How a Secretive Special Operations Task Force Is Taking the Fight to ISIS

Special operations personnel in Iraq and Syria have been responsible for nearly one third of all the brutal terrorist group's casualties.

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While body counts are not a particularly useful metric of a military operation’s success, they can be a good indicator of how intense things have been on the ground. So, if the official tally is accurate, the U.S.-led special operations task force fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which includes America’s shadowy Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), foreign partners, and private contractors, has had a massive and potentially lopsided impact on the mission.

On April 14, 2017, members of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve’s (SOJTF-OIR) headquarters element received new, distinctive unit patches at a ceremony at an undisclosed location somewhere in “Southwest Asia.” Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the overarching U.S.-run force battling ISIS, which oversees SOJTF-OIR, released a number of pictures of the event.

Though they were full of small, interesting details – like the presence of both U.S. Army and Marine Corps special operators, along with British and Turkish officers – the most eye-opening information was in the caption. “Since its establishment, SOJTF-OIR has liberated over 45,000 square [kilometers] previously held by ISIS and has killed over 21,00 [sic; 21,000] ISIS militants," the text read.

Sometime afterwards, CJTF-OIR quietly deleted this information from the pictures. However, in an Email to The War Zone, one of command’s public affairs officers confirmed the figure and the apparent typo.

“SOJTF-OIR since its inception has greatly contributed to the degradation of the enemy, ISIS,” the media office added. “The…number is an estimate. Body count is not the focus of the coalition's efforts. It is the ultimate defeat of this barbaric and inhuman enemy, ISIS.”

U.S. Army

A U.S. Army member of SOJTF-OIR wears the unit's new patch at a ceremony in April 2017.

Though not the focus of their activities, SOJTF-OIR’s kill count is both massive and accounts for a huge proportion of the total figure across the entire American-led coalition. As of April 2017, CJTF-OIR estimated it had killed approximately 70,000 ISIS fighters since 2014. This means that SOJTF-OIR – and possibly its predecessor organizations – has been responsible for around 30 percent of all dead terrorists in Iraq and Syria.

Yet, the special operations forces do not receive nearly the same amount of attention as the air war, or even the increasing use of conventional artillery. Of course, we don’t know whether SOJTF-OIR counts terrorists who died in air or artillery strikes its personnel called in among the task force’s final count. But after digging into the available information, along with various documents The War Zone obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), we can share a more complete picture of the intelligence-driven campaign focused on killing the terrorist group’s leader and attacking other high value targets.

The most obvious, but least visible part of this effort has been the work of a JSOC task force. Publicly referred to as the “Expeditionary Targeting Force” (ETF) in 2015, these elite forces were going to Iraq and might even cross the border for missions into Syria, according to then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

“Special operators will, over time, be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders,” he explained to lawmakers in a statement on Dec. 1, 2015, using another acronym for Islamic State. “That creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids and more momentum.”

As the Pentagon described it, this concept seemed very similar to the controversial special operations forces-led push against Al Qaeda in Iraq – the predecessor to ISIS – and other terrorists during the American-led occupation of the country between 2003 and 2011. This plan is often described as the brain child of Army General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded a JSOC task force in Iraq until he took over as head of the super-secretive command in September 2003.

"It’s  a tool that we introduced as part of our – the accelerated operations  to conduct raids of various kinds, seizing places and people, freeing  hostages and prisoners of ISIL, and making it such that ISIL has to fear  that anywhere, anytime, it may be struck," Carter added during a public briefing at the Pentagon on Feb. 29, 2016. "The only thing I’ll say is  the ETF is in position, it is having an effect and operating, and I  expect it to be a very effective part of our acceleration campaign. I  don’t have any more on that.”

Though Carter didn’t explicitly say JSOC was leading the force, he did admit elements of the command were operating in the region during a press conference with his French counterpart, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, on Oct. 25, 2016. “We have put our Joint Special Operations Command in the lead of countering ISIL's external operations,” he declared, using another term for ISIS. “And we have already achieved very significant results both in reducing the flow of foreign fighters and removing ISIL leaders from the battlefield.”

