Iraq and Iran were complicit in the Tower 22 attack – Asia Times

Iraq and Iran were complicit in the Tower 22 attack - Asia Times

Tower 22 is a US base in Jordan, just across the border from a US base at Al Tanf, Syria. It was attacked early in the morning on January 28th – killing three American soldiers and injuring 47 more. Eight soldiers were evacuated, some with physical wounds and others with concussions, described as traumatic brain injuries.

The Biden Administration is misleading the American public about the Tower 22 attack to obscure Iran’s direct involvement and hide the fact that Iraq is complicit in the killing and wounding of our soldiers.

Admiral John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, said explicitly that the United States is not looking for a war with Iran. He failed to mention that Iran has proclaimed itself at war with the United States and has been using its proxies to attack US bases and killing and wounding American soldiers for years. Iran now controls Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. 

The US Central Command (CENTCOM) said the base was hit by a one-way drone, but no photographs have been released and there is, in fact, no confirmation of what the drone actually hit. From various reports it could have been living quarters, a common meeting area or a cafeteria.

Typically in a drone or rocket attack parts of the weapon survive in the wreckage. Often this includes parts of the drone or rocket body, the engine, sometimes electronic components, actuators, cameras or radios. It is important to retrieve the surviving components because they usually are evidence of the model and origin of the drone or rocket.

Strictly speaking, since CENTCOM says this was a one-way drone, we are talking about a loitering munition. It is likely that the absence of more detailed information is deliberate and would expose Iran’s direct involvement.

On the ground

Tower 22 and al Tanf are in the area where Jordan, Iraq, and Syria meet. The situation is politically complicated because Jordan is an American ally, and the United States has made a massive policy blunder believing it could (and still can) hang onto its bases in Iraq and Syria even though their missions have been badly compromised. This leaves our troops vulnerable to attack and destruction.

Making the US position even more untenable, the Biden administration has been appeasing Iran, which is the main enemy of all US allies in the region – Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States. 

Tower 22 is a US logistics base that supports al Tanf. The attack there was unexpected, although al Tanf has been attacked several times, wounding American troops and killing a US contractor.

Apparently, the Army decided not to do anything to protect Tower 22 because it is in Jordan, which is technically an American ally and not seen as a target of Iran’s effort to control the Middle East “Shiite Crescent,” That conclusion reflects the poor level of analysis in Washington.

What we actually know is very limited. CENTCOM says the attack was carried out by a drone operated by an Iranian proxy – likely the previously sanctioned Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), the Party of God Brigades, which is aligned with the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

KH is a Shia militia that gets money and policy support from Iraq’s government. It has taken part in combat operations against ISIS in Iraq and anti-government forces in Syria. It staffs the 45th, 46th, and 47th Brigades in the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, which were formed in 2014 to fight ISIS and became an official part of Iraq’s security apparatus in 2016.

Tower 22 buildings

Tower 22 is a logistic supply hub with approximately 350 personnel. It supports its larger neighbor, al Tanf, which has approximately 1,200 Americans and houses a Syrian-origin fighting force called the Revolutionary Commando Army, which is trained and directed by the US. Both use containerized housing units and other prefab structures for dining halls and meeting rooms. 

Containerized housing units, abbreviated CHU, are paper-thin structures that often are bunched together.  Sometimes they have some sandbags around the base, and in some instances (but not here) they may also have sandbags on the roof. Usually, an officer above the rank of major gets one of these tiny sheds to himself or herself; otherwise, there are two soldiers in each one.

A CHU has barely enough room for a bed (or two), a small desk and a locker or closet.  Each unit typically has an installed combination air conditioner/heat pump. They generally have steel frames and walls of plywood, tin, rock wall sandwich or other low cost material.

If a shrapnel-filled bomb exploded near a CHU it could do a great deal of damage, since literally nothing stands in the way to stop the fragments. Even individual bullets can fly right through these structures. 

The Army could, of course, provide more secure housing, especially at vulnerable base areas. Congress should investigate why the Army chose to expose US troops to such an obvious risk.

