Category: CT/ COIN

IS-K Never Left

Yesterday’s deadly suicide attacks at Kabul airport serve as a grim reminder that “Islamic State-Khorasan province” (IS-K) is still strong, despite the group losing its physical territory in eastern Afghanistan. …

Yesterday’s deadly suicide attacks at Kabul airport serve as a grim reminder that “Islamic State-Khorasan province” (IS-K) is still strong, despite the group losing its physical territory in eastern Afghanistan. 

TWIN BOMBINGS NEAR KABUL AIRPORT

Over 70 civilians and at least 12 U.S. service members died in the twin suicide bombing that rocked Abbey gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul (KBL) and the nearby Baron hotel on Thursday (26 August 2021). Taliban fighters were reportedly also wounded in the attack. 

Map showing Abbey gate and Baron hotel via Maxar Technologies (basemap) and NPR (annotations)

The first explosion took place at the “Abbey gate,” the airport’s southeast entrance, where thousands of Afghans gather daily to be processed for evacuations. Following the blast, a “number” of IS-K gunmen opened fire on civilian and military forces at Abbey gate, according to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Videos that surfaced online show the grim aftermath of the attack, with dozens of wounded or killed civilians floating in the nearby drainage ditch. 

Very high resolution imagery shows crowds of civilians gathered at Abbey gate (source: Maxar Technologies)

The second attack took place near Baron hotel, which is just a few meters from Abbey gate. This attack was also conducted through a person-borne improvised explosive device (PBIEV), according to CENTCOM. Baron Hotel served as an evacuee processing center and was therefore frequented by foreign citizens, Afghans seeking extraction, and international military staff, mainly British. 

 

ISIS-K claimed the attack through the group’s media wing Amaq Agency and said that one of its fighters detonated a suicide vest only five meters away from U.S. Marines posted at Abbey gate. The group has not claimed responsibility for the second attack near Baron hotel, although there is no doubt that IS-K is behind it too.  

IS-K: THE EXPECTED (AND IMMINENT) THREAT

On the day of the attack, the United States Department of State warned Americans remaining in Afghanistan to avoid Kabul airport and Americans at the airport to leave the site immediately. The intelligence was solid and indicated an imminent threat. 

For days, the U.S. intelligence community warned that IS-K is likely to take advantage of the chaos in Kabul and launch mass-casualty attacks on the crowds of Afghans and U.S. soldiers at Hamid Karzai International Airport. The looming IS-K threat was a significant factor for President Biden to decide against extending the evacuations beyond August 31st.

The threat assessment did not come as a surprise for seasoned analysts, given the security vacuum resulting from the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul and the chaotic international military withdrawal. Mass-casualty attacks have been ISIS-K signature modus operandi in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the offshoot emerged in 2015-2016. The situation in Kabul presented an opportunity for the group to strike the U.S., rival the Taliban, and regain media attention. 

For IS-K, Thursday’s twin bombings are also a message to Afghanistan’s new overlords (and the group’s old rivals), the Taliban. As the U.S. leaves the country, Afghanistan is up for grabs for all militant jihadi groups that want to establish sanctuaries, attract followers, and expand. 

IS-K IN AFGHANISTAN’S THREAT LANDSCAPE

IS-K has been part of Afghanistan’s security landscape for at least six years and was responsible for some of the most gruesome attacks against civilians in South Asia, including a mass casualty attack at a maternity ward in Kabul that killed over 20 doctors, nurses, mothers, and newborn babies in 2020.

IS-K fighters in Kunar province sometime in 2017 (screenshot of Amaq Agency video via Long War Journal)

Established by disenfranchised Pakistani Taliban, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants, and foreign fighters, IS-K seeks to establish an Islamic State in Central Asia (including, but not limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan), which would act as a province of the broader global caliphate once envisioned by IS “central” in Syria and Iraq. 

IS-K built its territorial foothold in the Pakistani Taliban’s and IMU’s areas of influence. The group never succeeded in capturing urban centers but did secure sanctuaries in several key valleys in the N2KL area (Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar, and Laghman provinces) and a few Uzbek villages in Jowjzan province.

IS-K presence in N2KL area (source: Telegraph)

Joint US-Afghan operations and a separate Taliban offensive rooted IS-K out of its safe havens in 2019-2020 – read more about that here. The Taliban can be credited with defeating IS-K in southern Nangarhar province following a series of battles described by US CENTCOM commander as a “bloody mess.” However, the group retained sleeper cells across the country, including Kabul, Jalalabad, and Herat, periodically conducting terrorist attacks. 

In the past year, IS-K saw an unexpected influx of recruits from the Afghan Taliban. Many Taliban fighters, especially those affiliated with the hardline Haqqani network, condemned the Doha peace process, slamming it as a deviation from Jihad in favor of negotiating with the enemy. 

IS-K’s message still resonates with many diehard Taliban that are unhappy with the group’s decision to allow the safe evacuation of international forces, their citizens, and Afghan allies out of Kabul. IS-K has been inciting followers and sympathizers to attack the evacuation. 

