Category: CT/ COIN

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 Positions in eastern Syria, which are still manned by the Coalition, will only be published after the forces have withdrawn.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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VIDEO: American F-15, F-35 Jets Carpet-Bomb ‘ISIS Island’ in Iraq

The United States Air Force conducted a spectacular bombing raid on an ISIS-infested island in Iraq on September 10, 2019. F-35A Lightning II and F-15E Strike Eagle jets dropped more…

The United States Air Force conducted a spectacular bombing raid on an ISIS-infested island in Iraq on September 10, 2019. F-35A Lightning II and F-15E Strike Eagle jets dropped more than 36,000 kilograms of bombs in a terrain denial operation that sought to destroy natural cover and vegetation aiding the terror group’s tactical movements. The F-35s took off from their forward deployed location in al-Dharfa air base (United Arab Emirates), where they replaced F-22A Raptors for air interdiction and defensive counter air roles in April. 

Qanus island, the target area, has served as a major transit hub for ISIS fighters and their supplies, as the terror group reverted back to insurgency tactics after losing their stronghold of Baghuz al-Faqwani (Syria) in early 2019. The air raid was executed with precision-guided munition. It was as much a tactical operation as it was a show of force. 

The USAF air strikes augmented a ground clearance operation led by the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Forces (CTF). Iraqi commandos are currently conducting Operation “Black Dirt” aimed at combating the terror group’s residual presence in Iraq’s sparsely populated areas. The USAF continues to support Iraqi counter-terrorism efforts through a NATO training mission and combat operation called “Last Warning.” 

Despite the recent covert Israeli Air Force (IAF) attack on Iranian-afiliated targets in Iraq, the US and Iraq have managed to de-conflict the airspace and continue their joint effort against ISIS. 

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U.S.-led Coalition & SDF Terminate ISIS’ Physical Caliphate, COINOPS to Follow

On March 23, 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of Baghuz al-Fawqani, the “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’s” (ISIS/Da’esh) last stronghold in Syria’s Mid-Euphrates River Valley…

On March 23, 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of Baghuz al-Fawqani, the “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’s” (ISIS/Da’esh) last stronghold in Syria’s Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV). The victory marks the end of the terror group’s physical caliphate, which once stretched from central Iraq to northwestern Syria and encompassed almost 10 million people. The remaining Da’esh fighters (Iraqi, Syrian, and foreign terrorist fighters/FTFs) made their last stand in a in a pocket of four square kilometers, consisting of a makeshift tent camp, desolated houses, and underground tunnels.

As the conventional campaign ends, the post-physical-caliphate era begins with 10,000-20,000 Da’esh fighters on the loose across Syria and Iraq, ready to resurge at the right time, while their wives and children guarantee a transgenerational survival of the jihadist struggle.


OPERATIONAL LAYOUT

1. The battle for Baghuz al-Fawqani began in late December 2018. The offensive marked the last phase of Operation Roundup (OR), a joint effort of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) to clear the MERV and the Syrian-Iraqi border from Da’esh remnants.

2. OR was spearheaded by the SDF’s Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakah local Arab Sunni affiliates, the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), and the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC). When the offensive stagnated in late 2018, the SDF was forced to deploy the battle-hardened Manbij Military Council (MMC) and the Kurdish YPG militia – the PKK’s Syrian affiliate – from Raqqa and the Kabur valley to finish the job. YPG-led operations were however repeatedly halted due to Turkish cross-border attacks in northern Syria.

3. The U.S.-led Coalition/CJTF-OIR continued to assist the SDF with advisors, special operations forces (SOF), artillery and air support. The Coalition’s Combined Air Operation Center (COAC) based in al-Udeid air base (Qatar) employed a variety of aircraft for close air support (CAS), based on targeting data from SDF-embedded forward air traffic controllers/SOFs. While CJTF-OIR statements only mention the F-15C*, IMINT shared by twitter user @obretix and SOCMINT reports also indicate the presence of the following aircraft:

  • B1b Bomber, AC-130 Spectre gunship, Apache attack helicopters, U28A tactical ISR, MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (United States Air Force);
  • Beechcraft 350 ISTAR and Tornado fighter jet (British Royal Air Force);
  • Rafale F4 (French Air Force).  

4. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), U.S. and French infantrymen furthermore assisted the SDF with cross-border artillery fire from Fire Base Shaham (near al-Qa’im, Iraq) and other combat outposts in the MERV. ISF and select Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) deployed on the Iraqi-Syrian border to prevent Da’esh fighters from escaping to Iraq.

5. Pro-government forces stationed in Al Abukamal blocked the western escape route from Baghuz. While it is unknown whether the Syrian Arab Army coordinated with the Coalition or the SDF, the pro-government forces engaged Da’esh fighters who attempted to cross the Euphrates river and escape into the desert.


INTELLIGENCE FAILURE?

6. Despite the high-number of airborne ISR platforms and intense SIGINT and GEOINT collection efforts, the CJTF-OIR and SDF have consistently been mistaken about the enemy and civilian presence in the Baghuz pocket.

