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Killing ISIS: In and Out of America’s Ugliest Shadow War

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 41

My driver moves slowly through the blasted empty streets of Sirte, Libya. Here, in this once prosperous coast town, home to Gaddafi and now ISIS, it’s difficult to tell friend from foe. Bullet-pocked and bomb-shattered buildings seem empty. Clusters of fighters in plain-clothes wave while armored bulldozers roar by. As we creep toward the ocean, as far as the walls of shipping containers and earthen berms allow us, a familiar crack of a Dragunov bullet splits the air. My driver stops dead in the middle of an exposed intersection, somehow wondering if it was friend or foe. Fighters under cover wave us to get the hell out of the street. When we get behind their RPG-blasted wall, one of the fighters wants to know if I can fix him up with an American bride … using crude body motions in case I didn’t get his point.

ISIS, ISIL, IS, or as the locals call them “Daesh,” really began with our covert war against the Soviets. Afghan war veteran Abu Musab al-Zarqawi returned to Jordan in 1999. His exposure to other Arab fighters, brutal death, and Mujahedeen tactics spawned a number of violent Sunni gangs that ultimately became ISIS. Our secret war with ISIS began in earnest in Iraq in 2004 with Joint Special Operations Command bringing on General Stanley McChrystal and his intelligence maven, General Mike Flynn, to hunt and kill the group from their headquarters of Balad Air Base in Iraq.

The secret to killing ISIS became good ground networks, intense interrogations, shared intel from human intelligence (HUMINT), reconnaissance (ISR), electronic intelligence (ELINT), fast response, and even faster exploitation of newly discovered intel to hit fresh targets again and again. Last time I was in country, members of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, otherwise known as Combat Applications Group (CAG), boasted of a spin-up time faster than you can order a pizza.

The global fight against ISIS also requires global logistics. Here the 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron deliver 30,000 pounds of cargo from a C-130H Hercules aircraft to Qayyarah Airfield West, Iraq just south of Mosul, Iraq.

The global fight against ISIS also requires global logistics. Here the 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron deliver 30,000 pounds of cargo from a C-130H Hercules aircraft to Qayyarah Airfield West, Iraq just south of Mosul, Iraq.

In June 2006, the Joint Special Operations Command team known as Task Force 145 used that holistic, network-centric, kinetic approach to take out al-Zarqawi, and, within hours, exploit captured data to go after others. JSOC had perfected the art of killing ISIS only to have America pull out of Iraq in December of 2007. When Iran flowed into the power gap and Shia death squads and inequity fueled the rise of ISIS in the Sunni northwest, the murderous Sunni cult expanded, flourished, and then leapt like a wildfire into Syria.

In 2011, the classic unconventional warfare doctrine of Special Operations troops training friendlies began, using secret bases in Jordan in a program called Timber Sycamore. It was a disaster. A trainer from that program explained that from the intake of thousands of Syrians and Jordanians, they fielded less than 20 so-called “moderate rebels.”

“Closer to, like, a dozen,” is what the bearded trainer told me. Most of those who went in were quickly compromised or joined better-armed and more radical Islamic militias. Wealthy Gulf nations sent in jumbo cargo planes packed with weapons destined to support anti-Assad groups, but that gear somehow ended up in the hands of al Qaeda and others.

Another Way

There had to be another way. So in 2014, the Americans and their friends just showed up in Syria to seriously mess up ISIS. This time with smart rather than massive air power.

Nine Dot Three was born as a blended covert action group linking the Central Intelligence Agency, CAG, Special Forces, contractors, foreign partners, and the U.S. Air Force based in Doha Qatar.

ISIS came to Libya in November of 2014 and videos of their mass executions of Coptic Christians began in February 15, 2015. Photo: courtesy Al Amaq

ISIS came to Libya in November of 2014 and videos of their mass executions of Coptic Christians began in February 15, 2015. Photo: courtesy Al Amaq

The first U.S. team to fight ISIS quickly did a 14-day recce and set up safe houses and operational centers. CAG, also known in-theater as Task Force, or “TF,” coordinated with the CIA and Green Berets and arrived on scene to train the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish Marxist militia immune to ISIS infiltration.

