Tag: UAE

U.S. Navy Intercepts Iranian Weapons Shipment to Yemen

The U.S. Navy interdicted an illicit shipment of advanced Iranian-made weapons and weapon components headed for Yemen in the Arabian Sea, on February 9, 2020. The discovery was made by…

The U.S. Navy interdicted an illicit shipment of advanced Iranian-made weapons and weapon components headed for Yemen in the Arabian Sea, on February 9, 2020. The discovery was made by the crew of USS Normandy (CG 60), a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser. The CG 60 launched a search party that boarded the stateless dhow and found a cache of weapons. The maritime security operation was conducted under international law.

The weapons seized from the dhow consist of:

  • 150 “Dehlavieh” missiles, which are the Iranian version of the Russian-made “Kornet” anti-tank missiles;
  • Three unidentified Iranian-made surface-to-air missiles;
  • Thermal imaging scopes;
  • Components of manned and unmanned aerial systems and surface vessels;
  • Munition;
  • Other weapon parts. 

Many of these weapons systems are identical to the advanced weapons and weapon components seized by the guided-missile destroyer USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98) in the Arabian Sea on Nov. 25, 2019. Those weapons were determined to be of Iranian origin and assessed to be destined for the “Ansar Allah” militia (the Houthis) in Yemen, which would be in violation of a UN Security Council Resolution 2216 that prohibits the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of weapons to the Houthis. The same resolution encourages all states to inspect the sea and air cargo to Yemen.

The seized weapons are in U.S. custody awaiting final disposition. The assessment of the material will be an interagency and international effort. International partner nations and organizations have also been invited to inspect the cache.

IRANIAN WEAPONS SMUGGLING OPERATION IN YEMEN

Since the Yemeni civil war began in 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ external operations branch, the Quds Force (IRGC-QF), has illegally transferred large quantities of weapons to Houthi rebels. Tehran’s giveaways include Borkan ballistic missiles (derivative of Iran’s “Qi’am”), “Quds” cruise missiles (derivative of Iran’s “Ya-Ali”), the Iranian-made Sayyad 2-C surface-to-air missile, expandable-unmanned aerial vehicles and thousands of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and rockets. Iran uses small, low-visibility and elusive vessels, such as fishing boats and dhows, to freight weapons into Yemen. Sometimes the small vessels use ship-to-ship transfers to move or distribute cargo along the way. The U.S. Navy has periodically intercepted illicit weapons shipments in the Arabian Sea. However, the number of weapons interdicted represents a tiny fraction of the overall illicit seaborne cargo outbound from Iran. 

The Houthi has used these capabilities to attack petrochemical facilities, military installations and urban centers deep inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates in the past years. The Houthis also attacked oil tankers transiting the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Red Sea. Similar to the “Hezbollah model”, the Iranian support for Houthi has transformed the irregular militia into a hybrid force armed with advanced weaponry. A strong Houthi enables Iran to attack targets deep in the KSA and the Red Sea and to open a second front in case of a direct conflict with Riyadh. 

Waging war on the KSA is only one of Iran’s two strategic interests in Yemen. As part of its maritime strategy, Iran aims to control the two main checkpoints vital for international maritime shipping. Iran already controls the main one, the Hormuz strait, due to its territorial boundaries. But control over the second one, the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, requires ashore dominance in Yemen. However, the Houthi only control Yemen’s western seaboard. An intervention by the UAE in 2015 managed to deny the Houthi and al-Qa’ida control over Yemen’s main ports in the south, Aden and Mukalla. 

Iran proved that it is willing to go beyond rhetoric in 2019 when the IRGC covertly attacked the Emirati port of Fujairah, oil refineries in KSA, and oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, causing chaos on the oil market and temporarily disrupting international sea trade. 

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Is Turkey Sending Syrian Rebels to Libya?

Mounting evidence shows that Turkey is deploying “Syrian National Army” (SNA) militiamen to Libya by using commercial airlines. In December 2019, major media outlets broke the news that Ankara plans…

Mounting evidence shows that Turkey is deploying “Syrian National Army” (SNA) militiamen to Libya by using commercial airlines. In December 2019, major media outlets broke the news that Ankara plans to send SNA militants to reinforce the “Government of National Accord” (GNA). Since then, there has been a growing number of indicators and reports that confirm the deployment. In addition to the SNA personnel, Turkey is also in the process of dispatching regular troops to Libya.

