The Jordanian F-16 pilot who fell into ISIS hands over the terror group's stronghold in Raqqa, Syria is claimed to have been the focus of a daring special forces rescue attempt, although one that failed early on in its execution. So who was responsible for this shadowy raid or did it even happen at all?
The details were sketchy when they originally appeared Friday and remain so days later. Some outlets took hold of the story and published it, but I was more skeptical. U.S. Pentagon Spokesman Admiral John Kirby outright denies the U.S. having any involvement in such an operation and the a spokesperson for of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition says they have no info at all on the raid but that they are aware of the rumors.
The shadowy assault, that is assumed to have been led by U.S. forces due to the capabilities needed to pull such an action off, is alleged to have occurred while the city of Raqqa was under unusually heavy nighttime bombardment on January 1st, 2015. At least this is according to the group "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" who has reported human rights offenses and other intelligence from within ISIS-held Raqqa in the past.
According to these sources, over a dozen rapid airstrikes happened near a large ISIS military installation and illumination flares dropped over the city by supposedly low-flying aircraft, a pair of helicopters made an assault attempt on a compound near the eastern outskirts of the city. The goal was said to have been to pluck hostages from the grip of the terror state, namely the shot-down Jordanian F-16 pilot. The plan unraveled when the helicopters took heavy gunfire while attempting to insert forces on the ground and they had to abort the landing. Soon after, it is said another landing attempt was made by two similar helicopters in a much more urban area of Raqqa, once again the flight came under fire and quickly retreated into the dark of night.
The Washington Post reports that one of the watchdog group's members, located in Turkey, who goes by the name Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, said that eyewitness accounts confirm that heavy aerial activity resulted in the sky being brightly lit by flares and gunfire and that a pair of helicopters made their first insertion attempts around 11:30PM. As a result of the rebuffed aerial assaults and fearing more intruder activity, ISIS militants setup roadblocks all over the city. These reports were said to have been confirmed by Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees Activist Collective according to The Daily Mail, among other sources.
The group "Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently" has been a fairly accurate source of information coming out of ISIS's most heavily controlled areas in Syria for the better part of year. They were the first to report on a very similar failed helicopter hostage rescue attempt to pluck American journalist James Foley from ISIS's grip in an area near where the helicopters were first supposedly spotted late New Years Day. This report came in July of last year, almost a month before US officials admitted to the daring raid following James Foley's gruesome and highly publicized death. The group maintains that multiple sources, even those from inside of ISIS, have confirmed that the New Years Day failed raid did indeed happen.
Although top U.S. and coalition officials have denied that any such raid took place at all, there may be another explanation for this denial as the operation could have been unilaterally executed by Jordanian Joint Special Operations Command. In fact, Jordan acquired a small force of UH-60L Blackhawks for special operations missions just like the one described above and retains a very credible and highly-trained group of special operations soldiers focused on everything from hostage rescue to combat search and rescue (CSAR). Additionally, King Abdullah II, a Blackhawk and Cobra pilot himself, was a special operations visionary during his later military career. According to his official bio:
In 1985, then-Prince Abdullah returned to Jordan to serve in the armed forces (Armoured Corps, 3rd Division). Rising through the ranks to lieutenant-colonel, he attended advanced military courses in both Jordan and the UK. Among other duties, he served on attachment to the Special Forces and qualified as a Cobra attack helicopter pilot. After service as commander of the 2nd Armoured Battalion, 40th Armoured Brigade, he was named deputy commander, Jordanian Special Forces, in January 1993.
In November 1993, Prince Abdullah became commander of Jordan's Special Forces. In 1996, he was given the task of reorganising the Special Forces and other elite units into the new Special Operations Command (SOCOM). In 1998, as SOCOM commander, he was promoted to the rank of major general.
Over the last decade and a half, Jordan has been a very close collaborator with the U.S. when it comes to the Global War On Terror and has drastically increased their counter-terror and special operations capabilities. Today, they are widely considered as having a very capable and elite cadre of special operators, with a small but proven special operations aviation support group that is centered around eight modified UH-60L Blackhawks and a handful MD-530F light multi-role helicopters. In addition to strictly special operations aircraft, AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships, Super Puma and EC635 helicopter transports, along with F-16s and a series of unmanned aircraft and even a pair of very capable MC-235 gunships and over-watch/command and control aircraft can be called into action to support special operations missions.
