Tag Archives: CIA and JSOC

Drone Strikes: the body count

The U.S. assaults… have been far more deadly than is generally recognized. Military sources say that drone strikes have killed between 20,000 and 25,000 Islamic State operatives in Iraq and Syria. U.S. conventional attacks have killed about 30,000 more, for a total “body count” of over 50,000….The CIA and JSOC both conduct roughly the same number of drone flights every day. But the sources said the military’s drones conducted more than 20,000 strikes over the last year, in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, while the CIA is said to have struck less than a dozen targets over that same period.

The CIA oversaw much of America’s drone warfare during the first half of Obama’s presidency, when it was targeting al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan. But the agency’s focus on such counterterrorism “direct action” appears to have diminished over the past several years.

Obama’s  preference for special operations forces and their “small-footprint” tactics, as opposed to big conventional assaults….One unlikely legacy of Obama’s presidency is that he made the secret, once-impermissible tactic of targeted killing the preferred tool of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Excerpt from David Ignatius, Pentagon and CIA in a terror turf war,  Washington Post. Dec 12, 2016

Best Practices to Capture or Kill

The creation of a new  Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC ) entity,  the “Counter-External Operations Task Force,” this late [November 2016]  in the Obama’s tenure is the “codification” of best practices in targeting terrorists outside of conventional conflict zones, according to the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity …[These practices]include guidelines for counterterrorism operations such as approval by several agencies before a drone strike and “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed. This series of presidential orders is known as the “playbook.”

The new JSOC task force could also offer intelligence, strike recommendations and advice to the militaries and security forces of traditional Western allies, or conduct joint operations, officials said. In other parts of the world, with weak or no governments, JSOC could act unilaterally…

The new JSOC task force will report to the Pentagon through the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, according to U.S. military officials, creating a hybrid command system that can sidestep regional commanders for the sake of speed….But [the problem is that] regional commanders, all four star generals, guard their turf carefully.

Officials hope the task force, known throughout the Pentagon as “Ex-Ops,” will be a clearinghouse for intelligence coordinating and targeting against groups or individuals attempting to plot attacks in places like the United States and Europe.  According to officials familiar with plans for the task force, it will initially draw on an existing multinational intelligence operation in the Middle East that tracks foreign fighters, called Gallant Phoenix, and one of JSOC’s intelligence centers in Northern Virginia.

While in the past the smaller task forces, such as Gallant Phoenix, were staffed by representatives from different intelligence agencies, the new task force aims to have decision-makers present, ensuring that the targeting process happens in one place and quickly…. “There has never been an ex-ops command team that works trans-regionally to stop attacks.”

Excerpts from  Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe, Obama administration expands elite, Washington Post, Nov.25, 2016

 

 

Kill Without Leaving Fingerpints: Iraq War

The Iraq war was, in part, a proxy battle between the US and Iran….By early 2007, some US intelligence estimates held that as many as 150 Iranian operatives were in Iraq. Many were member of the Quds Force, the covert arm of Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy. Their mission was to coordinate the violent campaign being waged against US forces by Iraq’s Shi’ite militias.“It was 100 percent, ‘Are you willing to kill Americans and are you willing to coordinate attacks?’ ” said an officer who studied the Quds Force’s approach closely. “ ‘If the answer is “yes,” here’s arms, here’s money.’ ”

The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) set up a new task force, named Task Force 17.Its mandate was simple: go after “anything that Iran is doing to aid in the destabilization of Iraq,” said a Task Force 17 officer…But political restrictions hobbled Task Force 17, particularly as the US lowered its profile in Iraq. The country’s Shi’ite-dominated government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, wasn’t happy with any attacks that targeted Iran operatives or their Iraqi proxies.  But for a small number of Shi’ite targets, JSOC found a way around the political restrictions by killing its enemies without leaving any US fingerprints.  The command did this using a device called the “Xbox.”

Developed jointly by Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, the Xbox was a bomb designed to look and behave exactly like one made by Iraqi insurgents, using materials typically found in locally made improvised explosive devices…[The Xbox] was made by the Delta and Team 6 explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) personnel… After capturing some IEDs intact on the Afghan and Iraqi battlefields, the EOD troops set about taking them apart.  It wasn’t long before they realized they could build them as well..  At first, the officer said, JSOC’s bomb makers used components typically found in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater: “Chinese circuits and Pakistani parts . . . and explosives from old Soviet munitions, et cetera.”  The intent was to create a device that if it were sent to the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center in Quantico, Va., the Bureau’s experts would mistakenly trace the bomb back to a particular terrorist bomb maker because of certain supposedly telltale signature elements of the design that JSOC’s explosive ordnance disposal gurus had managed to re-create.

But the Xbox was different from regular IEDs in several ways… First, unlike many IEDs, such as those detonated by vehicles running over pressure plates, it had to be command detonated, meaning an operator somewhere was watching the target and then pressing a button. Another design requirement was that the Xbox device had to be extremely stable, to avoid the sort of premature explosions that often kill terrorists.

JSOC wanted to use the device to kill individuals, rather than crowds…JSOC used reconnaissance operators, who are typically some of Delta’s most experienced, because getting the device into position, by placing it in the target’s vehicle, for example, was “a lot of work,” he said. It usually involved surveillance of the target for days on end, understanding his pattern of life — his daily routines — so that the operators could predict when they would be able to gain access to his vehicle unobserved….[A] senior Team 6 source, who questioned the morality of using the device [said]: “[It’s] a great tool, but as many of us have said — hey, we’re no different than the enemy if we’re just blowing people up with booby traps.”

