On a surprise visit to Baghdad on July 11, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced a more than 10 percent boost of American troops deployed to Iraq, in readiness for the offensive to capture Mosul from two years of Islamic State occupation. This raises the total to 4,647 - over 5,000, if temporary US deployments and special operations units are counted in.
Many of the supplementary arrivals are to be based at an airbase at Qayarah that was captured on July 9 and is being converted into the logistical hub of the forthcoming Mosul offensive, 60 kilometer to the south.
However, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, this announcement was but a smokescreen laid down for Carter’s main mission, which was to seek from Iraqi government and military officials approval of a deal for American engineers to place bridges across the Tigris River in the north that will be crossed by Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces for attacking Mosul.
The Tigris is only 80 to 200 meters wide. ISIS made sure to blow up all the bridges which once spanned it. An assault force would only be able to surprise the jihadis by reaching into the city with the help of pontoons.
Our sources report that the defense secretary’s trip to Iraq was not planned, but hurriedly set up after the weekend capture of the Qayarah base – just 3 kilometers from the Tigris - opened up the option of transferring mobile military bridges to a point close to Mosul.
This will be a complicated and expensive project. But before the air base was captured, it was barely feasible. US military planners had concluded that the bridges and the equipment needed for installing them would have to be delivered by sea to the southern Iraqi port of Basra and trucked about 950 kilometers north to the Tigris.
Even though the components can now be flown in by air to Qayarah, setting it up is no mean task for four reasons:
1. Defense Secretary Carter needs the approval of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, for which he must offer a guarantee that the bridges would serve exclusively for placing Mosul under siege, and no other military purpose.
2. The thorny issue of who is to be in charge of operating the bridges and who will be authorized to decide when to dismantle or move them to other points on the river remains to be settled. Carter told the Iraqis that these decisions would rest with US officers in the arena. Baghdad has yet to concede this.
3. The Iraqi government has demanded Carter’s commitment not to hand over any bridges or related equipment to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces participating in the battle for Mosul. Baghdad also wants Kurdish use of the bridges to be subject to central government consent.
4. The Kurdish autonomous government in Irbil has countered that the transfer of bridge sections through its territory would be barred until Kurdish forces were guaranteed freedom of movement on the bridges.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has developed a vast industrial complex for manufacturing explosives, bombs, mines, mortar shells and other means of demolition on a scale comparable to a national state enterprise, according to classified documents just obtained by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counter- terrorism sources.
Yet the world’s anti-terrorism agencies have failed to catch up with and destroy this source of jihadist terrorism’s lifeblood.
These unique documents trace the chain of supply from the countries of source for raw materials to ISIS manufacturing sites; they record the components of bombs, their type of detonator – radio- or wired - and, no less important, the manufacturing methodologies and advanced work procedures employed - up to the final product.
Some of this detailed data comes from photos and documents looted by YPG Kurdish fighters in Syria and Peshmerga forces in Iraq from captured sites.
Put together, they add up to the following comprehensive picture:
1. Most of the powerful bombs in ISIS use are produced from non-military substances, which are unregulated, inexpensive and easily obtained in ordinary shops, such as aluminum paste or ammonium nitrate for farm fertilizers.
But when used in large quantity and mixed with certain other ingredients, these innocent substances can cause big explosions with multiple casualties.
Other elements defined as dual use require export permits in some countries. Among them are proximity fuses, detonators and copper detonating cords for the mining industry.
2. The world’s intelligence and security agencies know who the suppliers of these items are, although the suppliers tend to deny selling them to any terror organization, claiming they are not obliged to check the identities of their customers or find out what use they are marking of the goods on sale. Often the customers are front-men, who purchase the bomb-making equipment for principals at some terror organization.
The list of countries from which ISIS or third parties obtain bomb-making materials and equipment is led by Turkey and includes India, Iraq, Iran, and the UAE, but also such respectable countries as Switzerland, Japan, China, and the Czech Republic.
3. Due to the easy availability and cheap price of the raw materials, ISIS can afford to purchase huge quantities and so achieve mighty blasts that sow death and horror among their enemies, be they American or Syrian troops or shoppers on a Baghdad street market.