7. The initial estimate of the enemy’s order of the battle (January 2019) was between 600 and 1,400 fighters, shielded by over 2,500 civilians. After the evacuation of the Baghuz pocket, the SDF nevertheless estimated that 1,600 Da’esh fighter were killed and 25,000 civilians left the enclave. The intelligence failure repeatedly delayed the ground assault and allowed Da’esh to go on the offensive:

a. Da’esh exploited the considerable civilian presence to complicate and deter air strikes.

  • The CJTF-OIR reported only 97 strikes between February 24 and March 9 2019, resulting in 137 engagements that targeted 228 Daesh tactical units and destroyed 71 tactical vehicles, 35 vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, 17 supply routes, 11 fighting positions, 10 weapons caches, eight staging areas, four command and control nodes, two tunnels, two heavy machine guns, one anti-aircraft gun, one fuel tanker, and one boat.
  • In the previous months, the number of engagements was significantly higher (646 strikes between January 13 and 26, 179 strikes between January 27 and February 9, and 186 strikes between February 10 and 23).

b. Starting in mid-February, the SDF and Da’esh struck a number of deals that facilitated the exit of non-combatants (wounded fighters, spouses, children and captives) from Baghuz. This forced the SDF to pause the military offensive and organize the flow of refugees to the al-Hawl internal displaced people (IDP) camp (Hasakah province). The main screening points were established east of the riverside tent camp on the SDF-held Jabal Baghuz, a 240 m high cliff. Testimonies from aid workers suggest that no party was expecting or prepared to face such a challenge.

8. A second CJTF-OIR/SDF intelligence failure was to believe that the besieged Da’esh fighters would quickly surrender to avoid a “bloodbath.” To keep their own losses to a minimum, the CJTF and SDF pursued a strategy of “bombing Da’esh into surrendering.” However, this expectation was not only unrealistic (based on previous battles and lessons learned), but also counterproductive, as it provided Da’esh with immense propaganda potential to divinize their “last stand.”

9. When the SDF resumed ground operations on March 11, Da’esh met the advancing force with rocket-propelled grenades, mortar attacks, sniper fire and suicide vehicle-borne  improvised explosive device (VBIED). A number of female fighters/Da’esh wives engaged in firefights with the SDF. Even when the SDF was “in the wire,” the jihadists barricaded themselves in tunnels and continued with suicide attacks on the surface.


DA’ESH IS NOT DEFEATED

10. Although the physical caliphate has been 100% liberated, Da’esh still poses a lasting threat to regional and international security. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimates that absent counterinsurgency pressure, Da’esh will likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory in the MERV.

a. Da’esh maintains a residual presence of over 20,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. Da’esh still controls remote and sparsely populated areas both states. The jihadist ranks consist of senior leaders, fighters and facilitators. The group also operates sleeper cells in cities, which are capable of conducting targeted assassinations and mass casualty attacks. Ultimately, the dispersed Da’esh fighters are working towards overhauling their transnational networks and regaining an offensive military capacity.

  • In Syria, Da’esh maintains a heavy presence in the Markaz al-Mayadin subdistrict (Deir ez-Zor province) and the oil-rich al-Sukhnah subdistrict (central Homs province). The pro-government camp, which controls this territory, has not taken adequate measures to limit the group’s freedom of movement such as airborne patrols or 24/7 checkpoints. As a result, Da’esh cells have already conducted attacks and will likely increase efforts to disrupt traffic on the Palmyra/Tadmur-Deir ez-Zor highway and seize oil pumping stations in central Syria. Da’esh cells also conducted several IED and suicide attacks in Manbij, Raqqa and Tabqa, which resulted in civilian and Coalition casualties, in the last year. The MERV area is equally challenging to stabilize, as the territory is sparsely populated, porous and dominated by local tribal dynamics. The SDF will need approximately 30,000 local Arab Sunni recruits to conduct indigenous-led stabilization operations in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa province.
  • In Iraq, Da’esh is mostly active in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Salah ad-Din province. Da’esh fighters are regularly conducting night raids, kidnappings and assassinations. The joint CJTF-OIR-ISF Operation Last Warning (OLW) targets the remaining Da’esh pockets where they are most likely to resurgence (Anbar desert, Wadi Hauran, and southern Nineveh). However, the Iraqi Security Forces are years, if not decades, away from operating without CJTF-OIR support. The NATO Training Mission-Iraq remains vital for local capacity building.

Syria and Iraq Situation map as of March, 2019 via T-Intelligence

  • In Afghanistan, joint U.S.-Afghan SOF and air operations redirected the expansion of IS-Khorasan (IS-K) from the Spin Ghar mountain range (southern Nangarhar province) to the Pakistani borderlands controlled by the Taliban, resulting in escalating violence between the two groups. IS-K is currently entrenching positions in the infamous Korengal valley (Kunar province), while losing the Darzab enclave in the Uzbek-majority Jowjan province [MORE ON IS-K IN AFGHANISTAN].

b. The situation in Al Hawl IDP camp poses a critical threat for post-caliphate stabilization efforts. Al-Hawl has been overwhelmed by the influx of non-combatants from Baghuz. The 25,000 new inhabitants mostly consist of Da’esh fighters and their families, who remain unrepentant and radicalized. As assessed by U.S. CENTCOM General Joseph Votel, the large-scale surrender in Baghuz “is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge.” Like its predecessor organization Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Da’esh will likely attempt to destabilize or attack camps and prisons in order to replenish its ranks with battle hardened fighters. Da’esh-affiliated media are already calling for attacks on SDF positions all over Syria.

c. Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) have proven to be the group’s die-hard element in the battle for Baghuz. If allowed to return to Europe/North America, they will pose an immediate threat to their home countries. However, due to the lack of evidence necessary for valid convictions, Western governments prefer to leave FTFs in SDF custody (short-term solution) or have them transferred to the Iraqi authorities (for conviction).