Excerpted from Sean Naylor “Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command” (2015)

How to Manipulate People in War

“We have, in my view, exquisite capabilities to kill people,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland. “We need exquisite capabilities to manipulate them.”  Psychological subtlety and the US military don’t always go hand-in-hand. Worldwide, we’ve become better known for drone strikes and Special Operations raids to kill High Value Targets. But that wasn’t enough for the last 13 years of war, according to a RAND study …“We’ve built a great apparatus for terrorism and to some degree we’ve got to be careful that doesn’t create blind spots,” Cleveland said… during a panel discussion at RAND. “There’s a cottage industry that’s built up around it [counter-terrorism]. You run the risk of basically taking on an entrenched infrastructure” whenever you try to broaden the focus killing and capturing the bad guys, he said, but we have to try.

“I don’t think we understand completely the fight we’re in,” Cleveland said. …In the US, though, “we’re horrible at ‘influence operations,’” said Cleveland. The US approach is “fractured” among multiple specialties and organizations, he said. Some key elements are in Cleveland’s USASOC — civil affairs, for example, and Military Information Support Operations (MISO), formerly known as psychological operations — while others lie entirely outside — such as cyber and electronic warfare.

To the extent US forces address psychology, propaganda, and politics at all, we tend to do it as an afterthought. “We routinely write a plan for kinetic action, and buried in there is the information operations annex,” said William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and combating terrorism. “Many times, it should be the opposite…. When you’re dealing with these types of adversaries [e.g. ISIL], that is often the decisive line of operations.”

That’s just one example of how the US ties its own hands with organizations, processes, even laws — indeed, an entire national security culture — designed for a very different kind of warfare. All warfare is a clash of wills, Clausewitz famously said, but Americans tend to fixate on technology and targets, not winning — or intimidating — hearts and minds….” Even when unconditional surrender is the goal, victory always means convincing the enemy to stop fighting….

Likewise, local partners are rarely reliable allies, but they aren’t the enemy either. Commanders need to understand the good, bad, and ugly of partners who may be corrupt, inept, or grinding their own political axes on the heads of rival ethnic groups. US intelligence, however, is still geared to figuring out “the enemy,” defined as a clear-cut foe. “…Where combat advisors are allowed, their roles must be negotiated between the host government and the US country by country, case by case, and there are usually strict restrictions — often imposed by American political leaders fearful of putting US troops in harm’s way.  “Putting people on the ground to do this kind of work is inherently more risky than flying an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and dropping a Hellfire, but we have to learn how to accept that risk, because this at the end of the day is much more often the decisive line of operation,” said Wechsler….

“We are shooting behind the target in almost every case,” said Hix, because we have to grind through our methodical, outdated planning process while adversaries innovate. A new Joint Concept does away with the traditional “Phase 0″ through “Phase 5″ system, which conceives the world in terms of before, during, and after major conflicts, Hix told me after the panel. In the new world disorder, “we need those resources and authorities in what we consider to be ‘peace,”” he said. If you don’t have them, he warned, “your enemy’s playing chess while you’re playing checkers.”

By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR., Killing Is Not Enough: Special Operators, Breaking Defense, Dec. 16, 2014

Drones, Weddings and the Bad Guys

Soon after a U.S. military drone killed about a dozen people on a remote road in central Yemen on Dec. 12, 2013, a disturbing narrative emerged.  Witnesses and tribal leaders said the four Hellfire missiles had hit a convoy headed to a wedding, and the Yemeni government paid compensation to some of the victims’ families. After an investigation, Human Rights Watch charged that “some, if not all those killed and wounded were civilians.”…

As a result, the Yemen attack has become fodder in a growing debate about the White House proposal for the CIA to eventually turn over its armed drones and targeted killing program to the military.  The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which carried out the December strike, insists that everyone killed or wounded in the attack was an Al Qaeda militant and therefore a lawful military target, U.S. officials say.  “This was not a wedding,” said a congressional aide briefed by the military. “These were bad guys.”

The CIA, which runs a separate drone killing program in Yemen, saw it differently.  According to two U.S. officials who would not be quoted discussing classified matters, the CIA informed the command before the attack that the spy agency did not have confidence in the underlying intelligence.  After the missiles hit, CIA analysts assessed that some of the victims may have been villagers, not militants. The National Counterterrorism Center, which coordinates terrorism intelligence from multiple agencies, is somewhere in the middle, saying the evidence is inconclusive.

By all accounts, the target was Shawqi Ali Ahmad Badani, a mid-level leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a virulent offshoot of Al Qaeda.  Badani, who escaped unharmed, is suspected of being the ringleader of plots that forced the State Department to temporarily close 19 U.S. diplomatic missions in the Mideast and Africa in August 2013.

The disagreement among U.S. intelligence analysts — all of whom have access to aerial video, communications intercepts, tips from Yemenis and other intelligence — shows that drone targeting is sometimes based on shaky evidence. To some members of Congress, the Yemen strike shows something else: The Joint Special Operations Command is not as careful as the CIA and shouldn’t be given responsibility for drone killings.

Yemen’s government apparently agrees. It demanded that the command stop drone strikes in the country, but let the CIA continue. The CIA launched three strikes last month (April 2014) that killed as many as 67 people.  “The amount of time that goes into a strike package at CIA is longer and more detailed than a strike package put together” at the Defense Department, said the same congressional aide. “Their standards of who is a combatant are different. Standards for collateral damage are different.”  Pentagon officials dispute that, saying that the joint command follows the policy President Obama disclosed in a speech a year ago. It bars drone strikes unless there is a “near certainty” that civilians won’t be killed.

Excerpt from KEN DILANIAN , Debate grows over proposal for CIA to turn over drones to Pentagon, LA Times, May, 11, 2014