The wholesale manufacture of the tools of death lifts ISIS out of the class of a small gang of killers or terrorists. Their industry is highly organized and efficiently managed on professional lines that would not disgrace any global military or corporate industrial enterprise. Its products are competently moved through the logistics chain from supply, engineering, manufacturing, test ranges, usage and operational training and, ultimately, distribution to the various fighting units at the different fronts.
The documents and other evidence picked up on the battlefield show that engineers are required to design two broad types of improvised explosive device (IED) - depending on their targets:
Remote control via copper detonation cable
This type is used when the exact location of a targeted vehicle or convoy can be determined. The bomb is buried and camouflaged, the detonator connected to a copper wire that is rolled a distance away to a hidden watcher, who activates it as the target goes by. This system has the advantages of precision and immunity from radio interference. Its drawback is exposure of the operator’s location.
Detonation by cellular phone
The terror organization has bought a large quantity of NOKIA 105 RM-908 cellular phones. Taking the phone apart and connecting the ringing circuit to the detonator is simple. It is rigged in this way to blow up when a call or SMS is received.
The advantage of this system is that the operator can set off the bomb from a great distance – even another country, whereas its disadvantage is that the explosion can’t be timed exactly and cell reception may be jammed in the area of targeted location.
Our sources further reveal that the ISIS arms industry is not restricted to bombs. It also manufactures shells for cannons, tanks and heavy and light mortars, bullets for machine guns and rifles, grenades and more.
When the Iraqi town of Fallujah was taken from ISIS in the summer of 2016, numerous metal workshops were revealed. They were equipped with design and drafting tools, lathes and castings, labs with an inventory of remote control and other electronic devices.
From one of the classified documents taken in Fallujah - and now in DEBKA Weekly’s hands - we learn that the Islamic State maintains an ordered, compartmentalized, efficient and bureaucratic organization in Iraq, consisting of workshops, small and large factories and foundries, logistical inventory, test ranges, and even a research and development department.
ISIS chiefs hand each facility its production targets and inventory quotas.
The most puzzling question in the light of this mass of evidence of a large-scale armaments industry run by ISIS in support of its terror machine is this: How come that none of the big, sophisticated security agencies of the world – East or West – have proved capable of cutting down - or even disrupting - any segment of its supply, financing, manufacturing, logistics, distribution, management or communications machinery?
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards find it imperative to put a stop to the swelling traffic of coffins of Iranian officers and soldiers shipped home from Syria’s battlefronts.
To work something out, AL Qods Chief Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iranian forces, was dispatched to Syria on July 3, fresh from the successful battle he led for the recovery of the Iraqi town of Fallujah from ISIS’ clutches, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report.
He went straight to Iranian military HQ outside Aleppo in northern Syria, which suggested to Western intelligence watchers that he was in a hurry to bring off another victory - this one over the Syrian rebels.
However, Soleimani stood aside from the battles for Syria’s second city, although fighting intensified this week when the Syrian army, buttressed by Hizballah and pro-Iranian Shiite militias (like in Fallujah), managed to take control of the Castello Road, the rebels’ key supply route from Turkey, by capturing a hilltop that placed the route under their guns.
Tehran has never released precise casualty figures from its military intervention in the Syrian war. Last February, the death toll crossed the 1,000 bar, with several thousand more wounded, according to intelligence estimates.
One way of assessing the figures of the last six months is to count the number of military funerals taking place in Iran. The attached diagram dated to mid-June shows Iran’s surrogate, Hizballah, tops the chart of pro-Iranian fallen with 1,700 war dead, followed by Iran and the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistan militias mustered by Tehran coming last.
This order is surprising because the pro-Iranian militia fighters were recruited to act as the spearhead of the battles, with the Iranian forces holding the rear. But their combat abilities turned out to be so feeble that Iranian forces had to step into the breach and take the brunt of the fighting to save the day on the different fronts.
The only way to cut down on Iranian casualties would be to rapidly dilute the level of Iranian officers and soldiers on Syria’s active front lines and recall them to base, or send them home. But this would sharply undermine the morale of the various forces fighting for President Bashar Assad and worse - Hizballah would also demand to draw down its contingents of some 10,000 men in view of their heavy losses and send them back to Lebanon.
