Tag Archives: Special Forces covert operations

A Humane Bombing Campaign? the Baghuz Strike

In the last days of the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, when members of the once-fierce caliphate were cornered in a dirt field next to a town called Baghuz, a U.S. military drone circled high overhead, hunting for military targets. But it saw only a large crowd of women and children huddled against a river bank. Without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors.

It was March 18, 2019. At the U.S. military’s busy Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, uniformed personnel watching the live drone footage looked on in stunned disbelief, according to one officer who was there. “Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone, two people who reviewed the chat log recalled. Another responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.”

The Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the Islamic State, but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. military. The details, reported by the New York Times on November 13, 2021, show that the death toll was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized and classified. United States-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified.

The Defense Department’s independent inspector general began an inquiry, but the report containing its findings was stalled and stripped of any mention of the strike. “Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it,” said Gene Tate,  a former Navy officer who had worked for years as a civilian analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Counterterrorism Center before moving to the inspector general’s office….

The details of the strikes were pieced together by The New York Times over months from confidential documents and descriptions of classified reports, as well as interviews with personnel directly involved, and officials with top secret security clearances who discussed the incident on the condition that they not be named. The Times investigation found that the bombing had been called in by a classified American special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria. The task force operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions. In the case of the Baghuz bombing, the American Air Force command in Qatar had no idea the strike was coming, an officer who served at the command center said.

The only assessment done immediately after the strike was performed by the same ground unit that ordered the strike. It determined that the bombing was lawful because it killed only a small number of civilians while targeting Islamic State fighters in an attempt to protect coalition forces, the command said. Therefore no formal war crime notification, criminal investigation or disciplinary action was warranted, it said, adding that the other deaths were accidental.

But the Air Force lawyer, Lt. Col. Dean W. Korsak, believed he had witnessed possible war crimes and repeatedly pressed his leadership and Air Force criminal investigators to act. When they did not, he alerted the Defense Department’s independent inspector general. Two years after the strike, seeing no evidence that the watchdog agency was taking action, Colonel Korsak emailed the Senate Armed Services Committee, telling its staff that he had top secret material to discuss and adding, “I’m putting myself at great risk of military retaliation for sending this.”..

The United States portrayed the air war against the Islamic State as the most precise and humane bombing campaign in its history. The military said every report of civilian casualties was investigated and the findings reported publicly, creating what the military called a model of accountability. The details suggest that while the military put strict rules in place to protect civilians, the Special Operations task force 9 repeatedly used other rules to skirt them. The military teams counting casualties rarely had the time, resources or incentive to do accurate work. And troops rarely faced repercussions when they caused civilian deaths.

On the ground, Task Force 9 coordinated offensives and airstrikes. The unit included soldiers from the 5th Special Forces Group and the Army’s elite commando team Delta Force, several officials said. Over time, some officials overseeing the air campaign began to believe that the task force was systematically circumventing the safeguards created to limit civilian deaths. The process was supposed to run through several checks and balances. Drones with high-definition cameras studied potential targets, sometimes for days or weeks. Analysts pored over intelligence data to differentiate combatants from civilians. And military lawyers were embedded with strike teams to ensure that targeting complied with the law of armed conflict.  But there was a quick and easy way to skip much of that oversight: claiming imminent danger….By late 2018, about 80 percent of all airstrikes Task Force 9 was calling in claimed self-defense, according to an Air Force officer who reviewed the strikes. The rules allowed U.S. troops and local allies to invoke it when facing not just direct enemy fire, but anyone displaying “hostile intent,”… Under that definition, something as mundane as a car driving miles from friendly forces could in some cases be targeted…..

The aftermath of that approach was plain to see. A number of Syrian towns, including the regional capital, Raqqa, were reduced to little more than rubble. Human rights organizations reported that the coalition caused thousands of civilian deaths during the war. Hundreds of military assessment reports examined by The Times show the task force was implicated in nearly one in five coalition civilian casualty incidents in the region…Publicly, the coalition insisted the numbers were much lower. Privately, it became overwhelmed by the volume of civilian casualty claims reported by locals, humanitarian groups and the news media, and a backlog of civilian casualty assessment reports sat unexamined for months, two people who compiled the reports said…..

