Tag Archives: U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)

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

 

Trapped to Death

By the start of 2017 the Taliban was pushing hard to take Sangin city’s district centre, Afghanistan, a fortified compound which housed the local security and administrative officials, just a few miles from Hamid Gul’s family home. The compound was the only thing stopping the Taliban from claiming the whole district as their own. The US, which had lost at least 70 of its own troops keeping Sangin out of insurgent hands over the years, scrambled to respond with scores of airstrikes.  Hamid was convinced that his family were still safer behind Taliban lines than in Laskhar Gah, one of the Taliban’s prime targets. But on the morning of February 10 2017, he got an unexpected phone call from a neighbour in Sangin: the family’s house had been flattened.  In that one night Hamid Gul lost his 50 year-old mother, Bibi Bakhtawara, six brothers and a sister. All seven children were under 16 years of age. Bibi Rahmania, his niece, also died. She was just two years old.

By the end of those three days, five women and 19 children were dead
Hamid was not the only person given devastating news on that day. On the same night, a few hours later, a second civilian house, just a few miles away from his own, was also hit. The following night a third one was struck.

To this day, there is no consensus about what happened to those three houses and why. What is clear, however, is that by the end of those three days in early February five women and 19 children were dead, among a full toll of 26 civilians, a Bureau investigation has established.

Three local officials interviewed by Bureau reporters on the ground claimed US airstrikes had destroyed the houses and killed their inhabitants. The United Nations (UN) said the same, in its biannual accounting of Afghan civilians killed in the war, released in July 2017, adding that there appeared to have been no fighting in the area at the time, meaning the attacks may have been pre-planned.

A spokesperson for Resolute Support, the US-led Nato mission in Afghanistan, told the Bureau that after four investigations the organisation could not confirm or deny responsibility for killing the civilians, though he pushed back strongly against the UN’s claims that there was no fighting in the villages at the time. Resolute Support has officially concluded the case as “disputed”, one of four categories for recording allegations of civilian casualties. It was used in this case because Resolute Support cannot decide if insurgents or the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were responsible for the casualties, the spokesperson told the Bureau.

The fact that no-one has taken responsibility for the deaths of 24 women and children offers an insight into the lack of accountability of America’s longest-running conflict, which it now fights largely from the air under opaque rules of engagement against 20-odd armed groups.

Excerpts from  Caught in the crossfire
Civilians are bearing the brunt of conflict in Afghanistan, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Sept. 30, 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

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

 

 

Leaked Papers on US Drone War: 2015

The Obama administration has portrayed drones as an effective and efficient weapon in the ongoing war with al Qaeda and other radical groups. Yet classified Pentagon documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that the U.S. military has faced “critical shortfalls” in the technology and intelligence it uses to find and kill suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia.
Those shortfalls stem from the remote geography of Yemen and Somalia and the limited American presence there. As a result, the U.S. military has been overly reliant on signals intelligence from computers and cellphones, and the quality of those intercepts has been limited by constraints on surveillance flights in the region.

The documents are part of a study by a Pentagon Task Force on Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. They provide details about how targets were tracked for lethal missions carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, in Yemen and Somalia between January 2011 and summer 2012. When the study was circulated in 2013, the Obama administration was publicly floating the idea of moving the bulk of its drone program to the Pentagon from the CIA, and the military was eager to make the case for more bases, more drones, higher video quality, and better eavesdropping equipment.

Yet by identifying the challenges and limitations facing the military’s “find, fix, finish” operations in Somalia and Yemen — the cycle of gathering intelligence, locating, and attacking a target — the conclusions of the ISR study would seem to undermine the Obama administration’s claims of a precise and effective campaign, and lend support to critics who have questioned the quality of intelligence used in drone strikes.

One of the most glaring problems identified in the ISR study was the U.S. military’s inability to carry out full-time surveillance of its targets in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Behind this problem lies the “tyranny of distance” — a reference to the great lengths that aircraft must fly to their targets from the main U.S. air base in Djibouti, the small East African nation that borders Somalia and sits just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. Surveillance flights are limited by fuel — and, in the case of manned aircraft, the endurance of pilots. In contrast with Iraq, where more than 80 percent of “finishing operations” were conducted within 150 kilometers of an air base, the study notes that “most objectives in Yemen are ~ 500 km away” from Djibouti and “Somalia can be over 1,000 km.” The result is that drones and planes can spend half their air time in transit, and not enough time conducting actual surveillance….