A thousand miles to the south, Al Uideed Air base in Qatar was quickly ramped up to handle a massive air campaign that included coordinating everything from MQ-9 Reaper drones to B-52 bombers. By 2015, there were 10,000 Americans on the sweltering air base 35 kilometers south of Doha.

Remote Control

Cyber warfare and high-tech weapons played a big part of the operation. The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper was plentiful, with sometimes half a dozen available for persistent surveillance on single targets. The 66-foot-long remotely piloted aircraft was outfitted with a variety of weapons that could be delivered to within 5 meters of their targets. This was to be a standoff, surgical war of cold-blooded assassination.

U.S. Marines load AGM-114 Hellfire missiles onto an AH-1W Super Cobra. The $117,000 “Heliborne Laser Fire and Forget Missile” was originally designed to take out tanks but were often used to take out lone ISIS snipers. Photo: U.S. Marine Corps/Ryan Young

U.S. Marines load AGM-114 Hellfire missiles onto an AH-1W Super Cobra. The $117,000 “Heliborne Laser Fire and Forget Missile” was originally designed to take out tanks but were often used to take out lone ISIS snipers. Photo: U.S. Marine Corps/Ryan Young

Normally America’s door kickers, CAG slung their rifles and become targeteers. Working out of the Kurdish-controlled and French-built LaFarge cement factory in al Raqqa province, they began linking up with local ground networks to identify, confirm, and destroy ISIS assets and personnel in a withering air campaign. Manned and unmanned ISR were pushed forward so operators could easily grab a platform to use against a target. Days and nights of eating junk food, drinking energy drinks, and watching a wall of monitors became routine.

“We did between three and 20 strikes a day,” recalls a team member, “all by remote control.” They coordinated with a local on the ground whose movements and signals were watched in real time. Once a target was confirmed and there were no civilians nearby, death whistled down from 20,000 to 30,000 feet.

The USAF’s 509th Bomb Wing preps a Missouri-based B-2 bomber for an extraordinary Jan. 17, 2017 bombing run to hit a cluster of ISIS militants fleeing Sirte. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Joel Pfiester

The USAF’s 509th Bomb Wing preps a Missouri-based B-2 bomber for an extraordinary Jan. 17, 2017 bombing run to hit a cluster of ISIS militants fleeing Sirte. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Joel Pfiester

There were some additions to human targets. To stir things up, TF went after the banks in Raqqa, a brilliant move that drained hundreds of millions of dollars from ISIS coffers. They’d be hit at night to reduce casualties. “I wanted enough to leave rubble, the Air Force delivered enough to leave dust,” an operator remembers.   

By January 2016, the world was watching video of “ISIS cash” being blown up and fluttering to the ground. The operator laughs, “It wasn’t ISIS cash … it was ‘reconstruction cash,’” he air quotes.

Munitions

The munitions used were as large as 2,000-pound GBU-31V3 bunker busters (like on the bank hit in Mosul made famous by the video), down to a new smart missile called the AGM-176 Griffin Block II with a tiny 13-pound warhead. “Something designed to kill the driver of a car or take somebody off a rooftop without delivering a large blast radius,” is the operator’s explanation. Such precision comes with a downside. There’s the story of one target in a vehicle that had to be hit three times, with the target ultimately escaping. “That cost about $300K,” the targeteer quips.

Tactics in Sirte are simplistic. IS Snipers work their way around buildings to fire on militias. Troops call in air strikes and then blast the sniper positions with heavy machine guns, before clearing rooms and booby traps.

Tactics in Sirte are simplistic. IS Snipers work their way around buildings to fire on militias. Troops call in air strikes and then blast the sniper positions with heavy machine guns, before clearing rooms and booby traps.

“ISIS was going to get killed, and at this point, ISIS was making it easy to be killed,” a member recollects. “They controlled the towns, the civic centers, and drove around waving ISIS flags. It wasn’t that hard.” And it was relatively cheap. Each Griffin cost the U.S taxpayer about $100,000. The bigger Hellfire missiles were around $110,000.