BACKGROUND: THE LIBYAN CIVIL WAR

Since the overthrow of dictator Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has been experiencing a civil war between the GNA, which is recognized by the United Nations (UN), and the self-styled “Libyan National Army” led by renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar. The GNA currently controls less than 20 percent of Libya, but its territory includes the capital Tripoli and the densely populated Tripolitania region. The GNA’s armed forces consist of Islamist militias linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. They are backed by Turkey, Qatar and Italy. 

Led by Gen. Haftar, the LNA is a hotpotch of Arab nationalists (including some Qaddafi loyalists), foreign paramilitary units (e.g. Russian, Sudanese, Chiadian), Madkhali salafists and tribal militias based in Eastern Libya. The LNA receives political and military support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Jordan, Russia and France. The LNA controls the vast majority of Libya’s territory, including the oil-rich southern and central regions. 



Despite the international arms embargo, which bans all weapons transfers to Libya (UN Resolution 1973), the GNA and LNA have received an abundance of military capabilities from foreign backers, including aircraft and air defense batteries.

Thanks to the wholesale influx of sophisticated military hardware from its supporters, the LNA is currently the most capable fighting force on the battlefield:

  • The UAE deployed Chinese-made “Wing Loong II” UCAVs, Pantsir S-1 (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound”) and MIM-23 HAWK air defense systems as well as support personnel (e.g. missileers, UCAV and radio-electronic operators). 
  • Jordan and Egypt provide armored vehicles and spare parts for the legacy MiG and Sukhoi aircraft that the LNA has inherited from Qaddafi’s regime. The Egyptian Air Force donated five MiG-21MFs (NATO Reporting name: “Fishbed-J”) to the LNA’s air wing.
  • Russia provides political support and has sent hundreds of Wagner contractors and a Pantsir S-1 air defense systems (NATO Reporting name: SA-17 “Greyhound”) to reinforce Gen. Haftar’s camp. 

France is secretly supporting Gen. Haftar. Beyond the provision of several US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, the extent of French support is nevertheless unclear.

COMPILATION: Advanced foreign weaponry in service or support of the LNA

On the GNA side, Turkey provides the bulk of military equipment. Ankara has been supplying the GNA with infantry fighting vehicles (e.g. Kipri 8×8), unmanned aerial combat vehicles/UCAV (e.g. Bayraktar-2TB), small arms and ammunition for years. Turkey’s “partner-in-crime” and fellow Muslim Brotherhood supporter Qatar provides the bulk of finances that keep the GNA functioning, including the salaries of most militias. Italy is also providing direct support to the GNA in the form of medical assistance, diplomatic outreach, and intelligence. 

THE LNA GAINS THE UPPER HAND

In early 2019, Gen. Haftar announced Operation “FLOOD OF DIGNITY” with the objective to capture western Libya and eventually Tripoli. After successive victories, the LNA reached Tripoli’s suburbs by mid-April 2019. In Ghuryan and southern Tripoli, the LNA encountered a stiff GNA defense augmented by Turkish UCAVs. With the ground advancement blocked, the LNA focused on aerial warfare and targeted GNA airfields that support UCAV operations. However, due to its prolonged forward deployment, the LNA’s supply lines became overstretched and therefore untenable for offensive operations. Gen. Haftar was forced to de facto halt the offensive until the LNA  air wing neutralizes the enemy’s aerial capabilities.

Operation “Flood of Dignity” (operational map) by Rr016

INCREASED TURKISH MILITARY ASSISTANCE TO TRIPOLI

As Gen. Hafar’s forces were threatening to gain the upper hand in the civil war, Turkey has found that only direct intervention can save the GNA from collapse. 

Turkish President Erdogan and GNA Prime Minister al-Sarraj signed two memorandums of economic and military cooperation in late November 2019. Based on these agreements, the GNA submitted a formal request for Turkish military assistance in the form of air, land and maritime forces. President Erdogan ratified the request for assistance and ordered the Turkish Joint Chiefs of Staff to draft deployment plans. 

By the time the Turkish Parliament approved the military mission on January 5, 2020, President Erdogan revealed that Turkish troops are already in Libya in a non-combatant capacity and that “other units” will fight on the battlefield. By “other units’, President Erdogan is believed to hint at Syrian militamen.