Thanks to FOIA, the War Zone has obtained a more in depth view of these operations from the U.S. Army’s official report on the crash of a mysterious spy plane with the civilian registration code – N6351V – and paint job to match crashed into a field outside the town of Kawrgosk in northern Iraq on March 5, 2016. Though accident report is both heavily redacted and significantly abridged to begin with for operational security reasons, the formal review confirmed the aircraft was supporting JSOC’s forces.

U.S. Army via FOIA

The formal chain of custody starts with U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM), the service’s top manager for aircraft of all types. Then it moves down through Program Manager-Fixed Wing (PM-FW) and Program Manager-Sensors-Aerial Intelligence (PM-SAI) and finally to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). At the very end, JSOC is listed as the “organization involved” at the time of the incident.

Despite the sensitive nature of the mission, the Army’s protocols required an investigation into the Class A accident, meaning the incident either caused more than $2 million in damage to the plane or someone died. In this instance, thankfully, there were no fatalities, but the crash totaled the aircraft.

“The accident aircraft was…assigned to a task force (TF) located at Erbil International Airport, Erbil, Iraq,” Army investigators explained in their narrative. “The accident aircrew was scheduled to conduct their standard mission in the local area, which was captured on the TF's flight schedule.”

U.S. Army via FOIA

The wreckage of N6351V in a controlled hangar at Erbil Airport after the accident in March 2016.

The results of the investigation itself were inconclusive. Both of the engines on the modified King Air 300-series failed after smoke suddenly began filling the cockpit. After finding evidence of debris inside, the Army sent the two PT6A turboprop engines to the Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) facility at Bridgeport, West Virginia for further analysis. Investigators forwarded fuel and oil samples to a military laboratory for separate tests, which did not turn up any dangerous impurities.

“The number one engine forward gearbox housing fractured from the engine combustion housing, revealing extensive internal damage to the gearbox planetary gears. Removal of the exhaust stacks revealed extensive internal combustion housing and power turbine damage. The number one engine chip detector revealed a copious amount of metallic debris,” the investigators found when they began to inspect the wreckage at a controlled hangar at Erbil Airport. “The number two engine did not reveal any notable damage.”

U.S. Army via FOIA

The remains of N6351V's right wing.

But the details about the aircraft itself are particularly interesting, illuminating how JSOC is operating in Iraq and Syria, as well as procedures it might apply to operations globally. Though an official document describes it as an MC-12W Liberty aircraft, we now know that N6351V was actually a government-owned, contractor-operated Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (MARSS).

This aerial-intelligence system includes day- and night-vision cameras, a combination laser range-finder and designator, as well as signals intelligence (SIGINT) equipment to find and monitor enemy communications. In 2009, the Army had initially hired contractors to fly this same gear in various aircraft, including both King Air 200- and 300-series planes and larger Bombardier Dash-7s.  

The MARSS went to Afghanistan to form the basis for the service’s Task Force Observe, Detect, Identify, and Neutralize-Enhanced (ODIN-E), which was primarily hunting for militants planting roadside bombs. ODIN-E built on the concept the original Task Force ODIN pioneered in Iraq. According a separate FOIA request, the Army said it had bought N6351V outright, along with a second MARSS aircraft with the registration N8007U, sometime between 2013 and 2014. A table from July 2015 noted both aircraft, along with eight other King Air 300-based aerial spooks, were all situated at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia. The decision to collocate these two JSOC aircraft with the other planes, all of which shared many of the same basic airframe and engine components, would have eased maintenance requirements and kept them obscured from the Army’s own fleet.

In addition, fuel and oil purity tests from Corpus Christi Army Depot attached to the main incident report suggested that JSOC may swap these registrations between aircraft to help conceal their activities. In his 2015 book on JSOC, Relentless Strike, journalist and author Sean Naylor talks extensively about the command’s use of “covered air,” which involves elements “whose personnel and aircraft operate under cover.” The War Zone has already written an extensive look at what we know of the U.S. military's most secretive aviation elements.