11. CJTF-OIR will gradually disengage from major military operations and reduce the troop count from 2,200 to 400 in Syria. In this last operational phase, CJTF-OIR will provide security, planning and support to the Iraqi government and appropriate authorities in Syria to prevent Da’esh from resurging. CJTF-OIR can be expected to keep air-land ISR and CAS assets in Iraq and prosecute high-value targets using SOFs and UAVs.


By HARM and Gecko

Due to operations security (OPSEC) CJTF-OIR does not report the number or type of aircraft employed in operations, the number of munitions dropped in each strike, or the number of individual munition impact points against a target.

YPG social media accounts refer to the battle for Baghuz as Operation Fight Terrorism and to the MERV offensive as Operation Jazzira Storm.

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IS-K Diverted from Nangarhar Province, Takes Korengal Valley from Taliban (COIN/OPS-BRIEF)

As key IS-K territories are under pressure by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the rival Taliban, the group is seeking to capture new high-ground sanctuaries on…

As key IS-K territories are under pressure by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the rival Taliban, the group is seeking to capture new high-ground sanctuaries on the border with Pakistan. After defeating the Taliban in a turf war, IS-K is currently entrenching positions in the Korengal valley. While the group’s overall lethality has decreased, IS-K remains a threat for Transatlantic security interests and regional security. Since 2015, IS-K has conducted at least 83 attacks on government and civilian targets in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.


1.Since its inception in January 2015, the “Islamic State – Khorasan province” (IS-K) has been engaged in a multi-front war against the rival Taliban, the United States and the Afghan government. IS-K largely consists of disenfranchised Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter groups, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and a small segment of foreign terrorist fighters (FTT) of other origin.

2. IS-K aims to establish an Islamic State in Central Asia (including, but not limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan), which would become a province of the wider global caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. IS-K is in contact and has received direct support from ISIS central. Furthermore, high-value individuals fleeing from the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields have found shelter in Afghanistan.

3. To reach its objectives, IS-K is mobilizing hardcore Sunnis by escalating sectarian and takfiri violence, degrading trust in the Afghan government, and confronting local competitors. IS-K’s public communication efforts paint the Taliban as puppets of Islamabad, unwilling to enforce Salafi/Deobandi principles and unable to expel foreign military forces from Afghanistan. While IS-K uses coercion and forced recruitment for population control, the group also leverages local dynamics to gain legitimacy and enlist indigenous support.

4. In 2019, IS-K is less popular and under more pressured than ever before. The group has banned drug cultivation and trade, executed community elders, and imposed Sharia law on isolated tribes, causing unrest and uprisings. At the same time, joint U.S.-Afghan special operations raids have re-directed IS-K’s expansion from the Spin Ghar mountain range to borderlands controlled by the Taliban, resulting in escalating violence between the two insurgent groups.   

5. IS-K has built its territorial foothold in the TPP’s and IMU’s areas of influence. While the group did not succeed in capturing urban centers or large rural areas, IS-K controlled a number of Uzbek-villages in Jowjzan province and continues to find sanctuary in key valleys in the N2KL area (Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar and Laghman) on the border with Pakistan. IS-K also operates an unknown number of cells in more than ten other Afghan provinces, including Kabul and Herat. In Pakistan (PAK), IS-K is embedded with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tribal agencies.


ENVIRONMENTAL RECONNAISSANCE (RECCE)

6. N2KL is located in the Hindu Kush mountain range on the Afghan-Pakistani (AFG-PAK) border. The area is strategic, as insurgent groups are able to leverage the porous border area to establish sanctuaries and move supplies.

  • N2KL’s high, rugged, and mountainous terrain favors the defendant, as it is largely inaccessible by road and lacks landing zones for aircraft. Elevations range from 1,500 to 4,500 meters, with peaks of over 6,000 meters. The crests are sharp, slopes are steep, and the sparse mountain passes lie at an average elevation of 3,000 meters.
  • Like any other insurgent group active in the area, IS-K needs to control the narrow capillary valleys in order to exploit the N2KL area’s high-ground advantage. Some of the key valleys are Mohmand/Mahmud, Bagh Da’ara, and Takho (Nangarhar province), as well as Korengal and Pech (Kunar province).
  • The human terrain is even more challenging. The myriad of native tribes and ethnicities are hostile to foreign forces and prone to fratricide violence. Attempts to coerce the indigenous population into submission have traditionally led to violent uprisings.