REPORTS OF SNA DEPLOYMENT TO LIBYA

Quoting senior Turkish and Libyan sources, Bloomberg was the first outlet to report that Ankara will send SNA groups to reinforce the GNA. In January 2020, The Guardian confirmed the presence of around 2,000 SNA militants in Libya and recorded that their numbers are expected to grow to 5,000 over the next weeks. SNA fighters had signed six-month contracts directly with the GNA, rather than with the Turkish military, The Guardian’s sources say. The Syrian rebels will earn $2,000 (£1,500) a month – a vast sum compared to the 450-550 Turkish lira (£52-£72) they earn in Syria. All fighters have been promised Turkish passports, medical care and repatriation to Syria in case of death. 

These reports are consistent with the claims of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which estimates that 300 Syrian rebels are already in Libya. 

The Sultan Murad Division, Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Faylaq al-Sham, Sham Legion and Mutasim Division are the SNA groups headlining the Libyan deployment. These groups, which are dominated by Syrian Turkmens, have spearheaded all of Turkey’s previous offensives in northern Syria. The U.S. government and Amnesty International have accused some of these groups of war crimes against Kurdish civilians during Operation “OLIVE BRANCH” and Operation “PEACE SPRING”. 


VISUAL EVIDENCE OF SNA PRESENCE

Besides media reports, two phone-recorded videos of military-age males (MAMs) with Syrian accents, claiming to be in Libya to fight against Haftar, provide visual evidence.

Geolocation of the video allegedly showing SNA fighters in Libya

We managed to geolocate the footage, assuming that it was shot in very close proximity of the second video that surfaced on social media, which was geolocated by @S_Corsto in southern Tripoli.

While this confirms the videos’ geographical location is indeed the GNA-held Tripoli, we cannot vouch for the authenticity of the MAMs’ claims or that they are SNA fighters. 

Another piece of hard evidence is a “selfie” taken by a group of five MAMs in front of a fixed-wing cargo aircraft (identified as an Airbus Atlas-400M), supposedly on their way to Libya. Judging by the color scheme and visual elements, the Airbus A400M belongs to the Turkish Air Force. This adds credibility to reports that the Turkish Air Force, together with civilian Libyan airlines, is transporting SNA forces to Libya.

A group of unidentified MAMs pose in front of a Turkish Air Force Airbus A400M

UPDATE January 18, 2019: A video that emerged on social media allegedly shows dozens of Syrian rebels on board an Airbus 320 operated by the Tripoli-based “Afriqiyah Airways.”

TURKISH-LIBYA AIR-BRIDGE

Evidence of the Turkish “air-bridge” to Libya started to surface on social media in late December 2019. It involves the Turkish Air Force and a few Libyan commercial airliners. 

At the beginning, SNA fighters are bused from northern Aleppo province to Gaziantep, a major city in southeastern Turkey. From Gaziantep, the Turkish Air Force flies SNA militiamen into Istanbul by the Turkish Air Force, using Airbus Atlas-400M fix-wing cargo aircraft. For example, call signs “ESEN 01”, “ESEN 02”, “ESEN 03” and “ESEN 04” have been regularly spotted between Gaziantepe and Istanbul, since the air bridge reportedly started on December 27, 2019. As military flights, their ADS-B/Mode-S information, namely origin, destination and flight history, are hidden or incomplete. 

After arriving in Istanbul at Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) or Ataturk International (IST), the SNA militiamen board “friendly” Libyan civilian airliners that regularly fly to the two GNA-held airports in Libya, Tripoli Mitiga International Airport (MJI) and Misrata Airport (MAR). In particular, one “Libyan Airlines” Airbus A330-202 fixed-wing aircraft (registration number 5A-LAT/ LIMA-ALPHA-TANGO) is believed to be spearheading the covert airlift operation. In addition, one Libyan Wings Airbus 319-112 (registration no, “52-WLC”) and another Boeing 737-8GK (registration no, “5A-DMG”) operated by Buraq Air are believed to be involved. 