OUTLOOK

IS-K will continue to be a favorable alternative for jihadists disgruntled with the Taliban’s “moderate extremism” showcased to convince the international community that they have changed. IS-K will also continue to attract hardcore militant Salafists with an appetite for violence against the country’s Shia and other non-Sunni communities and a wish for the caliphate to spread beyond Afghanistan’s border. 

With less than four days left before the evacuation’s “z-day,” there is no reason to believe that IS-K will cease to attack. IS-K will likely try to mount new attacks against international forces and civilians at the airport, and the Taliban. As a result, international governments will probably pull the plug prematurely on their evac missions, as many countries have already formally announced an end to all airlift operations out of Kabul. 

The already chaotic withdrawal is slowly ending in a bloody disaster. 

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NATO Special Operators Now Exfiltrate People Directly from Kabul

Recently emerged open-source information suggests that special operations forces (SOFs) of several NATO members are now evacuating people stranded in Taliban-controlled Kabul.  STUCK IN KABUL Thousands of NATO citizens and…

Recently emerged open-source information suggests that special operations forces (SOFs) of several NATO members are now evacuating people stranded in Taliban-controlled Kabul. 

STUCK IN KABUL

Thousands of NATO citizens and Afghan associate staff are stuck in Kabul after the Taliban have established checkpoints at Hamid Karzai International Airport (KBL), the epicenter of international evacuations. Airport security – mainly consisting of international military forces – is also slow and cautious to let people in after the August 17 mayhem when thousands of Afghans overran the airport, occupying the runways and disrupting flights for hours – read our situation report here.

According to local reports, the Taliban are already going door to door, searching for Afghans that have worked with the now-defunct Afghan government or foreign forces. The Taliban have executed, tortured, and imprisoned collaborators in other cities they control, and are likely doing the same in Kabul, especially as international media attention shifts away. Foreign citizens are also in danger, and there is no guarantee that the Taliban will continue “to play nice.” 

Overview of Kabul and Hamid Karzai International Airport

DARING RAIDS

The British Special Air Service (SAS) is conducting raids in Kabul to evacuate British citizens and Afghans at risk, according to the Mirror. SAS operators are joined by Afghan translators and American special mission units, according to the same source. The rescue mission retrieved around 200 people from and around Kabul. 

French SOFs are reportedly also conducting their own operations to locate and extract French citizens and associated staff from Kabul. French President Emmanual Macron announced on Twitter that around 200 French and allied Afghans were evacuated and thanked French service members and diplomatic staff for organizing these “sensitive operations.” Two French cargo planes – one A400M and one C-130 – service the air bridge between KBL and the French military base in the UAE. 

Spain is another NATO member that is sending forces into Kabul to exfiltrate vulnerable persons. The Spanish press has identified the Grupo Especial de Operaciones (GEO/ English: Special Operations Group) of the National Police as spearheading the search & rescue efforts. GEO extracted 53 Afghan collaborators on Wednesday alone, as per an El Pais report. 

Spanish GEO escort civilians at Kabul airport (source: El Pais)

Germany will soon start exfiltrating its citizens and vulnerable associated Afghans from Kabul city, the German ministry of defense announced on Twitter. Two H-145 helicopters will arrive today at KBL and will link up with approximately 40 German SOFs from the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK). The KSK contingent inserted aboard the first German evacuation flight on August 17. 

The United States is missing from the list as there are no concrete reports or evidence suggesting otherwise. In fact, U.S. Secretary of Defense (ret.) Gen. Lloyd Austin said on 19 August that he “does not currently have the capability to go out and extend operations into Kabul.” Instead, Secretary Austin said that the U.S. is coordinating with the Taliban to let U.S. citizens through, although more de-confliction is needed. 

Secretary Austin’s statement is probably political, and not based on military facts. It is unlikely that special mission units like Delta Force or DEVGRU are not deployed at KBL, or that specialized U.S. Army or Marines formation are not up to the task. Alternatively, there is a slight chance that U.S. search & rescue operations in Kabul are actually taking place, but their activity is kept secret or outsourced to contractors for reasons of operations security and political deniability. 

Other countries, including non-NATO, are likely conducting similar raids, but information is sparse given the sensitive nature of these operations. Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, and others, have also sent SOFs to help coordinate the evacuation at KBL, but there is no indication that they are traveling into downtown Kabul to retrieve their citizens and allies. 

OVER 10K TROOPS GUARD KBL

Currently, there are around 10,000 international military forces at KBL. At least 7,000 of them are U.S. forces (mainly from the 82nd Airborne Division), nearly 1,000 British, and several hundred French. Many other countries have also deployed dozens of troops to provide site security. 

International evacuations continue at a steady pace since August 17. With thousands of people still stranded outside of KBL and unable to reach the airport, the evacuation will likely last at least another week with no guarantee that all vulnerable people will make it out. 