7. Within the N2KL area, IS-K is currently the strongest in Nangarhar province. The group controls parts of the Spin Ghar mountain range in southern Nangarhar province and is highly active in the Mohmand and Takho river valleys in Achin district. Mohmand and Takho valley are inhabited by Mohmand Pashto tribesmen, whose settlement area extends across the AFG-PAK border into Tirrah valley. Deh Bala and Nazyan also experience significant IS-K activity. Over 60 percent of the provincial population is engaged in subsistence farming. Some inhabitants enjoy limited day-labor opportunities in Pakistan.

  • As IS-K is the direct successor of certain TPP groups, the group falls back on pre-established networks in Nangarhar. 90 percent of IS-K members are Sunni Pashto, mostly from the Orakzai and Afridi tribes native to the Orakzai, North Waziristan and Kurram tribal agencies in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (ex-Federally Administered Tribal Areas/ FATA).
  • TTP militants first arrived in Nangarhar province, after a Pakistani military offensive ousted them from FATA in 2010. As a tit-for-tat retaliation against Pakistan’s systemic support for the Taliban, the Afghan Government colluded with the TTP and Lashkar-e-Islam in Nangarhar for a brief period. Over time, almost 2,000 TTP militants settled in Nangarhar’s Mohmand valley, resulting in an open confrontation with the Taliban.  

Recce: Southern Achin District via T-Intelligence

  • American air strikes augmented by joint U.S.-Afghan special operations raids have denied IS-K most of the high ground, driving IS-K underground or across the border. In April 2017, the United States Air Force dropped the GBU-43 “Mother of All Bombs” on an IS-K cave network in Achin district, killing over 90 militants. The ANDSF evicted over 20 IS-K militants from the Tora Bora cave complex in Pachir Aw Agam District, after the militants took the White Mountain from the Taliban.  
  • The United States maintains at least two combat outposts (COP) in the Mohmand and Takho valleys, while the ANDSF operates a number of checkpoints throughout southern Nangarhar. As its territory was denied in southern Nangarhar, IS-K aims to expand elsewhere in the N2KL area.

8. In Kunar province, IS-K recently gained control of the strategic Korengal valley after months of fighting with the Taliban – this information was confirmed by Kunar Provincial Council member Abdul Latif Fazly. Together with Pech valley, Korengal forms a strategic corridor that stretches from the AFG-PAK border to Nuristan. With the Pech-Korengal corridor under its control, IS-K can now supply operations that reach deeper into Afghan territory. However, the valley remains virtually ungovernable and volatile for all parties involved.

Recce: Korengal, Kunar, Pech and Shuryek valleys (Kunar province) via T-Intelligence

  • The Korengalis are uniquely confrontational and hostile towards outsiders. The local population consists of isolated Durani Pashai-speakers and few Pashto Safi tribes, who have violently resisted all foreign forces entering the valley, including Soviet, American, Taliban, and al-Qa’ida forces. The local tribes are known for bad-blood violence against other tribes, particularly tribes in Pech valley and the eastern-dialect Pashai-speakers from Nangarhar. The Korengali Pashai are competing with the Pech valley Safi Pashto over timber trade in particular, while the Safi have a century-long feud with Korengali tribes that migrated from Nuristan.
  • While isolationist at heart, the Korengalis have increasingly come to accept anti-governmental insurgent groups.  The natives have been exposed to al-Qa’ida-associated Salafi/Deobandi preachers, TTP-established madrassas and foreign terrorist fighters over the past decades. The Taliban and now IS-K have managed to enlist the support of the local shura elders to legitimize their presence. The recent IS-K takeover of Korengal was enabled by the defection of an influential Taliban commander, who rallied local support for the group.

Recce: Korengal Valley (Kunar province) and past US/ISAF-Eastern Command (2006-2010) combat outposts via T-intelligence

  • The IS-K control over Korengal will likely be short-lived. The Taliban are aggressively contesting the valley, while the Korengalis can be expected to grow hostile to the totalitarian governance model of IS.   

9. Jowjzan became an IS-K territory when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) merged with IS-K in mid-2015. As Jowjzan is Afghanistan’s only Uzbek-majority province, it traditionally served as a sanctuary for IMU.

  • IS-K/IMU have been particularly active in the isolated Darzab and Qush Tepa districts. In Darzab, the group directly controlled the Mughul and Sar Darrah villages, while, in Qush Tepa, IS-K’s strongholds were the Khanaq, Beg Sar and Chakma Chaqur villages. In these areas IS-K was at liberty to conduct limited hisba policing.