Excerpts from How the U.S. Hid an Airstrike That Killed Dozens of Civilians in Syria, NY Times, Nov. 13, 2021

Killing US Enemies: Covert Operations

The U.S. has some of the best special operations units in the world, but they can’t do everything on their own. The American military relies on allied special operators from places like Britain, Iraq, and Israel to collect intelligence and kill enemy insurgents and soldiers. Here are 6 of those special operations commands.

1. SAS and SBS (UK)
These could obviously be two separate entries, but we’re combining them here because they’re both British units that often operate side-by-side with U.S. forces, just with different missions and pedigrees. The Special Air Service (SAS) pulls from the British Army and focuses on counter-terrorism and reconnaissance. The Special Boat Service (SBS) does maritime counter-terrorism and amphibious warfare (but will absolutely stack bodies on land, too).

2. Sayeret Matkal (Israel)
Israel’s Sayeret Matkal has generated rumors and conjecture for decades, and it’s easy to see why when you look at their few public successes…. The commandos in the unit are skilled in deception, direct action, and intelligence gathering…One of their most public recent successes came when they led a daring mission to install listening devices in ISIS buildings, learning of a plan to hide bombs in the battery wells of laptops.

3. French Special Operations Command
French special operations units are even more close-mouthed than the overall specops community…

4. Kommando Spezialkräfte (Germany)
The commandos have reportedly deployed to Syria in recent years to fight ISIS.

5. Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service

6. Afghan National Army Commando Corps
It’s even capable of the rapid nighttime raids that U.S. forces became famous for when they were in the lead in that country…Afghanistan also has the Ktah Khas, a counter-terrorism unit known for daring raids like their 2016 rescue of 59 prisoners in a Taliban hideout.

Logan Nye, We Are The Mighty: 6 foreign special operations units the US relies on to collect intelligence and kill enemy insurgents, Business Insider, Nov. 30, 2018

 

Privatization for Obfuscation: military training in Jordan

US military aid to Washington’s key ally in the region –  Jordan – has risen to a staggering $463m in 2016 alone. But little is known about how this money is spent. Who benefits? And who or what is secured by US military funding?

The King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre (KASOTC) is the centrepiece of US-Jordanian counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation. It not only offers a base for the training of international Special Forces and Jordanian border guards, but also for military adventure holidays, corporate leadership programmes, and stunt training for actors. While war at KASOTC is an interactive and consumable event for affluent customers, it engenders deadly realities for others.

Following Jordanian approval of a political-military agreement concerning the use of the facility, the US provided $99m of military assistance for the construction of the centre, accounting for a third of the total US military aid to Jordan in 2005. While KASOTC was built by the Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Programs Center, it is owned by the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF), and managed by the Maryland-based limited liability company ViaGlobal.

The ViaGlobal staff based at KASOTC have US military background. Also the board of the company almost exclusively consists of retired US military personnel. Although KASOTC thereby comes close to operating as a US army training centre, its business structure allows both the US and the Jordanian governments to insist that there are indeed no foreign military training centres in the country

According to one ViaGlobal employee, in 2013, 60 percent of the revenues earned at KASOTC came from the training of US soldiers and 20 percent from the training of Jordanian forces.  KASOTC offers its customers what its construction manager imagined to be an environment that is just like what soldiers might encounter with terrorists. Besides a fake Afghan village, a real Airbus 300, a mock city, and a sniper range, KASOTC also features its own artificial refugee camp. The simulation of a typical terrorist environment is further enhanced by the use of thousands of sound and smell effects, fog generators, and rooftop explosions…

As part of its Annual Warrior Competition, KASOTC for instance invitesSpecial Forces units from all over the world to what its business manager, a former US marine, in 2013 aptly called the Olympics of Special Forces.   The event itself primarily serves PR purposes and is sponsored by international weapons producers. In return for their sponsoring, the latter can directly showcase their products to the participating units.

Excerpts from Benjamin Schuetze, Jordan’s KASOTC: Privatising anti-terror training, AlJazeera, July 17, 2018

Kill Operations in Yemen

The Pentagon has quietly ordered new commando deployments to the Middle East and North Africa amid an unprecedented series of American airstrikes in Yemen, counterterrorism officials tell ABC News.  The moves appear to signal that the U.S. military is kicking off a more aggressive counterterrorism campaign… against Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS strongholds in Syria and areas in North Africa.

