al Qaeda in Iraq is believed to be operating Strela missile teams, courtesy of Iran
The past three weeks has seen a dramatic increase in the downing of U.S. helicopters operating in central Iraq. Five helos have been shot down since January 20th, four U.S. Army helos and a civilian Blackwater helo. Twenty-six Americans have been killed in the five shoot-downs.
The five helicopters lost represents ten percent of all such aircraft lost since Operation Iraqi Freedom began, with fifty total lost. The timing and increase in downed helos is no accident, American military and intelligence sources inform us.
al Qaeda in Iraq is believed to be behind four of the five shoot-downs: the CH-46 transport in Karma, February 7th (7 killed); the Apache attack helicopter in Taji, February 2 (2 killed); the Blackwater OH-6A observation helicopter in Baghdad, January 23 (5 civilians killed), and the Blackhawk transport in Diyala, January 20 (12 killed). The three military helos are thought to have been brought down by a sholder fired anti-aircraft weapon, while the Blackwater bird was thought to have been brought down by small arms fire. The January 28 Apache shoot-down in Najaf, with 2 killed, is believed to be caused by the Soldiers of Heaven cult.
The two military and intelligence sources believe al Qaeda has organized a grouping of anti-aircraft cells, whose purpose is to deny Coalition forces the free use of helicopters to ferry troops, resupply outlying areas, and conduct assault missions. al Qaeda wants to force Coalition forces to use ground transportation, where it believes heavier casualties can be inflicted on U.S. forces via roadside bombing and mine attacks (IEDs). Helicpoter shoot-downs also “make for compelling television,” according to a military source, which “helps project the image of a deadly, unbeatable enemy.” al Qaeda is believed to have deployed multiple anti-aircraft cells along the known overflight routes in and around Baghdad.
The cells are thought to be armed with Russian made Strela SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles, a first generation shoulder fired anti-aircraft missile which is widely distributed throughout the world. These weapons are not as sophisticated as U.S. made Stingers, which were used with deadly consequences by mujahideen in Afghanistan against Soviet fixed and rotary wing aircraft. U.S. aircraft have systems to deter missile threats (jammers, flairs, chaff) but there are no reports these systems were deployed during any of the engagements.
al Qaeda in Iraq, via its political mouthpiece the Islamic State of Iraq, has taken credit for two of the kills. al Qaeda gloated it shot down the Apache in Taji, and even released a video of the Apache being taken down. al Qaeda in Iraq has also claimed credit for today’s downing of the CH-46 transport in Karma.
In the past, al Qaeda was largely limited to deploying anti-aircraft missiles to protect command and leadership assets. MANPADs were in view in Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s last video before his death. When U.S. forces were hunting Zarqawi in Yusifiyah, several helicopters were brought down during the battles.
It is surprising al Qaeda has not made a more concerted effort to bring down Coalition aircraft. The military, political, and propaganda value of destroying U.S. helicopters is too great to be ignored. It has been speculated al Qaeda in Iraq didn’t possess enough weapons systems or training to effectively field the missiles.
The suspicion is the Islamic Republic of Iran is behind supplying al Qaeda with the needed weapons, training and logistical support to supply and field a successful anti-aircraft force, much as the United States provided the mujahideen with Stingers in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The United States and Iran have escalated the war in the shadows in Iraq. After the United States raided Iranian ‘diplotmatic missions’ in Baghdad and Irbil, Iran is strongly believed to have conducted an attack on the provincial center in Karbal, which resulted in the death and kidnapping of five U.S. soldiers. An Iranian ‘diplomat’ was kidnapped off the streets of Baghdad today, and Iran is blaming the U.S.
During the Baghdad and Irbil raids, the U.S. detained seven members of Iran’s Qods Force (Iranian special forces) and captured documentation which proved Iran was supporting both the Sunni and Shia insurgent and death squads, as well as Al_Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunnah. Mines, which are killing U.S. troops, have been traced back directly to Iran, while weapons shipments have been interdicted while transiting the border.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.