Recce: SE Darzab district (Jowjzan province) via T-Intelligence

  • The founder of IS-K in Jowjzan is Qari Hekmat/Hekmatullah, a defecting Uzbek Taliban commander. Native to the area, he mobilized the local Turkic community and facilitated the group’s territorial grip. In 2016 and 2017, IS-K grew largely unopposed, as the local Taliban wanted to avoid bloodshed among fellow Uzbeks. When negotiations failed in early 2018, the Taliban launched a full-scale offensive from the neighboring Faryab province.
  • Around that same time, a series of Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) and U.S. SOF operations focused on dismantling IS-K’s leadership. The high-value targeting campaign removed platoon leaders, shadow governors and the top emir from the battlefield. Qari Hekmat was killed in a U.S. strike in Qorogh village, Faryab, on 5 April 2018. Afterwards, the joint ASSF-U.S. operations advanced to night raids directly on Moghul and Darzab villages.
  • In mid-2018, IS-K in Jowzjan collapsed in the face of accelerated Taliban offensives. Mawlawi Habib Rahman, the new emir, and 230 IS-K fighters surrendered to the ANDSF in order to avoid the Taliban. The ANDSF airlifted the desperate fighters from their falling stronghold Moghul to Sheberghan. The IS-K fighters have joined the reconciliation process, which could potentially involve amnesty. Other IS-K fighters who evaded the Taliban fled to the neighboring Sar-e-Pol province.

10. In northwestern Afghanistan, IS-K seeks to exploit the growing ethnic tensions between Turkic, Pashtun and nomadic populations and leverage sectarian rifts with the Shia Hazara. The IS-K presence in the Northwest coincides with the Taliban’s attempt to contest government control in Faryab, Badghis and Herat province. Increased activities among Turkic populations could also increase the group’s reach into Central Asian states such as Tajikistan.


MASS-CASUALTY CAPABILITY (ATTACK MAP)

11. IS-K remains capable of conducting mass-casualty attacks against government and sectarian (mostly Shi’a Hazara) targets on a transnational scale. As our data analysis shows, Kabul and Jalalabad are particularly vulnerable to IS-K violence.

IS-K Attack map (2015-2018) via T-Intelligence

12. The data set consists of 83 attacks claimed by IS-K in Afghanistan and Pakistan from January 2015 to December 2018. Most attacks took place last year (48), followed by 2017 (20) and 2015-2016 (13). The lethality of attacks has gradually decreased, with a major drop in May 2018. Since then, the vast majority of IS-K attacks resulted in less than 20 casualties per attack. This coincides with IS-K’s territorial loss in Jowjzan and Nangarhar provinces. Out of IS-K’s top 10 most lethal attacks, only two were conducted in 2018:

  • Quetta, PAK – 94 killed, almost 150 injured (August, 2016)
  • Sehwan, PAK – 88 killed, 250 injured (February, 2017)
  • Kabul, AFG – 84 killed, 250 injured (July, 2016)
  • Kabul, AFG – 70 killed (April, 2018)
  • Quetta, PAK – 61 killed (October, 2016)
  • Kuzhdar, PAK – 56 killed (November, 2016)
  • Kabul, AFG – 51 killed (November, 2017)
  • Kabul, AFG – 49 killed (March, 2017)
  • Gardez, AFG – 48 killed (August, 2018)
  • Karachi, PAK – 46 killed (May, 2015)

13. Approximately 72 percent of the IS-K attacks targeted Kabul (39 percent) or locations in Nangarhar province (33 percent), primarily Jalalabad. Approximately 75 percent of IS-K targets were government sites, embassies or civilians, followed by 20 percent Shi’a gatherings or mosques. Overall, IS-K prefers suicide attacks augmented by small arms fire.


By HARM

Editing by Gecko 

The cover photo shows the GBU-43 (MOAB) detonation in Mohmand valley, Nangarhar Province in April 13, 2017.

Mohmand valley is also known as Mamand and continues into Pakistan’s Anbar Mohmand tribal agency.

A small dissident segment of the IMU retained its allegiance to al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. The splinter group, which was announced on June 10 2016, denounced IS-K and claims the IMU brand.

Our data analysis encompasses the majority, but not all of IS-K attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, not all attacks have been precisely pint-pointed, some are estimated (district, city, neighborhood), given the sparse information released in the media.

If you like our content, please consider supporting us with a coffee: buymeacoff.ee/ur9UYj038 

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Consequences of the U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Syria

President Trump has announced a swift withdrawal of the 2,200 U.S. troops active in northeastern Syria, after claiming victory over Da’esh. The troops largely consist of special operations units, special…

President Trump has announced a swift withdrawal of the 2,200 U.S. troops active in northeastern Syria, after claiming victory over Da’esh. The troops largely consist of special operations units, special forces, engineers, state department personnel and forward air traffic controllers supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Trump’s decision was made without allied or cabinet consultation and was likely part of a deal with Turkey. While the troop withdrawal will negatively impact the counter-Da’esh campaign, it will potentially reinvigorate the U.S.-Turkish partnership. The decision is faithful to Trump’s original foreign policy views and shows the limits of John Bolton’s  influence in the National Security Council (NSC). The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis suggests that the decision is irreversible at this point.


KEY POINTS:

1. With the troop withdrawal, the Trump administration returns to its original foreign policy rhetoric, abandoning regime change objectives and long-term engagements in the Middle East.

2. While the Trump administration did accelerate the counter-Da’esh campaign, the premature troop withdrawal provides the terror group with breathing room to regroup and potentially resurge.

3. As the U.S failed to prevent the formation of Iran’s ‘Shia Crescent’ land bridge in December 2017, the troop withdrawal will not significantly affect Washington’s counter-Iran posture in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf. Israel and the Gulf states will be forced to pick up the ball to contest Iranian influence in Syria.

