Large Operation Used Many Aircraft, Significant Coordination and Lightning Violence.
The founder and leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a “dangerous and daring nighttime raid” by U.S. special operations forces in Syria this weekend. U.S. President Donald Trump characterized the raid as “impeccable” while he acknowledged U.S. special operations forces in his remarks.
While news media around the world reported on the story, and broadcast the U.S. President’s press conference on Sunday morning U.S. time, some interesting insights about the raid have begun to surface.
The U.S. military has been silent on specifics of the raid so far, but some information can be inferred from both the President’s remarks and from other media reports.
On NBC’s news program “Meet The Press”, national security advisor Robert O’Brien said the name of the operation, which has not yet been released as of Sunday afternoon, was inspired by Kayla Mueller, a U.S. aid worker taken hostage and killed by ISIS in 2015. CNN’s Mike Callahan reported that, “Speaking on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’, O’Brien said, ‘the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff named the operation that took down al-Baghdadi after Kayla Mueller, after what she had suffered,’ adding ‘that was something that people should know.’”
Because U.S. Army General Mark A. Milley and Brigadier General Marcus S. Evans, deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism, J-3, Joint Staff, were both in attendance during the live stream of the raid in the White House situation room, it is reasonable to suggest the raid was carried out by predominantly U.S. Army special operations assets. This contrasts with Operation Neptune’s Spear, the raid to apprehend Osama bin Laden in 2011, which was conducted predominantly by members of the U.S. Navy special operations community.
Some media outlets, including CNN, suggested the raid was executed by members of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Operational Detachment-D or “SFOD-D”. This unit is often referred to as “Delta” in popular media, although this name is not officially acknowledged by the U.S. Army and members of the special operations community suggest the name of the unit was changed years ago.
One CNN analyst also suggested that the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR), the “Night Stalkers” operated the “8 helicopters” that flew the special operations team to the target area near Barisha, in the northwestern corner of Syria.
US special operations MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters equipped with in-flight refueling probe at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq https://t.co/vFhHSzHUrj (6 May 2019) pic.twitter.com/WhPCIThyHO
— Samir (@obretix) October 27, 2019
Three different special operations aviation platforms, or some combination of them, could have been employed in the raid. The MV-22 Osprey, operated by the U.S. Air Force special operations community and the U.S. Marines, the MH-60 Blackhawk and the MH-47 Chinook, both operated by the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
CNN’s Barbara Starr filed a report that said, “Some of the US forces that carried out the operation targeting ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi originated from various locations inside Iraq and traveled to the NW Syrian compound via helicopters, according to a US official.”
The U.S. President said the flight time to the target was about “one hour and ten minutes”, putting the target within unrefueled range of each of the special operations rotary wing aircraft if they were launched from a base such as Incirlik, Turkey, where U.S. forces are stationed. Someone pointed out flight activity from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, while others said it might have been Erbil, Iraq.
A lot of speculation going on about whether RAF Akrotiri was used in the #Baghdadi raid.
Calculations make sense (see below), plus @CivMilAir spotted US aircraft movements there yesterday.
The MoD won’t say a thing, but worth thinking about….https://t.co/qiO8cuRvzV
— Henry Jones (@hthjones) October 27, 2019
With eight of these aircraft involved in the raid, the number of special operators on the ground conducting the assault could have numbered as many as 60-80 members including specially trained military dogs.
One military dog was reported as wounded during the operation, when the raid’s target, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, retreated to an underground tunnel and then detonated “an explosive vest”, killing himself and “three children”. The special operations dog was evacuated according to reports.
The U.S. President went on to suggest that a high level of real-time or near real-time intelligence had been used in the planning of the raid. President Trump said, “We knew that he (al-Baghdadi) was here,” and that, “We knew some things about the compound. We knew it had tunnels”. These remarks by the U.S. President suggest the target area had been under detailed surveillance prior to this weekend’s raid. The remarks also suggest that intelligence may have included assets such as human intelligence (HUMINT) and aerial surveillance, possibly by remotely piloted aircraft.
At 14.32 New York time on Sunday, New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper reported that, “The surprising information about the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s general location- in a village deep inside a part of northwestern Syria controlled by rival Qaeda groups- came following the arrest and interrogation of one of Mr. al-Baghdadi’s wives and a courier this past summer, two American officials said.”
The U.S. President also praised surveillance of the raid itself, saying he could see the raid, “…so clearly. Absolutely perfect. As though you were watching a movie.” These remarks by the President, who has never served in the military but has extensive media experience, suggest that some cameras may have been carried on the ground by operatives as the raid unfolded, providing those in the White House situation room with an even higher level of situational awareness than may have been available in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The President went on to say, “I got to watch much of it” in his press conference Sunday.
A WH photo has been circulating claiming to show the U.S. President and Vice President Mike Pence (2nd from left), National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien (Left), Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (2nd from right) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Army General Mark Milley during the raid, but some reporters have claimed the photo was prepared for media in advance of the operation:
If you thought wired workstations were obsolete, then you were wrong. Lots of Ethernet cables in the wild there. pic.twitter.com/uvDLOy0nSb
— David Cenciotti (@cencio4) October 27, 2019
The President also praised Russian cooperation as significant in the execution of Sunday’s raid, also citing “Turkey, Syria, Iraq and the Syrian Kurds,” as contributing to the raid’s success.
Finally, the U.S. President emphasized that the raiding force had arrived at the target “under fire” and stayed in the target area, “two hours” gathering additional intelligence materials that may provide insights into the operations of ISIS. This suggests the raiding force may have had time constraints in initially prosecuting the target since they did not insert at a stand-off location outside of audible range of their insertion aircraft to preserve the element of surprise.
It is probable that more details of the raid may surface over time. However, if intelligence collected during the raid leads the U.S. and other militaries in the region toward other potential targets, details of Sunday’s raid may remain classified.