Technology had a big part in picking targets. Although the cell phone service in places like Raqqa was cut off by Task Force, they let the internet and the internet cafés operate. Foreign ISIS members would trudge down to the internet café and brag to their girlfriends while simultaneously watching porn, not knowing they were being recorded in real time by TF operators.

The main tool of the Libyan fighter; the diesel Toyota Hilux, a few friends and a DShK (Degtyaryova-Shpagina Krupnokaliberny) or “Dushka” welded onto the bed.

The main tool of the Libyan fighter; the diesel Toyota Hilux, a few friends and a DShK (Degtyaryova-Shpagina Krupnokaliberny) or “Dushka” welded onto the bed.

Although the nine-month ground campaign to retake Mosul wouldn’t start until October 2016, and continued until July 2017, Task Force Nine Dot Three had degraded the Islamic State to a level where local militias could begin the bloody building-to-building clearing process.

We had found a way to efficiently kill ISIS. Until ISIS popped up in Libya.

Libya

The contagion called ISIS kept seeking open sores. Pressed in Iraq, the group began global franchising and first showed up in Derna, Libya, on November 13, 2014. The northern coast around Sirte was to be the closest ISIS cell to Europe, or Rome as IS bragged. In June of 2015, the war against ISIS came to them.

ISR flights began in earnest in December 2014 and, by August 2015, the air strikes, many from a Marine ship just off shore, had begun. The official version was called Operation Odyssey Lightning, during which AV-8B Harriers and Cobra gunships assigned to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the USS Wasp backed up ISR and spotters. The dirty war was here, on the ground, in a destroyed city demarked by used shipping containers, berms of dirt, and men scampering from one combat position to another.   

Anyone who dared to get into this dirty war had to stop in at the “Al-Bunyan al-Marsous” or Solid Structure operations center in Misrata, a coalition of around 5,000 fighters. I was ushered into a new conference room, while my Libyan contact slammed the door in the face of foreign media crews waiting outside.

“They are spies,” is how General Mohamed al-Ghasry politely described them to me. When we got down to it, he was thrilled to see an American wanting to go into the fighting in Sirte.

“Your Americans,” is how the official Libyan spokesman proudly described them to me with his hands, “…can drop a bomb on the top while our fighters are clearing below.” A few minutes before, al-Ghasry had rudely told a news crew from another nation in our meeting room that there were no foreigners in Sirte.

Up armored bulldozers build sand berms while forklifts build long walls of shipping containers to shield fighters from suicide vehicle attacks and snipers. Photo: courtesy Bunyan Marsous

Up armored bulldozers build sand berms while forklifts build long walls of shipping containers to shield fighters from suicide vehicle attacks and snipers. Photo: courtesy Bunyan Marsous

To make sure I wouldn’t miss the point on my way out to the battlefield, al-Ghasry exclaimed, “We love the Americans.” It was that day that his Libyans seized the massive white-and-black-striped Ouagadougou conference center in Sirte. The news of the Americans supporting the Libyan militia against Sirte to take the shopping mall-sized center wasn’t his best-kept secret, as the American military presence in Sirte was broadcast all around the world the next day.

On the Battlefield

“I am the son of a martyr and the father of a martyr,” a chisel-jawed Libyan commander starts his discussion with me. He asked me not to use his name because ISIS looks for names in reports and sends suicide bombers to kill commanders. The sounds of sporadic gunshots were an underscore in the sweltering coastal city of Sirte. I’m in the last stronghold of ISIS in Libya watching the commander and his militia methodically kill each surviving member. This is deliberately a difficult war to enter, so Americans back home aren’t exposed to the ugly, relentless job of killing ISIS.

