Tag: SOF

NATO Special Operators Among First Responders at Kabul Maternity Ward Attack

American and possibly British, Norwegian, and Australian special operations forces (SOF) were part of the reaction force that responded to the maternity ward attack in Kabul (Afghanistan) on 12 May…

American and possibly British, Norwegian, and Australian special operations forces (SOF) were part of the reaction force that responded to the maternity ward attack in Kabul (Afghanistan) on 12 May 2020, according to Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT). In the early hours of Tuesday, unidentified gunmen disguised as police officers stormed the Barchi National Hospital in Kabul. The attackers killed 24 people, including medical personnel, patients, and even two newborn babies. 



THE TIER ONE COUNTER-FORCE

In the SOF counterattack that ensued, the foreign and Afghan operators of the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) 222 managed to rescue 100 women and children, including three foreigners.

SOFs regularly operate without national identification and wear masks to conceal their identity for operation security (OPSEC) reasons and to preserve political deniability. Yet, there are still plenty of elements that can help identify a SOF group’s nationality, such as uniform camouflage patterns, gear, weapons, accessories, and other equipment pieces. 

Twitter users with knowledge of tactical equipment have recognized the country and units of the SOFs deployed on-site. As the tweets below show, one of the first special mission units identified is the Combat Applications Group(CAG) or 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (SFOD-D), which is more commonly known as “Delta Force.” Specializing in counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, and counter-proliferation, Delta is among the most secretive and lethal American SOF groups.

Twitter users recognized the American SOFs by their distinctive night-vision goggles (NVGs), custom pistol stock, pouch, and holster.  Social media speculations also place British SOFs, likely the Special Air Service (SAS) alongside Delta in one of the photos.

The Norwegian Forsvarets Spesialkommando (FSK) is another foreign SOF group recognized by Twitter users. While less known than its anglophone counterparts, the FSK is one of the most experienced NATO special mission units. Besides Afghanistan, they also operated, and are probably still active in Syria and Iraq.  

As Twitter users pointed out, at least one Australian SOF was also present during the counter-terrorist raid. If indeed from the land down below, the operator was likely part of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), Australia’s equivalent of the British SAS. Australia is one of NATO’s closest strategic partners. Australian SOFs have seen extensive service alongside their Euro-Atlantic allies in the Global War on Terror.  

RESOLUTE SUPPORT MISSION 

Regardless of their exact unit or nationality, it is virtually certain that foreign SOFs played a significant role in neutralizing the terrorist threat in Kabul. Without them and their Afghan counterparts, the death toll would have been dramatically higher. 

The foreign SOFs are in Afghanistan as part of their respective national military deployments. Their objective is to conduct counter-terrorism missions and train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Army and Security Forces (ANASF). 

RSM Commands via NATO

Following the end of major combat operations, NATO initiated the Resolute Support Mission at the invitation of the Afghan government in 2015. RSM is a capacity-building operation and consists of 39 NATO and non-NATO participating states. RSM advisors train the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Air Force (ANAF) so that Kabul can defend itself after the end of NATO’s military mandate. The RSM also helped the ANA build its first-ever SOF component, including the Crisis Response Unit 222, that spearheaded the response to the maternity attack. 

Afghan CRU 222 operators via Recoilweb.com

Apart from the RSM, the U.S. SOFs are also engaged in Operation “Freedom’s Sentinel,” an overseas contingency counter-terrorism mission against ISIS’s regional franchise, the “Islamic State-Khorasan” (IS-K).

IS-K LIKELY BEHIND THE ATTACK

While the horrific attack is still unclaimed, “Islamic State-Khorasan” (IS-K) is the likely culprit. The Dashti Barchi Hospital sits in a predominantly Shia neighborhood – an area that IS-K has also attacked in the past. 

Afghan intelligence has captured the IS-K commander and two of his aides in Kabul, just a day before the attack. The senior operatives were likely in Kabul to oversee the execution of the mission. 

Another circumstantial piece of evidence linking the massacre to IS-K was a second attack on 12 May 2020. A suicide bomber killed at least 32 people at a funeral in Nangarhar province. While Afghanistan experiences sporadic countrywide violence daily, the funeral and hospital attacks may be connected. 



Shiite communities are IS-K’s main targets apart from political institutions, according to our assessment from 2019, which you can find here. The attack is consistent with IS-K’s strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, militant Salafism, which views Shiites and other Muslim sects as heretics. IS-K uses sectarian and takfiri violence to mobilize hardcore Salafists/ Deobandi and establish an Islamic State in South Asia, encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Kashmir region. 

IS-K has refrained from taking credit for its attacks in the past. In this case, the unclaimed attack on the maternity ward likely aimed at sabotaging the Afghan-Taliban peace process. By not claiming the attack, IS-K wanted to cast suspicion on the Taliban. IS-K has no interest in seeing a reduction of violence in Afghanistan. IS-K consists of disenfranchised Pakistani Taliban, splinter groups from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and a few foreign fighters. The Taliban is not only IS-K’s main competitor on the extremist market but also its existential threat. 

Afghanistan conflict map as of 29 February 2020 via Al-Jazeera

The Taliban has publicly denied involvement in the attack. While many Taliban cells continue to defy the “reduction of violence” agreement with Kabul, it is unlikely that the group was involved in the maternity ward massacre. Afghan President Ghani has nevertheless ordered the Afghan military to resume offensive operations against all militant groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. President Ghani was likely concerned to look weak in the face of Tuesday’s bloodbath in the center of Kabul. 

The Afghan peace process remains as fragile as always. 

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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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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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Life after the Turkish Liberation in Syria: State-Building, Safe-Zone or Annexation?

ANALYSIS – This assessment presents the situation in the areas liberated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and its local allies (Free Syrian Army, Syrian Turkmen Brigades, Ahrar ash-Sham) as…

ANALYSIS – This assessment presents the situation in the areas liberated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and its local allies (Free Syrian Army, Syrian Turkmen Brigades, Ahrar ash-Sham) as affected by the post-conflict Turkish-led reconstruction. The multi-ethnic character of the Aleppo Governorate, comprising of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Circassians and Christians, is a magnet for land claims and geopolitical ambitions, energized by the dramatic changes in the Syrian Republic – ravaged by a perpetual multilateral civil war. You probably know this region for the infamous battle of Aleppo, the largest city of the province and the stronghold of the Rebellion; this region is far more than that. Let us not forget that this is the boiling point for Syria’s Kurdish self-determination and for reactive Turkish endeavors, it caused. The purpose of this analysis is to swiftly summarize the context of military intervention launched by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) since late 2016, and overview how the Turkish administration there affected the lives of the local population and the overall dynamic: Did it improve? Did it worsen? In order to determine such a conclusion, this analysis also contains a case study of Jarabulus (Cerabulus in Turkish) – the first city liberated by Operation Euphrates Shield and under the longest Turkish-led administration.


In addition, this assessment, purposely provocative, draws prospective conclusions in regards to the future of the captured buffer zone, outlined in several hypothesizes: i. State Building ii. Safe-Zone (limited) or iii. Annexation (directly/ indirectly).

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