U.S. Army via FOIA

In this case, the review included historical sampling data for N6351V from August 2014 to March 2016. The last three entries listed “N166BA” as the so-called “End-Item Serial Number” or EISN. In 2016, plane spotters repeatedly tracked this aircraft, as well as a second apparent Beechcraft King Air 300 spy plane with the registration N80BZ, over Iraq using websites like FlightRadar24.com. To persistently track Islamic State fighters and the movements of particular targets for long periods of time in order to build a so-called pattern of life,” JSOC would definitely need more than just one aircraft.

It is also possible the Army for some reason intentionally or accidentally combined the fuel and oil testing history for both at some point or that when the service purchased the airframe itself that it changed the serial. A picture of N166BA from 2009 does show a similar aircraft to N6351V, but in an overall gray paint scheme.

To persistently track Islamic State fighters and the movements of particular targets for long periods of time in order to build a so-called pattern of life, JSOC would need more than just one aircraft. An Army table from July 2015 included N6351V and what could be another contractor-operated MARSS –  N8007U – along with eight other King Air 300-based aerial spooks, all situated at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia. The decision to collocate these two JSOC aircraft with the other planes, all of which shared many of the same basic airframe and engine components, would have eased maintenance requirements and kept them obscured from the Army’s own fleet.

US Army

A MARSS aircraft in Afghanistan.

Regardless of the origins of the aircraft itself, and just how many JSOC actually has under its control, the most interesting detail about N6351V from the accident report may be its crew. Of the four crew members, only one was actually a member of the U.S. military. This U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant acted as the aircraft’s “tactical systems operator” manning the SIGINT system. Censors redacted this individual’s name and there is no mention of their unit, but they could have been assigned to JSOC from Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) or one of the Corps’ three obscure communications-grabbing radio battalions.

U.S. Army via FOIA

The remaining individuals on the plane – the pilot, co-pilot, and full-motion video specialist – were all contract employees from ASKII Technology, Inc. Not surprisingly, on its website, this New Jersey-headquartered firm proudly declares past support for SOCOM, Task Force ODIN, and the Multi Sensor Aerial Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (MAISR) program, which supplied contractor support for Task Force ODIN-E.

Shortly after the crash, on March 23, 2016, elite troops, likely from the ETF, killed Islamic State's then number two leader, Rahman Mustafa Qaduli, during a raid in Syria. On April 6, 2017, another such special operation in Syria resulted in the death of Abdurakhmon Uzbeki, an ethnic Uzbek foreign fighter who the Pentagon described as a "close associate" of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. 

It is important to note that we don’t know the exact relationship between JSOC’s elements in Iraq and Syria and the over-arching SOJTF-OIR. In Afghanistan, a similarly unspecified “task force” tasked with targeted strikes against terrorists in that country is at least nominally part of the larger Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan (SOJTF-A).

U.S. Army

American special operators and members of the USAF pose for a picture during Exercise Eagle Resolve 2017 in Kuwait.

On top of that, even before Carter revealed the Expeditionary Targeting Force, there was already evidence the U.S. military was looking to start a more specialized campaign against ISIS. In July 2014, U.S. and Jordanian special operations forces tried and failed to rescue two dozen hostages from ISIS. Afterwards, the terrorists publicly beheaded a number of them, including Americas James Foley, Steve Sotloff, and Peter Kassig. Later that year, elite troops also failed in another rescue mission to free American humanitarian Kayla Mueller, who the brutal militants had forced to "marry" their leader Baghdadi and became a sex slave. She died in captivity in February 2015.

When it came to direct against against terrorist leaders, according to a summary table of civilian casualty allegations, at least one A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft attacked a high value individual codenamed “ANDERS MESA” on or about April 12, 2015 near Hawija, Iraq. In May 2015, a ground raid in Syria, reportedly involving Delta Force and the British Special Air Service (SAS), killed then-ISIS deputy commander Abu Sayyaf and led to the capture of the militant's wife, Umm Sayyaf. The two had reportedly held Mueller captive at one point.