The ISIS holdouts employ sniper attacks from positions inside inhabited but booby-trapped apartment blocks, buying time for the main ISIS elements to vanish into the vast southern desert of Libya. The combined force of ground and air is grinding down Daesh. Precision gunfire, small, air-launched missiles, and even concrete smart bombs are used to attrit and win over each block. Once cleared, the militias encounter hundreds of trip wires and explosives used to maim unaware combatants while also forcing civilians to stay inside the buildings as human shields.

The mood was not victorious as they cleared each building knowing full well they would have to deal with the booby traps left behind by Daesh. “They left them under carpets, behind doors, under dead bodies … they are everywhere. We need help with this,” a local commander complains. Most of the Libyan casualties came from booby traps and suicide bombings. Not surprisingly many ISIS bodies were shot dozens of times as revenge.

House to house fighting to clear snipers while dealing with thousands of ISIS booby traps resulted in an extraordinarily high casualty rate of between 1200 and 4000 men out of the 6000 Bunyan Marsous fighters. There were 37 civilian casualties but 740 Libyan militias were killed. There were no UXO specialists and only twenty hospital beds for the wounded. Photo: courtesy Bunyan Marsous

House to house fighting to clear snipers while dealing with thousands of ISIS booby traps resulted in an extraordinarily high casualty rate of between 1200 and 4000 men out of the 6000 Bunyan Marsous fighters. There were 37 civilian casualties but 740 Libyan militias were killed. There were no UXO specialists and only twenty hospital beds for the wounded. Photo: courtesy Bunyan Marsous

The inability of Libyans to handle casualties was another factor in how aggressively the militia could prosecute the war. There are only 20 hospital beds three hours away in Misrata. It’s only after those patients are evacuated to Turkey and room is made in the hospital that the militia would launch another assault. Even in cleared areas, ISIS also continued to engage in numerous suicide attacks. When a suicide bomber fires up a trash-armored death express, they’re methodically taken out by wire-guided missiles.

ISIS was implementing its worst tricks as dozens of car bombs appeared, some abruptly pulling out of garages in front of troops advancing down streets in Sirte. ISIS was deadly and adaptive. One day a feel-good story published on a local news site about a popular snack shop in Sirte providing free meals for fighters resulted in a car bomb parked outside the next day, killing scores.

On the Run

By December 6, 2016, Sirte was clear. America became very good at killing ISIS — a task that takes inordinate time, money, expertise, coordination, relentless pursuit, and grim determination. The U.S. has built up impressive ISR coverage across the Sahara from Mauritania to the Seychelles. One source familiar with the assets says the only problem is getting on the ground fast enough to deal with insurgents over the vast distances.

Are we winning the war against ISIS? According to the U.S. military, in the last four years we’ve spent almost $15 billion and performed just under 25,000 airstrikes to kill between 60,000 to 70,000 fighters.

The Special Operations Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve SOJTF-OIR re-patching to replace the interim 1st Special Forces Group unit patch. CJTF-OIR is tasked with defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Photo: U.S. Army/Dakota Price

The Special Operations Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve SOJTF-OIR re-patching to replace the interim 1st Special Forces Group unit patch. CJTF-OIR is tasked with defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Photo: U.S. Army/Dakota Price

Defining “win” is our biggest problem. They have lost their Mesopotamian caliphate, but ISIS’ low franchise regeneration costs, self-funding tax model, multiple infection spots, and plentiful recruits continues to respawn an aggressive enemy complete with lone wolves and sleeper cells. Matched against our ever-expanding tools, technology, and the talented tradesmen who man our lethal epidemiology against ISIS, we are constantly reshaping ISIS. Just because we mow our lawn every week does not mean the lawn is winning. We are now in a more remote, more difficult pursuit.

Postscript

On December 2, 2018, a group of armed men were seen moving across Syria’s southeastern Badiyah desert. The drone was cleared hot, and a group of ISIS fighters were instantly killed. It was discovered that among them was Abu al Umarayn, the man involved in the brutal 2014 decapitation of 26-year-old Peter Kassig, a former U.S. Army Ranger turned aid worker. For now, rest assured that out there somewhere is someone chugging energy drinks, staring at a monitor, and watching a glowing image of explosions killing ISIS.

The hunt continues.


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