4. The troop withdrawal has the potential to reinvigorate the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership and gradually pull Turkey out of Russia’s orbit. The SDF will likely disintegrate and forge new alliances to prevent a third party takeover of the territory it has liberated.

5. The Trump administration has also ordered troop reductions in Africa and Afghanistan, significantly weakening the U.S.’ capacity to combat al-Qa’ida and Da’esh internationally.


1. THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR

  • Under the Trump administration, the United States canceled the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) train & assist program for Syrian opposition groups and focused exclusively on defeating Da’esh. This crippled the United States ability to influence the political resolution of the conflict. The U.S-sponsored Geneva Process remains insignificant and is overshadowed by the Russian-Turkish-Iranian trilateral formats.
  • According to  James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for the Syria Engagement, the Washington now seeks a “changed regime” (i.e. behaviour) rather than “regime change” in Damascus.
  • President Trump first expressed his intention to withdraw the 2,200 U.S. troops in northeastern Syria in 2017, in accordance with his campaign promise of military disengagement. The withdrawal was postponed at the NSC’s advice, which emphasized the need to stabilize the liberated territory in Syria and Iraq.

US Forces dismount from their Oshkosh M-ATV tactical vehicles while conducting a security patrol outside Manbij, Syria, June 24, 2018. Image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster

2. THE GLOBAL COALITION AGAINST DA’ESH

  • According to the U.S. government, the Coalition is currently transitioning to the next phase of the campaign against Da’esh. This will likely entail the end of major operations, including the air campaign, and the demobilization of the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve (CJTF-IF). Without CJTF-IF, French and British SOF and close air support missions will have a negligible impact on Da’esh.
  • Since 2014, the Global Coalition has made significant progress against Da’esh in Syria and Iraq. The Trump administration’s relaxation of the rules of engagement and the discrete troop surge in 2017 have notably accelerated the counter-Da’esh campaign. Da’esh has been stripped off its expansive proto-state and forced back into the form of a classical insurgency.
  • However, Da’esh is conserving its resources and regrouping in the mid-Euphrates river valley (MERV) in Syria as well as the southern Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces in Iraq. Between 8,000 and 25,000 Da’esh fighters remain scattered throughout Syria and Iraq, awaiting a re-surge opportunity. Da’esh thus remains capable of threatening regional stability and Transatlantic security.

Visual comparing the territory held by Da’esh in 2015 and December 2018.

  • Post-liberation stabilization efforts, which focus on local force capacity building, will remain crucial for preventing the resurgence of Da’esh. The SDF will require additional training missions to raise an adequate number of indigenous Arab Sunni troops that can stabilize and police the MERV. According to the Joint Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford, the SDF currently lacks 30,000 men in the MERV area, a likely hotspot for Da’esh’s comeback.
  • President Trump seems to rely on the pro-governmental camp to fill the vacuum, rebuild the area and contain Da’esh in MERV. It is however highly unlikely that the Assad government and Iranian forces will be able to effectively stabilize the region.
  • The only viable –  yet unlikely – option is for France, the United Kingdom and other Coalition members to increase their troop presence and fill the security void created by the U.S. pullout. There is hope that some of the U.S. forces will be re-deployed to the border city of al-Qa’im on the Iraqi side. This would allow them to conduct cross-border special operations into Syria, augmented by CIA drone strikes.

3. COUNTERING IRAN

  • Since the pro-governmental victory over Da’esh in Al Bukamal, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)  commands an uninterrupted land corridor, nicknamed “Shia Crescent”, which links Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. The U.S. presence in Syria has failed to obstruct this corridor.
  • The al-Tanf garrison and the 55 km exclusion zone do not effectively counter the “Shia Crescent.” The presence of U.S. and Maghawir al-Thawra forces was intended to provide border security for Jordan, guard the al-Rukban camp, and halt the free flow of Da’esh fighters across the Syrian-Iraqi border. While the U.S.-held positions block the shortest land route from Tehran to Damascus or Beirut, the IRGC can still move forces through the strategic Al Bukamal border crossing.  

Iran’s “Shia Crescent” land corridor

  • Further countermeasures against the Iranian presence in Syria would bring U.S.-backed elements in direct confrontation with the IRGC or its proxies. Instead, the U.S. will likely pursue its counter-Iran strategy on different battlefields. The withdrawal from Syria will free special operations forces, intelligence agents and forward air traffic controllers for other deployments.  
  • The U.S. withdrawal will force Israel and the Gulf states to pick up the ball and devise measures against Iran’s growing presence in Syria.