“HVI [high value individual] strikes have killed approximately 70 senior and mid-level leaders since the beginning of May,” Army Col. Steve Warren, then the main spokesman for CJTF-OIR, told reporters on Oct. 13, 2015. “That equates to one HVI killed every two days.”

Then, on Oct. 22, 2015, Army Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler died during a combined raid with Kurdish commandos on a terrorist prison camp near the town of Hawija in northern Iraq. It later emerged that Wheeler had been a member of Delta Force, which works exclusively as a force provider for JSOC operations.

U.S. Central Command via FOIA

By 2014, the Pentagon had already created larger, multi-national special operations task forces for both fronts – Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Iraq (CJSOTF-I) and Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Syria (CJSOTF-S) – as well. When SOJTF-OIR stood up, the Pentagon dictated that its commander be dual-hatted as the head of the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Syria (CJIATF-S), effectively bringing the entire special operations enterprise pointed at ISIS under the guidance of a single individual.

While the primary job of these forces has been and continues to be training and advising local forces in both countries, these activities have brought American special operators closer and closer to the front lines. As already noted, it could be here that SOJTF-OIR has scored most of its kills by calling in air strikes and artillery fire during grueling battles for critical cities, such as Mosul, which was ISIS’ de facto capital in Iraq.

Some of the aerial attacks could conceivably have come from within the task force itself. In its Email to The War Zone, CJTF-OIR’s media office confirmed the existence of a Joint Special Operations Air Component within the unit, though they declined to specify what types or how many aircraft it had on hand. MH-60M and MH-47G helicopters from the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), as well as at least one of the U.S. Air Force’s 27th Special Operations Wing’s AC-130W Stinger II gunships, have appeared in publicly available images and video clips. Some of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones zipping around Iraq and Syria could have come from other Air Force special operations squadrons. In addition, the service's CV-22 Ospreys have joined Marine MV-22s to shuttle elite forces around.

The MH-60Ms can carry miniguns, 2.75” rockets and Hellfire missiles. Pentagon data suggested the 160th SOAR  fired a significant number of the rockets, which could include laser-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System-II (APKWS-II) variants, in both Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan. Similarly, for a period in 2016, SOCOM reported special operations units around the world were firing an average of two AGM-176 Griffin missiles, which have laser- and GPS-guidance, every day.

The AC-130W, MQ-1 and MQ-9 can all carry these small weapons. The Stinger II also has a 30mm cannon and can carry Small Diameter Bombs (SDB) glide bombs, while the Predators and Reapers can lob Hellfires and GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, as well. All of these weapons could be potent in targeted strikes or while the aircraft were providing close air support for specialized missions, such as the raid on Al Tabqa Dam near the Syrian city of Raqqa. There might be heretofore unseen weapons in the mix, too. 

There’s always the possibility elite American troops, including snipers, could have claimed even more ISIS fighters with small arms and light weapons as they advance alongside Iraqi, Syrian, and Kurdish forces. And despite the willingness of President Donald Trump’s administration to send more conventional troops to the region, these special operations missions will likely remain a critical part of the broad campaign against the terrorist organization. After Trump’s election victory in November 2016, President Barack Obama had already reportedly expanded JSOC’s worldwide authorities to go after militants.

Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis has taken his own hard line against ISIS. In February, he gave the White House a new plan on how to break the terrorists in Iraq and Syria, as well as elsewhere around the world. "It is a plan to rapidly defeat ISIS," Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson, said during a briefing on Feb. 28, 2017.

However, Mattis has also expressed his general distaste for body counts. “For many years, we have not been calculating the results of warfare by simply quantifying the number of enemy killed,” he told reporters as he toured American military operations throughout the Middle East in April 2017. “You don’t want to start calculating things, as far as what matters, in the crude terms of battle casualties.” )

But whether SOJTF-OIR’s estimated kills are a useful metric, or not, it does make one thing clear, the Pentagon’s revised strategy for defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria continues to rely heavily on special operators hunting down relatively small terrorist groups or even going after specific individuals.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com