The Trump administration in late January 2017 launched the first known ground force operation in Yemen in two years followed by an unprecedented two-dozen or more airstrikes the first week of March 2017 targeting al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, including airstrikes March 2, 2017 night. This week also saw the killing of al-Qaeda’s overall deputy leader in a U.S. drone strike in northwestern Syria….

Un-announced fresh deployments of elite American commando units from the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEAL teams continue…

But the first known ground force operation in two years on Jan. 28, 2017 raid by the Navy’s “black ops” counterterror unit, SEAL Team Six, came at a high price.  The experienced operators were caught in a withering mountain gunfight with fighters from AQAP, the only terrorist group which has succeeded three times in smuggling sophisticated bombs aboard U.S.-bound jetliners, which were defused before they exploded.

“There were women straight up shooting at the SEALs,” said a counterterrorism official briefed on the fight, describing the unusual battle, which resulted in one SEAL killed in action, some children in the compound killed by crossfire as the SEALs tried to search buildings and then broke contact, leaving the site aboard MV-22 Osprey aircraft. One Osprey had to make a hard landing, which injured three SEALs and the aircraft had to be destroyed in place by the operators….

One computer hard drive and phones containing a wealth of contact information for al-Qaeda operatives around the region were recovered by the SEALs…While the Yemen operation has become politicized in Washington as having “failed,” with some Democrats questioning whether any intelligence gains were worth the high cost of SEAL Ryan Owens’ life, a $75 million aircraft crashed and children killed in crossfire, military analysts continue “docex” — document exploitation — in an eavesdrop-proof sensitive compartmented information facility….

Excerpts from JAMES GORDON MEEK,US special ops step up strikes on al-Qaeda and ISIS, insiders say, Mar. 3, 2017

 

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

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

What Putin and the CIA have in Common

The West has made NATO’s military alliance the heart of its response to Russia’s power grab in Ukraine. But we may be fighting the wrong battle: The weapons President Vladimir Putin has used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine look more like paramilitary “covert action” than conventional military force.  Putin, the former KGB officer, may in fact be taking a page out of America’s playbook during the Ronald Reagan presidency, when the Soviet empire began to unravel thanks to a relentless U.S. covert-action campaign. Rather than confront Moscow head on, Reagan nibbled at the edges, by supporting movements that destabilized Russian power in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and, finally, Poland and eastern Europe.

It was a clever American strategy back then, pushing a wounded Soviet Union and opportunistically exploiting local grievances, wherever possible. And it’s an equally clever Russian approach now, offering maximum gain at minimum potential cost.  The parallel was drawn for me this past week by John Maguire, a former CIA paramilitary covert-action officer, who served in the contras program in Nicaragua and later in the Middle East. “At the end of the day, Putin is a case officer,” says Maguire. “He watched what we did in the 1980s, and now he’s playing it back against us.”..  [T]he real action was covert destabilization of major cities in eastern Ukraine. Since these cities are largely Russian-speaking, Putin could count on a base of local popular support.  Last week, Pro-Russian “demonstrators” seized buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk. Some demonstrators said they wanted to conduct referendums on joining Russia, just as Crimea did prior to its annexation. It was a clever exploitation of local cultural and religious bias — the sort of “divide and rule” move favored by intelligence agencies for centuries…

If you look back at the way the United States worked with Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s, you can see why this form of clandestine activity is so powerful. The CIA’s primary ally was the Catholic Church, headed by a Polish pope, John Paul II, who believed as a matter of religious conviction that Soviet communism should be rolled back. To work with the church, the agency needed a waiver from rules that banned operations with religious organizations.

One thing Putin learned from watching the Soviet empire fall is that the most potent weapons are those that go under the radar — and are nominally legal in the countries where operations are taking place. All the nuclear might of the Soviet Union was useless against the striking workers in Poland, or hit-and-run guerrillas in Nicaragua, or mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union was a giant beast felled by a hundred small pricks of the lance.

How can America and the West fight back effectively against Putin’s tactics?… The trick for the interim government in Kiev is to fight a nonviolent counterinsurgency — keeping a unified Ukrainian population on its side as much as possible.

The Ukrainian struggle tells us that this is a different kind of war. Putin has learned the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, yes, but also those of Poland and East Germany. An ex-spy is calling the shots in Moscow, using a dirty-tricks manual he knows all too well.
Excerpt, David Ignatius, David Ignatius: Putin steals CIA playbook on anti-Soviet covert operations, Washington Post, May 4, 2014