4. TURKEY AND THE SYRIAN KURDS

  • As major U.S-backed operations against Da’esh are ending, rebuilding Washington’s strategic partnership with its NATO ally Turkey takes precedence over the protection of the SDF. Sources suggest that President Trump made his decision after a phone call with the Turkish President Erdogan. In addition to the troop withdrawal, the U.S. approved the sale of the MIM-140 Patriot surface-to-air missile system to Ankara in order to stop Turkey from acquiring the Russian S-400 system (SA-21).
  • The U.S. troop withdrawal in early 2019 will leave the SDF without a credible force protection against Turkey (in the North) and the pro-governmental camp (in the West). The SDF will only be protected by the small French and British SOF presence in northern Syria, which will remain after the U.S. pullout.
  • Turkey aims to destroy the self-proclaimed “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria,” which it perceives to be a covert  Kurdish political project. In particular, Turkey aims to degrade the YPG, the SDF’s strongest member and Syrian affiliate of the PKK.  Ankara will likely try to topple the SDF’s military city councils in northern Syria and replace them with Islamist opposition groups, mainly consisting of Arab and Turkmen Sunni fighters. Similar to previous operations,  the prospective Turkish offensive in northern Syria (Eastern Shield) will be branded as an “intervention against terrorism,” referring to both YPG and Da’esh.
  • In the medium to long term, the Kurdish elements within the SDF can be expected to seek a deal with Damascus and cede their territory to the Syrian Arab Republic in exchange for protection. As the territory east of Euphrates holds 90 percent of Syria’s oil reserves, it is critical for Syria’s economic reconstruction.
  • The Arab Sunni militias within the SDF will likely diverge on this issue. Some groups might welcome  reconciliation with the regime, while others will join the Turkish-backed opposition fronts in Northern Aleppo. The Sunni Arab tribes in MERV represent a wild card, as certain tribes have shown strong anti-Shia and Salafist sentiments, which could drive them back into Da’esh’s hands.
  • These likely developments will pit Turkey against the pro-governmental camp. Russia will attempt to mediate the conflict in order to uphold the Astana and Socchi accords. The accords are more vital for Russia than for any other actor, since they formalize Moscow’s “triumph” without demanding additional military resources.

Territorial control in Syria as of December 23, 2018.

5. STRATEGIC OUTLOOK

  • Thus far, the plans for U.S. troop reductions are limited to deployments in Africa and the Middle East. The U.S. presence in South Korea and Europe remains unchanged for the moment.  
  • In the Middle East, the U.S. is not only leaving Syria. President Trump is also withdrawing half of the 14,000 U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan. This withdrawal endangers the survival of the Afghan government and severely incapacitates both Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (against Da’esh Khorasan) and NATO’s Operation Resolute Support (non-combatant/capacity building mission).
  • U.S. Congress is also pressuring the Trump administration to cease military activities in Yemen. The Department of Defense has already stopped aerial refueling for Arab Coalition fighter aircraft.
  • Information on the fate of the 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is still pending. There is reason to believe that a troop reduction has to be expected.
  • U.S. AFRICOM will experience a 10 percent troop reduction, directly impacting U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn region.

by HARM and Gecko

The Syrian border town of al-Bukamal is also known as Abu Kamal 

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (abbreviated as PKK in Turkish) is a Kurdish separatist and Marxist revolutionary insurgent group. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by NATO, the European Union and the majority of the United Nations member states.

The U.S. troop withdrawal provides Russia with the opportunity to expand its anti-acess area denial (A2/AD) capabilities across the Euphrates river, further flanking NATO’s southeastern border. This adds credibility and prestige to Russia’s re-expanding military engagement overseas.

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Hunting AQAP in Yemen: Joint UAE-US Special Operations Base in Mukalla (IMINT)

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in…

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in the city-port of Mukalla (Southern Yemen), which was liberated from AQAP by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its local allies. The cooperation with the UAE enables the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Forces Command (JSOC) to target AQAP’s strongest cells in Yemen.

(2) Southern and Central Yemen are important recruitment and training grounds for AQAP. The rough, remote and hostile terrain provides sanctuary for high-value targets (HVTs) that have planned and continue to plan major attacks on American citizens and the U.S. homeland.

(3) AQAP’s power in Southern and Central Yemen has increased considerably during the Yemeni Civil War. The central government’s collapse allowed AQAP to establish large urban strongholds. AQAP dominates the Hadramawt, Mahrah and Shabwa provinces, and exerts significant control in Abyan and Bayda. AQAP cells have conducted attacks in major cities such as Aden, Hudayah and Sana’a. AQAP is currently estimated to have between 6,000 and 7,000 active fighters in Yemen.

(4) In 2015, AQAP seized control of Mukalla (Hadramawt province), proclaiming it the capital of the Yemeni “wilayat.” As Mukalla is Yemen’s second largest city-port on the Southern seaboard after Aden, the city became an important revenue and recruitment source for AQAP.

(5) In mid 2016, AQAP was ousted from Mukalla by the UAE and an allied coalition of local tribesmen and secessionist militias that later formed the Southern Transnational Council (STC). The ground offensive was backed by limited U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) elements as well as by U.S. airborne and maritime intelligence support. The UAE claims that it has neutralized over 500 AQAP militants, however, media sources suggest that the Emiratis also bribed a number of jihadists to withdraw from the area.

(6) In 2017, the new U.S. Presidential administration authorized the Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD) to accelerate and expand operations against AQAP. Mukalla, now under UAE/STC control, has become America’s largest covert forward operating base (FOB) in Yemen.

(7) The SOFs deployed in Mukalla are drawn from all JSOC special mission units, but mostly the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (known as DEVGRU or Navy SEAL Team Six). The SOFs get airlifted from the U.S. Naval Expeditionary Base “Camp Lemonnier” in Djibouti to Riyan Airport in Mukalla. Camp Lemonnier is a hub for special operations in the Horn of Africa area and the most important launching pad for drone/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes outside of Afghanistan.