DEBKA Weekly military sources reveal that, confronted with this predicament, Soleimani and Iranian leaders in Tehran are pondering three options:
1. To begin downsizing the total Iranian force in Syria.
2. To keep the bulk of Iranian troops, and especially officers and commanders, in their bases, away from Syria’s battles and send them in smaller numbers to fewer fronts. This tactic would borrow a leaf from Moscow’s method of keeping most Russian forces in Syria at two or three bases which are clustered together in close proximity for reciprocal defense.
The Russians therefore claim no more than 11 war casualties after eleven months of involvement in the war since September 2015 (although these official figures have not been independently confirmed).
3. To make over the Iranian units fighting in Syria and replace the infantry, special operations and armored forces currently in the field with air or marine units, which are better able to win battles without running the risk of close face-to-face combat with the Syrian rebels.
Our intelligence sources report that General Soleimani will return to Tehran in a few days and present recommendations to his bosses.
In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 6, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, commander of the US Navy Air Force, drew on the movie “Jurassic Park” as a selling point for the new Lockheed Martin F35 B stealth fighter plane.
“Even though the software version responsible for the way the airplane operates is currently a temporary, intermediate version, the F35’s functions are excellent and have just been tested in a large air maneuver,” said Davis.
He insisted that, like Velociraptor, the little dinosaur in the Steven Spielberg film which shredded all its victims, so too did the most advanced US Air Force plane, the F35, taking part in the maneuver with dozens if different fighter planes, not leave a single target unscathed.
Out of 24 swipes, 24 were destroyed, amounting to zero faults, mistakes or misses.
“The F-35’s 24-to-zero kill ratio killed all the targets,” Davis said. “We can’t get that airplane fast enough into the fleet.”
The Navy Air Force chief did his best to make the failures and delays in supply of the final, stable, version sound like an advantage, in the face of criticism about its shooting and steering systems software, which caused changes to the F35’s planned operational launches; its inferiority in friendly air battles with veteran F-16 planes and serious failings in its radar system.
Davis also talked in the hearing about the training of new pilots, flight drills, air battles and even maintenance and daily care of the 200-million dollar airplane (including getting it ready for actual service):
“Skilled operation of such an advanced fighter plane, that took 16 years to develop, is very complex. A large part of the training is done in simulators on the ground, because the plane is not ready to operate at full capacity or carry all the ordnance required and has a limited flight envelope.”
However, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say that there is another problem which Gen. Davis did not share with the Senate committee relating to the advances made by the competition.
During the years of the F35’s development, Russia and China worked on a radar system based on UHF (Ultra-high frequency) and VHF (Very-high frequency), which is capable of pinpointing the stealth craft’s location with great accuracy and intercepting it.
Another drawback of the wonder plane is that it flies on one engine, a Pratt & Whitney F135, meaning that the heat emitted by its exhaust is concentrated in one place. This makes the plane easy to detect by the sensor systems developed by the Russians a while back, which specialize in locating thermal signatures.
That too works against the aircraft’s stealth quality.
Israel has acquired 33 F35 airplanes at a cost of $110 million apiece, at the expense of the US military assistance program (not including the cost of preparing it for operational service and outfitting Israeli technological systems). The last of the “Adir” planes, as they are codenamed by the Israeli Air Force, will be delivered to the IAF’s 140 “Golden Eagle” squadron – barring further delays – in 2021, when all the glitches are due to be ironed out. It will be housed at the Nevatim air base.
Some Israeli aviation experts contend that, as a result of commercial, international and political considerations, the IAF was bulldozed into prematurely and hastily committing to procure this aircraft, before it was fully developed and before its suitability for defending Israel’s skies and striking deep inside enemy territory were fully established.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin turns aside all Israel’s complaints about Russian arms supplies to Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hizballah, whenever he talks to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – roughly every week-to-ten days. The issue was also raised without results when Yossi Cohen, Director of the Mossad, visited the Russian capital on July 1.
The Israeli public has not been apprised of this intense lobbying campaign, because it has been assured that the Israel Air Force bombs every arms convoy heading out of Syria toward Lebanon, and is therefore confident that fresh consignments are not allowed to reach Hizballah’s hands.
That impression is gained from the official communiqués for public consumption at home and abroad. But it is far from the truth and intentionally misleading.