In the past, when al Tanf was attacked, CENTCOM celebrated that it was able to defend these bases. 

The trdth is otherwise. There are “Before and After” satellite photos of one strike at al Tanf that show significant destruction.

Why didn’t air defenses work?

We do not know what kind of air defense systems, if any, may have been at Tower 22. 

The best guess would be the Avenger Air Defense System and Stinger MANPADS, both used by the Army.  (Avenger was previously operated by the US Marines, but it became obsolete and taken out of service.) First fielded in 1989, Avenger is a 35-year-old air system that has never shot down a drone in combat anywhere.

The system is mounted on a HMMWV Jeep-like vehicle and fires Stinger air defense missiles. It can be linked to an external radar source, but typically it is mobile and stand-alone. It does not have its own radar, so the operator has to physically see the threat.

Avenger is present in Syria and Iraq.

Stinger is a MANPADS, that is a man-carried and operated air defense weapon that has to see the threat, just like Avenger. Stinger can have a dual seeker-sensor in the missile’s nose that is sensitive to both infrared and ultraviolet light.

Drone makers using gasoline engines usually port the engine exhaust above the wings and fuselage of the drone to make detection of any heat source difficult. The Stinger missile, in either application, has to “lock onto” the heat source of the drone or other enemy target.  

Both Avenger and Stinger are “fire and forget systems” and, as in the case of Avenger, there are no reports of Stingers shooting down drones in combat. A few drones have been shot down on test ranges to demonstrate they can work.

A Pentagon “preliminary report” says that Tower 22 had its own drone in play and that the enemy drone either took advantage of the US drone’s flight path or was shielded by the US drone, so the air defense operators at Tower 22 did not fire on it.

There is, however, a problem with the story. 

Both Stinger and Avenger are equipped with a system to differentiate between threats and friendlies called IFF (Identification Friend or Foe). In fact, modern IFF transponders, known as Mode 5 class, can identify a friendly if the friendly is “beeping” the right encrypted code; but if it is not sending the correct code then the ground operator must assume it is a threat and take action to destroy it.

In modern combat scenarios, IFF is critical, and most US military drones have miniature IFF transponders on board.

The bottom line is that if there was a US air defense system at Tower 22 it would have had IFF, and the base operators would not have been confused.

Is it possible that the drone the US launched, the drone that caused confusion, did not have an IFF transponder? Perhaps.

The Task Force 99 alternative

In October 2022 CENTCOM created a new organization called Task Force 99 to plan for the use of cheap commercial drones, either bought on the market or 3D printed, for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions (ISR). The organization is based at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and is made up of about 15 people.

When Task Force 99 was interviewed last year, it had approximately 98 drones (broken down into 13 types) with ranges between 12.5 and 900 miles. It also produced its own 3D printed drone called Kestrel.

By and large all these are small plastic drones, usually in quadcopter format. Some of these drones are battery powered and include group 1 and group 2 unmanned aerial systems (UAS) platforms. Group 1 small UAS are back-packable and used for “over-the-hill” missions. They typically operate at altitudes under 1,200 feet. Group 2 are somewhat larger and operate below 3,500 feet.

Task Force 99 is tasked with finding unique drone solutions to support US operations in the Middle East. But because Task Force 99 is looking for cheap commercial products, the drones it works with are not equipped with IFF.  

We don’t know whether Tower 99 was using a Task Force 99-supplied drone but given its location and the need to search the perimeter around the base, this would have been a cheap way to do the job.   

There is, unfortunately, in the reporting of Task Force 99, no discussion of how commercial drone systems can be compatible with air defense systems. Nor is there any reported protocol for working with air defenses in order to avoid fratricide situations or fatal mistakes. More information is needed, but the possible presence of a Task Force 99 drone may indicate that air defenses were being shut down during US Army drone operations.

The loitering munition

As former CIA analyst Larry Johnson has expounded, it would take a large munition to cause the damage at Tower 22. We know that multiple drones hit al Tanf causing significant damage. It is also reasonable to think that the strike on Tower 22 was well-planned and intended to cause maximum casualties. This means either the base had been previously surveyed by hostile drones, or the enemy got satellite pictures, or the enemy had spies at the base – or possibly all of the above.