(8) Flight traffic monitors show undesignated Dornier 328-110 turboprop commuter aircrafts departing Camp Lemonnier and “disappearing” over Mukalla after descending for landing. The Dornier 328 is the civilian version of the C-146A Wolfhound – the primary SOF air asset used to airlift fireteams or small cargo loads into semi-prepared airfields. JSOC is known to use the civilian version of the Wolfhound for SOF deployment in order to maintain operations security (OPSEC) standards.

Sample of D328 flights observed by T-Intelligence

(9) Image Intelligence (IMINT) based on commercial satellite imagery furthermore reveals a significant military expansion of Riyan Airport since it was liberated from AQAP. UAE/STC forces have built or considerably expanded at least 10 sites in vicinity to the runway, including observation posts, warehouses, fortified sites, patrol routes, a small seashore construction, and a number of unidentified buildings. A militarized checkpoint replaces the civilian airport entrance, which was closed in mid 2016. The main apron hosts military attack and transport helicopters, which can be used to forward deploy SOFs into combat areas.

Military enhancements of Riyan Airport near Mukalla, Yemen: July 1, 2016 (post-AQAP liberation) vs. June 23, 2018 (last available satellite imagery)

Military aircraft activity on the main apron and minimal enhancements around the taxiway: July 18, 2017 vs. June 23, 2018

Seashore constructions: July 1, 2016 vs. June 23, 2018

Logistics site “Delta” (West of the runway): July 1, 2016 vs. June 23, 2018

(8) Reports also suggest that a covert detention and interrogation center – run by local authorities and exploited by the UAE and U.S. for intelligence collection – has been established on the grounds of Riyan Airport. We assess that all of the airport enhancements serve military purposes. In 2018, enlargement and enhancement efforts continue.

(9) The mission profile of JSOC SOFs deployed in Yemen is to conduct reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and HVT-execution, including support for kinetic UAV strikes. They frequently liaise and coordinate with Emirati commandos and enlist the help of local STC-aligned tribesmen and militias.

(10) The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) also assists the U.S. counter-terrorism effort. The KSA commands a network of human intelligence assets that has infiltrated AQAP’s ranks. These assets provide critical intelligence and plant signal beacons on HVTs for UAV targeting missions. AQAP is trying combat the KSA-infiltration through strict counterintelligence measures, as announced in a propaganda video issued in early September 2018.   

(11) The unprecedented surge in SOF missions has produced valuable intelligence and eliminated several AQAP HVTs in Yemen. According to CENTCOM datasets assessed by The Long War Journal, the U.S. conducted 125 UAV kinetic strikes in 2017 – more than in the previous four years combined. With 33 strikes by September 2018, the U.S. is again on track to surpass the pre-2017 years. The SOF/UAV strikes have targeted AQAP training camps, checkpoints, safe-houses, and tactical positions in Abuan, Bayda, Mahraw, Shabwa and Northern Hadramawt – Northern Hadramawt hereby received the largest share of attention.  

(12) A U.S. UAV strike in the second half of 2017 reportedly killed Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, AQAPs most talented bombmaker. Al-Asiri was known for disguising bombs as printer cartridges, cell phones, and other devices or planting them in human bodies to bypass airport security. The UAE played a major role in the target-acquisition process, as Emirati commandos captured al-Asiri’s wife for interrogation. Al-Asiri’s death represents a crucial blow for AQAP’s capabilities.

(13) At the moment, the primary target of U.S. SOF/UAV operations in Yemen is AQAP emir Qasim al-Raymi, who is closely associated with Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQ’s top commander. In the past eight years, al-Raymi was unsuccessfully targeted by the U.S. at least three times. The last attempt took place in 2017, when a controversial DEVGRU-led raid on al-Raymi’s safe house in Yalka (Bayda province) failed to kill the target.

(14) It is highly likely that U.S. SOF/UAV operations in Yemen will intensify in the next years. The U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) is currently looking to contract private operators for airborne casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) in Yemen and the Horn of Africa area. According to the draft performance work statement published online, the Special Operations Command Center will be the beneficiary of these services. The call specifies that the private contractors have to be able to operate fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft on unprepared runways as small as 900 m, use night-vision goggles, carry no less than eight men or almost 2 tons of cargo, and refuel with running engines. Aircrafts need to be armored with lightweight, Level III (7.62 mm and 5.56 mm) Ballistic Protection Systems.

(15) The details of this commercial listing suggest a sustained expansion of the current SOF activities in and around Yemen. We asses that U.S. SOFs have moved further in AQAP-held territory and are building/planning to build FOBs with coaxial dirt runways to receive supplies and evacuate personnel. As these FOB postings are highly dangerous, the SOFs require MEDEVAC/CASEVAC assets that are available 24/7 and can work under heavy enemy fire.


DISCLAIMER: Some IMINT materials have been excluded from the analysis in order to safeguard U.S. OPSEC, as SOF missions in Yemen are ongoing.  

by HARM and Gecko

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