Compounding the tyranny of distance, the ISR study complained, was the fact that JSOC had too few drones in the region to meet the requirements mandated for carrying out a finishing operation.  The “sparse” available resources meant that aircraft had to “cover more potential leads — stretching coverage and leading to [surveillance] ‘blinks.’” Because multiple aircraft needed to be “massed” over one target before a strike, surveillance of other targets temporarily ceased, thus breaking the military’s ideal of a “persistent stare” or the “unblinking eye” of around-the-clock tracking.

JSOC relied on manned spy planes to fill the orbit gap over Yemen. In June 2012 there were six U-28 spy planes in operation in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula,..Only in the summer of 2012, with the addition of contractor-operated drones based in Ethiopia and Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, did Somalia have the minimum number of drones commanders wanted. The number of Predator drones stationed in Djibouti doubled over the course of the study, and in 2013, the fleet was moved from the main U.S. air base, Camp Lemonnier, to another Djibouti airstrip because of overcrowding and a string of crashes.

Expanding the use of aircraft launched from ships.

JSOC already made use of Fire Scout helicopter drones and small Scan Eagle drones off the coast of Somalia, as well as “Armada Sweep,” which a 2011 document from the National Security Agency, provided by former contractor Edward Snowden, describes as a “ship-based collection system” for electronic communications data. (The NSA declined to comment on Armada Sweep.)…

The find, fix, finish cycle is known in the military as FFF, or F3. But just as critical are two other letters: E and A, for “exploit and analyze,” referring to the use of materials collected on the ground and in detainee interrogations..  F3EA became doctrine in counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s…

[But] Assassinations are intelligence dead ends.  The ISR study shows that after a “kill operation” there is typically nobody on the ground to collect written material or laptops in the target’s house, or the phone on his body, or capture suspects and ask questions. Yet collection of on-the-ground intelligence of that sort — referred to as DOMEX, for “document and media exploitation,” and TIR, for “tactical interrogation report” — is invaluable for identifying future targets.,,,[Another issue is whether the US government can rely on foreign governments for intelligence]….In 2011, for example, U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal that they had killed a local governor because Yemeni officials didn’t tell them he was present at a gathering of al Qaeda figures. “We think we got played,” one official said. (The Yemeni government disputed the report.)…
With limited ability to conduct raids or seize materials from targeted individuals in Yemen and Somalia, JSOC relied overwhelmingly on monitoring electronic communications to discover and ultimately locate targets.  The documents state bluntly that SIGINT is an inferior form of intelligence. Yet signals accounted for more than half the intelligence collected on targets, with much of it coming from foreign partners. The rest originated with human intelligence, primarily obtained by the CIA. “These sources,” the study notes, “are neither as timely nor as focused as tactical intelligence” from interrogations or seized materials.  Making matters worse, the documents refer to “poor” and “limited”capabilities for collecting SIGINT, implying a double bind in which kill operations were reliant on sparse amounts of inferior intelligence.

The disparity with other areas of operation was stark, as a chart contrasting cell data makes clear: In Afghanistan there were 8,900 cell data reports each month, versus 50 for Yemen and 160 for Somalia. Despite that, another chart shows SIGINT comprised more than half the data sources that went into developing targets in Somalia and Yemen in 2012.  Cellphone data was critical for finding and identifying targets, yet a chart from a Pentagon study shows that the military had far less information in Yemen and Somalia than it was accustomed to having in Afghanistan….

After locating a target, usually by his cellphone or other electronics, analysts would study video feeds from surveillance aircraft “to build near-certainty via identification of distinguishing physical characteristics.”

A British intelligence document on targeted killing in Afghanistan, which was among the Snowden files, describes a similar process of “monitoring a fixed location, and tracking any persons moving away from that location, and identifying if a similar pattern is experienced through SIGINT collect.” The document explains that “other visual indicators may be used to aid the establishment of [positive identification]” including “description of clothing” or “gait.” After a shot, according to the British document and case studies in the Pentagon’s ISR report, drones would hover to determine if their target had been hit, collecting video and evidence of whether the cellphone had been eliminated...  Yet according to the ISR study, the military faced “critical shortfalls of capabilities” in the technologies enabling that kind of precise surveillance and post-strike assessment. At the time of the study, only some of the Reaper drones had high-definition video, and most of the aircraft over the region lacked the ability to collect “dial number recognition” data.

Excerpts from Firing Blind, Intercept, the Drone Papers, Oct. 2015

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)