While all three aircraft are regular operators of Turkish and Libyan destinations, only the Libyan Airlines’ 5A-LAT is of particular interest due to its nefarious flight pattern that is consistent with counter-surveillance measures:

  • LOW PROFILE: 5A-LAT has almost exclusively chartered Istanbul-MJI/ MAR flights for the past months. As a regular operator of this route, 5A-LAT should be the aircraft that attracts the least attention for illicit airlift operations between Turkey and Libya.

SAMPLE: Recent flight history of the Libyan Airways aircraft with registration number 5A-LAT

  • DECEIVE AND COMPLICATE: 5A-LAT has frequently spoofed its ADS-B data to name Tripoli (MJI) as a destination, when it actually landed at Misrata/ MAR.

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT descends for landing at MAR despite filing MJI as its destination, on January 8, 2020

In some instances, the aircraft even took off from Istanbul without transmitting any official destination. The technique is used to deceive and complicate adversarial intelligence collection efforts. 

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT leaves IST without a transmitting a destination on January 9, 2020

  • DENY: 5A-LAT has almost always disabled its ADS-B transponder, when it entered Libyan airspace en route to MJI or MAR. In some instances, the aircraft also deactivated its transponder during its departure from Libya or Turkey, despite having stated its destination. We assess that this is not a deceptive act, but a security measure, when transiting Greek and Egyptian flight information regions (FIRs) or when in range of the LNA’s aerial systems. With foreign assistance, the LNA has conducted air strikes against GNA-held airports, which destroyed aircraft and infrastructure, in the past. Due to their ability to carry military equipment, weapons or fighters, cargo planes are high-value targets on the Libyan battlefield.

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT reactivates its transponder after clearing out of Greek and Egyptian FIRs, only to “go dark” again before landing in MJI, on January 15, 2020.

The Boeing 747-412 with registration number ER-BBJ is another aircraft of interest for the Turkish-Libyan airbridge. The ER-BBJ is operated by the Moldovian company “AeroTransCargo” and is exclusively used for cargo deliveries. AeroTransCargo’s sub-company “Airstok” has managerial links with a Libyan charter Global Aviation Services Group (GASG), which was reported by the United Nations for smuggling pistols to Tripoli (MJI) in 2017. According to C4ADS, at least four AeroTransCargo aircraft – registration numbers ER-JAI, ER-BBJ, ER-BAJ, and ER-BAM – traveled between Turkey and MJI under GASG call signs between April 19, 2017 and May 5, 2019. 

The ER-BBJ made at least 5 flights from Istanbul (SAW) to MJI in December alone. 

SAMPLE: ER-BBJ disabled its transponder while passing through Greek airspace and FIR, and before entering Libyan airspace, on December 15, 2019.

During its flight, the aircraft used the same counter-surveillance techniques as 5A-LAT, deactivating its transponder (Mode-S in the ER-BBJ’s case) when nearing Egyptian/Greek FIRs and while approaching Libya. The ER-BBJ deliveries were sometimes succeeded by increased military activity between the GNA and LNA.  However, AeroTransCargo firmly denies allegations that it is smuggling weapon systems into Libya. 


ROLE OF SNA, TURKISH INTENTIONS UNCLEAR

The introduction of SNA groups reflects a quantitative increase in Ankara’s commitment to  Tripoli and their mutual economic interests. The move is designed to reverse the setback that GNA forces suffered in 2019, by injecting several thousand battle-hardened fighters in the GNA’s ranks. Depending on the exact troop number, the influx of several hundreds to thousands of Syrian rebels will have a minimal to moderate impact on the battlefield. Ankara hopes that the new contingent will break the deadlock in southern Tripoli and Guryanh and push Haftar’s offensive back. 

Besides acting as “canon fodder,” the SNA could serve in external security roles, guarding Turkish military garrisons and forces in Libya. Notoriously undisciplined and poorly trained, the SNA fighters are however unlikely to be tasked with training and advising missions, which will be exclusively performed by regular Turkish troops. 

The status and timetable of the SNA deployment remains unclear and very fluid. Turkey has likely calculated that the increased military support to the GNA will force Gen. Haftar to sign a ceasefire. It is likely that Ankara’s latest threats were exclusively aimed at pressuring the LNA to halt its operations against Tripoli and that President Erdogan did not seriously plan to conduct a prolonged military campaign in Libya.

