SGs such as KH, BO and other groups need to disband their political wings and assimilate into the ISF. Despite paying lip service to the process, the big SGs are unlikely to give up their political power or their military autonomy. 



The IRGC is expected to meet al-Muhandis’ wish and aid the PMUs in forming an air force. First, the IRGC will likely supply them with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that will provide a degree of defense against air attacks. The IRGC-Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) are likely to provide the PMUs with the “Khordad the 3rd” (Buk M-2 rip-off), “Mersad” (MIM-23 Hawk copy) and “Sayyad-2” SAM systems. The IRGC-AF could also arm their Iraqi counterparts with expandable unmanned aerial vehicles (X-UAVs) and cruise missiles, similar to those used in the Aramco attacks. [MORE ABOUT IRANIAN-PRODUCED SAM SYSTEMS]

The deployment of such systems in Iraq would significantly interfere with Coalition air operations in Iraq. Coalition aircraft would be subjected to a SAM threat, especially in the border areas, making even the most routine operations such as ISR more difficult. Attacks against Iraqi SGs will be rendered more complicated, as the Coalition will need to use more sophisticated weaponry and assets and always be ready to shift from ground attack to Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). 

Restricting the airspace is another step in making Iraq an increasingly inhospitable place for the Coalition, which could eventually led to a withdrawal of forces from the country.


TARGET: US EMBASSY BAGHDAD

Thousands of Hizbollah supporters have breached the GREEN ZONE and are trying to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. BO leader, Hadi al-Amiri and AAH leader, Qais al-Khazali are present in the crowd. The situation is ONGOING.


By HARM

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