The most likely loitering munition fired at Tower 22 would have been a version of the Iranian Ababil 3. It is manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA). It is a single engine drone with an engine reported as coming from German company Limbach Flugmotoren.

Some loitering munition versions of this drone are called Qasef-1 and Qasef-2. In Iraq, the drone is called the Basir-1 and is used by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq. At least four different terrorist organizations operating under the umbrella of the PMF – the Badr Brigades, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Kata’ib Jund al Imam and Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba – have used these drones in past attacks.

There are two other Iranian drones that could have been used. Mohajer-6 was used exclusively by the IRGC in the past.  It is a large drone that carries four precision-guided munitions. It is not a loitering munition (or kamikaze drone), and after delivering its bombs it returns to base, operating somewhat like the Bayraktar Turkish drone that was prominent in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, in Ukraine, Libya and elsewhere.

The other candidate is the Shahed 136, today used widely by the Russians in Ukraine (now under the name Geran-2). It is a loitering munition with a warhead of between 40 and 50 kg.  

The attack on Tower 22 occurred “in the early morning,” meaning the weapon itself was probably launched, some distance away, at night. All these drones are slow flying. It also means that if the soldiers were gathered in one place they would have been at breakfast. If the drone arrived from the East with the rising sun, observing it would have been difficult.

The perpetrators

The Biden administration has been adamant that the actual attack was carried out by Iranian proxies, without naming the group or individuals responsible, although certainly it knows. Moreover, and even more importantly, the administration has avoiding pointing a finger at Iran for directing its proxy or proxies.   

According to Entifadh Qanbar, President & Founder of the Kurdish Protection Action Committee (KPAC), the actual attack was done by Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), an Iranian-sponsored, anti-American Shiite militia operating in Iraq with collateral operations throughout Syria.  It is tied directly to the IRGC-Quds Force. [Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, known widely by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, was its leader until his death on January 3, 2020, in a US drone strike at Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport that also killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force.]

Abu Fadak Al-Mohammedawi is the general secretary of KH and is the overall head of PMF forces in Iraq. KH maintains strong ties with Iran and pledges spiritual allegiance to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The PMF is directly funded by the Government of Iraq which pays for its operations and provides a separate budget for PMF weapons’ acquisitions. According to available Iraqi government budget documents, Kata’ib Hezbollah receives more than $3 billion annually via the PMF from Iraq, in addition to the arms it receives from Iran.  

Abu Fadak, real name Abdul Aziz Al-Mujirish Al-Mohammadawi and nicknamed Al-Khal (The Maternal Uncle), was born in January 1968. He is the chief of staff of the PMF and led the Iraqi militia attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad on December 31, 2019. According to former U.S. Army infantry officer Thomas Kurtzweil, after that attack, the name “Al-Khal” was graffitied over the walls of the Embassy.

Conclusion

The administration is working hard to keep its relationship with Iraq and protect Iran, holding back information that would directly implicate either. This compromises American forces in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan in two ways. 

First, US bases are poorly defended and not strongly fortified, meaning they are relatively easy to attack with drones, mortars, rockets, and missiles. As they have been repeatedly.

Second, the US is allowing Iraq to fund and support hostile operations aimed at US installations and bases in the region. This means that US security information flowing to the government of Iraq (and its military) may be handed off to the Popular Mobilization Forces, as they are a military arm of the Iraqi government – but associated with Iran.

A US policy in which the enemy is part of the government we are supporting cannot work.

In addition to the compromised position of US forces in the region, the US response to attacks has been less than optimal. American passivity encourages even more attacks, exposing American weakness and indecisiveness and humiliating US forces who are hogtied and can’t reply.

With respect to Iran, the Biden administration’s failure to act on hundreds of Iranian-planned and ordered provocations means the situation will continue to deteriorate, and more American lives will be lost. 

The policy is unacceptable.

Stephen Bryen served as staff director of the Near East Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center and editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.

This article was first published by War and Policy and is republished with permission.