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Russia Will Not Establish a Base in Somaliland, but the UAE is There to Stay

Contrary to rumors, the Russian Navy (RuN) will not establish a military base in the town of Zeila in northern Somaliland. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will however soon operationalize…

Contrary to rumors, the Russian Navy (RuN) will not establish a military base in the town of Zeila in northern Somaliland. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will however soon operationalize a air-naval facility in Somaliland, as part of a wider strategy to secure the region’s maritime trade choke points.


1. Rumors about Russia’s plans to establish a military base in the self-declared state of Somaliland have circulated since April 2018. The story was first reported by Somali outlets and then picked up by the British newspapers Sun and Express , pro-Russian outlets such as Southfront, and a number of Twitter users. Recently, the claim featured in Kenya’s major newspaper Daily Nation. The reports state that Moscow will recognize the independence of Somaliland in exchange for permission to build an air-naval base in Zeila/Sayla on the border with Djibouti, which will host 1,500 Russian troops, warships, and submarines. A meeting between the foreign minister of Somaliland and a Russian diplomat is cited as evidence for the deal.  

2. The story is almost certainly fake news, copied word-for-word from a Reddit post in the “Global Powers” role-playing thread, which was published 11 months ago. While the reddit post is still available , the Somali news outlets, which first spread the news, have since deleted their claims. 

Screenshot of “Global Powers” Reddit thread

3. IMINT obtained via Sentinel-2 satellite reconfirms that the port of Zeila has not seen construction activity in the past year. If Russia indeed plans to build a naval base in the area, some newly built infrastructure such as naval peers, fences and asphalt layering or evidence of exploratory activity should be observable by now.

4. In the current political and economic climate, Russia is unwilling and unable to build overseas military installations from scratch. As the case of Syria (Tartus and Latakia) shows, Moscow generally prefers to obtain leases for Soviet-build airfields/ports and other existing installations, which already have a baseline infrastructure. As the RuN is undergoing a modernization and downsizing program, it is highly unrealistic that Russia will be able to establish and maintain a 1,500 men overseas presence, including surface and subsurface vessel, as the rumors suggest.

5. While Somaliland hosts a Soviet-built airstrip and harbor in the city of Berbera, the Parliament of Somaliland granted exclusive access to the UAE in May 2016. The 30-year concession authorizes the UAE to establish a 42 square kilometer base in Berbera, consisting of naval facilities and two parallel runways. The air-naval base is intended to support heavy aerial traffic and host various naval assets, including warships, to launch operations against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. The base is expected to become operational in June 2019.

6. As part of its maritime strategy, the UAE has also established military bases in Yemen’s main ports (Aden and Mukalla), Eritrea, and temporarily on Socotra Island. Through the Horn of Africa deployments, Abu Dhabi aims to secure the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which represents a strategic choke point for oil transports to the European and North American markets. The Iranian-backed Houthis have conducted numerous seaborne attacks against commercial vessels transiting the strait, forcing Saudi Arabia to suspend oil shipments in the area.  

Foreign military bases in the Horn of Africa via T-Intelligence

7. The UAE’s presence in Somaliland is not limited to military interests. The Emirati  company DP World currently holds a 51% stake in the Berbera port and plans to invest $442 million. Abu Dhabi is expected to revamp the local civilian airport and build roads to Ethiopia. Emirati soldiers will train Somaliland’s coastguard to combat piracy and supply Somaliland with coastal surveillance systems, similar to capacity building programs in Somalia’s autonomous region of Puntland.

8. Since Berbera is unavailable as a Somaliland base (and the Zeila deal fake news), Moscow is seeking other options to gain a foothold in the Horn of Africa region. Russia and Sudan are reportedly discussing the establishment of a “naval supply center” on the Red Sea coast. In fall 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov furthermore announced plans to establish a “logistics center” on Eritrea’s Red Sea coast. While Lavrov did not provide specifics, possible locations include the ports of Massawa and Assab, which offer strategic access to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The UAE already operates a air-naval installation in Assab.

9. The establishment of small logistics facilities in the Horn of Africa region could provide critical operational support for Russia’s expanding military and commercial interests in Africa and allow Moscow to compete with its Western adversaries, while keeping the initial investment and footprint low. This approach fits within Russia’s overall Africa strategy, which relies on politically deniable subversive operations spearheaded by irregular assets such as private military corporations (PMCs) and intelligence agencies.


By Gecko

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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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