Cover photo: A U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey lands to extract Marines assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion while conducting night raid operations training on Camp Pendleton, Calif., Nov. 26, 2013. The live-fire training prepared the Marines for their upcoming assignment as the Maritime Raid Force for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alejandro Pena, 1st Marine Division Combat Camera/Released)

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Evacuations Amid Chaos at Kabul Airport (Situation Report)

After capturing the majority of provincial capitals, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday (15 August 2021).  Despite the speed of their advance over the past weeks, most…

After capturing the majority of provincial capitals, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday (15 August 2021).  Despite the speed of their advance over the past weeks, most observers did not expect the Taliban to reach Kabul this quickly. 

The Taliban seized the Afghan Presidential Palace on Sunday afternoon without firing a shot, throwing Kabul into chaos. International diplomatic missions and Afghan nationals have since scrambled to reach Hamid Karzai International Airport (KBL) – the sole gateway for people trying to flee the country. KBL has since become the epicenter of international evacuations.

CHAOS ENGULFS KABUL AIRPORT

Initially, commercial and military flights evacuated embassy staff and Afghan citizens at a steady pace. NATO military forces, especially 7,000 US troops that President Biden ordered back into Afghanistan, are guarding the evacuation. Nearly 100 aircraft have facilitated the evacuation so far, including American C-17s and C-130s, according to Twitter user @DefenceGeek’s flight tracking. 

Aerial tankers such as KC-135s have been operating non-stop over the Gulf of Oman and Afghanistan to refuel various planes airlifting people out of Kabul, as flight tracking data shows. 

US and British flights on route to Kabul on 15 August (screenshot from FlightRadar24)

Over the last 24 hours, the situation at the airport has dramatically deteriorated. Social media content shows people climbing over walls to reach the aprons and flocking the runway in a desperate attempt to board departing flights. 

At least three persons fell to their death after they clung to the landing gear of an aircraft that took off from KBL. Several other civilians were injured in the stampede that ensued on the runway. 

[Disclaimer: some viewers might find the footage troubling] 


Very high resolution satellite imagery released by Maxar Technologies shows in clear detail the chaos that has engulfed KBL, with crowds of Afghans blocking runways and aprons, and Kabul. 

The desperation of Kabul residents shows that they would rather risk their lives fleeing Afghanistan than live under Taliban rule.

EVACUATIONS SUSPENDED – MONDAY

On Monday afternoon, the U.S. military took command of Air Traffic Control (ATC) at KBL and closed the airspace for civilian airlines to prioritize military flights. As a result, many commercial aircraft inbound for KBL had to be rerouted to alternate airports or return to their place of origin. 

On Monday evening, ATC grounded all flights at KBL after the U.S. military lost control of the airport. With thousands of Afghans occupying the runways, evacuations had effectively stopped for several hours on Monday. With flight operations interrupted, many late-comers – namely European states – struggled to exfiltrate their people and associated staff.

For example, German military aircraft only left for Afghanistan on Monday morning and completely missed the window to land at KBL. Following a brief layover in Baku, the two German A400 planes resumed their flight to Kabul. After circling for several hours, waiting for an opportunity to land, one A400 touched down on Monday night. The other plane had to divert to a “secure third country” (likely Uzbekistan) to refuel. Only seven people were evacuated by the German aircraft. 

In contrast, the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and others have already carried out successful rescue missions.

Example of a US Air Force (USAF) evacuation mission spotted on FlightRadar24 on August 16

One shocking report claims that one U.S. C-17 cargo aircraft, designed for 134 paratroopers, has evacuated around 640 people – mostly associated Afghan nations that applied for the Special Immigration Visa (SIV). In total, the U.S. has evacuated 2,000 SIV a applicants from Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. 

Photo from the inside of Reach 871, the US Air Force C-17 that hauled over 600 people to Qatar

EVACUATIONS RESUME – TUESDAY

ATC has resumed flights at KBL on Tuesday morning after the runway was cleared. Evacuation of several diplomats and civilians already took place, but the situation remains volatile. It is unclear how long the US troops facilitating the evacuation will be able to control the airport, now that the Taliban is solidifying their control on Kabul. 

Considering the poor planning, slow reaction of many European governments and unpredictable security situation at KBL, it is likely that many Afghan nationals (associated staff, such as translators, security staff, drivers, etc.) that assisted international forces will be left behind.  The future of the associated staff is looking stark as they may face persecution from the Taliban. According to social media reports from journalists in Kabul, the Taliban are already searching for Afghans that have worked with Western governments or NGOs. Many of them report that they feel abandoned by the countries that they have supported for many years.

BACK TO THE “ISLAMIC EMIRATE OF AFGHANISTAN”

Kabul residents are afraid that the Taliban will re-impose Sharia law, as they did in the 1990s, with girls and women being forbidden to go to school or work. Despite assurances to the press that they have changed, the Taliban will undoubtedly reinstall their reign of terror and revoke fundamental human rights. 

The Taliban have not attacked or interfered with the evacuations at KBL, suggesting that there is at least an informal non aggression pact in place. However, the Taliban have formed a corridor around the airport and set up multiple checkpoints throughout Kabul including on the roads leading to KBL. 

We will continue to monitor KBL and compile updates as the situation develops.


by Emma Bicknese

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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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