The facts laid out here by DEBKA Weekly’s military sources are quite different:
1. Israeli air strikes only smash Iranian and Syrian weapons convoys driving from Syria to Lebanon on the strength of data provided by Israeli military intelligence (Aman). But the traffic missed by Aman goes through to its destination.
2. The Israeli public has never been told that Russia as well as Iran and Syria is making arms deliveries to Hizballah. Netanyahu and the IDF officers in contact with Russian officers in Moscow and the Russian Latakia base in Syria, labor to highlight Moscow’s purported pledges, under the recent Russian-Israeli agreements on the Syria war situation, to prevent Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces from reaching the Syrian-Israeli border. Israelis have also been led to believe that the Russians will help keep terror organizations at a distance from the border.
Neither of these presentations is completely foolproof.
3. It is generally presumed in Israel that Iran was the source of Hizballah’s advanced Russian-made weaponry, such as the Yakhont anti-ship, sea-skimming cruise missile and SA-8 and SA-17 anti-aircraft systems. Even some Russian sources subscribe to this assumption.
But to the secret chagrin of Israeli government and military leaders, the hardware comes directly from Russia.
The military and intelligence relations between Israel and Russia are in fact a far cry from the entente cordiale presumed in Israel and Western capitals.
Russian weapons are in fact reaching the Hizballah by two covert methods:
a) Arms consignments to Syria are in excess of the requirements of Bashar Assad’s army. The surplus is earmarked for Hizballah. Our military sources disclose that by now, most of its units are equipped with Russian weapons - not only in Syria, but in Lebanon as well - last year, at battalion level; in June 2016, down to squadrons. The Russian armaments furnished are not just personal weapons but also anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
b) Russia is the principle raw materials supplier for the Syrian weapons industry, without which the Assad regime would not have been able to manufacture Fateh-110 missiles or Scud C ground-ground missiles. Some of Syria’s missile product is diverted under cover to Hizballah.
But whenever Netanyahu raises this issue with Putin, the Russian president feigns surprise and pretends ignorance. He promises to look into Israel’s accusation and get back to the prime minister with an answer -which never comes.
This ruse frustrates all Israeli efforts to sever the Russian arms supply line to Hizballah.
A sophisticated multinational communication network that links ISIS operational HQ in Raqqa, Syria with its centers in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, Sirte and Derna in Libya, and Hadramaut in Yemen, has been uncovered by a newly-installed US intelligence eavesdropping application.
This was disclosed to Egyptian President Fattah El-Sisi by US counter terrorism experts during a secret visit to Cairo in the past few days, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources reveal.
For now, the Americans are not disrupting the ISIS communications system because by tapping into it they are harvesting valuable intelligence about the terrorist organization’s operations, movements and plans. At some point, they would like to mount raids to destroy the system at its four points. But this plan may look good on paper, but would be almost impossible to put into practice.
The Egyptian president was meanwhile urged by his American visitors to upgrade his tactics against ISIS. Our sources quote them as commending him for pulling out all the stops for striking terrorist bases and networks in the Sinai Peninsula, with heavy losses and casualties incurred by both sides. But the ISIS presence in Sinai has not been reduced, least of all eradicated, the Americans say, for lack of holding operations.
After wiping out a terrorist location or cell, Egyptian combatants return to base. Because no military manpower remains to hold onto captured terrain, the terrorists quickly reoccupy it with fresh fighters
This leaves Egypt mired in a Sisyphean task with no end in sight insofar as rolling back the terrorist invasion is concerned.
El-Sisi was pressed by the US counterterrorism experts to assign more military strength for setting up military bases in Sinai at every site recovered from ISIS. To illustrate the point, they said, “Look at how we operate in Sirte in Libya, where Western and Libyan forces have been fighting for months, slowly advancing on ISIS forces, but keeping hold of all the territories they reclaim.”
The Egyptian ruler replied that he hears what they say, but needs to think about it.
Our sources doubt that he will take the Americans up on the tactics they are urging on him for combating the Islamist terrorists overrunning Sinai. In fact, in his case, the Libyan analogy was counter-productive.
In the two-month battle for the Islamic State group's Libyan stronghold of Sirte, more than 240 unity government fighters have been killed to date and over 1,400 injured.
This is exactly what the Egyptian president fears. He cannot afford this high scale of war casualties in the present state of his regime.