In this case, if Jordan made a unilateral push into the most dangerous place in the world, in an attempt to rescue their downed pilot, it is most likely that the Blackhawks, F-16s and possibly the MC-235 gunships alone made the run. This is because Raqqa is 175 miles from the closest point to Jordanian territory, which would be on the outer edge of a Blackhawk's combat radius and outside the reach of Cobra and MD-530 helicopters. Additionally, this would match the eye witness reports who say that only a pair of helicopters were spotted, along with an intense amount of persistent air-to-ground bombardment. This type of air-to-ground pummeling is a signature of fixed wing gunships.
Given the military capabilities involved, descriptions of prior raid attempts by U.S. forces, the distance involved, and the fact that Jordan's King would have an incredibly detailed knowledge as to what his capabilities are while also knowing that the world is awaiting a beheading video of one of his top pilots, a Jordanian hostage rescue attempt is plausible. The only limiting factor would have been the UH-60L's combat radius, which would have made the mission's timeframe tight, but not implausible, without auxiliary fuel. To give the helicopters more time on station, auxiliary fuel could have been carried onboard the Blackhawks or a forward refueling point could have been setup in the Syrian desert using Jordanian C-130s as a contingency. Jordan's special operations Blackhawks are not aerial refueling capable.
Alternatively, Jordanian Air Force AS332M1 Super Pumas, which have a very slight range advantage over Jordan's special operations Blackhawks, could have been used, although it is doubtful.
Beyond the possibility that Jordanian forces had acted unilaterally in the raid, it is possible that the U.S. and its coalition partners executed the raid but are denying their knowledge of it for some reason. Obviously, attempting a 'downtown' raid in the heart of ISIS held territory would be a major risk escalation for the anti-ISIS air combat coalition, but it also brings into question what combat search and rescue plans are in place in the first place since air strikes officially began late last summer. Just recently, the A-10 Warthog was finally seen taking part in anti-ISIS fighting, which is puzzling seeing that traditional combat search and rescue missions are handled by the USAF HH-60 Pave Hawks accompanied by A-10s for close air support, along with other layers of faster, higher flying support aircraft as needed.
Considering the dynamic and the ferocious nature of the enemy on the ground, leaving the job of supporting CSAR helicopters during a down-pilot mission to high flying fast jets seemed almost downright reckless. Yet, in this case, seeing as the Jordanian F-16 went down basically over the ISIS seat of power, even a responsive CSAR mission, with an A-10 escort, would have taken too long to effect the pilot's survivability on the ground and would have been a questionable risk-reward proposition. Just the idea of putting helicopters full of U.S. and coalition operators over Raqqa, which unlike the failed raid to rescue James Foley early in the year, is now living on high alert since official bombing commenced months ago, seems very risky. This is why the finger points back to Jordan and their captured pilot.
As for why the U.S. and other coalition partners may have elected to stay out of the raid, flimsy intelligence or a very low chance of success could have turned the U.S. and other players off from such a high-risk mission. Also, it is Jordan's pilot, so taking on more risk than other coalition partners in attempting to extract him is only logical. Then again, Jordan could have never asked for help from coalition members in order to have kept the mission as secret as possible, in fear that information as to its details being leaked to ISIS sympathizers and spies.
Also of interest, were the recently released pictures of the Jordanian pilot in captivity along with a transcript of his interrogation, a video is also said to exist. This release happened less than two days before the supposed raid took place, which could mean that there may have been some intelligence as to his whereabouts garnered from it. Conversely, the tape may have led to a rushed rescue attempt if his life was thought to have been in immanent danger. Supposedly, at the end of the transcript, the pilot's captors ask him if he knows what will come of him at the hands of the Islamic State, he answers ominously, 'they will kill me.'
Finally, there is the possibility that nothing actually happened that night in regards to a helicopter-borne hostage rescue attempt and the multiple sightings of attempted helicopter assaults were just the product of the chaos surrounding what was clearly a very strong series of strikes around the ISIS stronghold city that night.
Meanwhile, in the typical ultra-evil form that has become so associated with ISIS, the terror state's Twitter accounts have been asking followers for requests on how to kill the downed F-16 pilot while also ordering Jordan to release ISIS prisoners and quit the coalition air campaign in order to get him back safely. Jordan has replied stating there will be grave consequences for ISIS if its Viper pilot is harmed in any way. In other words, Jordan's resolve appears to have strengthened, not weakened, under ISIS threats.
If Jordan did in fact execute the shadowy helicopter raid in Raqqa in the late hours of New Years Day, it looks like the Hashemite Kingdom is willing to take on massive risk to get their pilot back.
PHOTO CREDITS: Night vision and UH-60L/Super Puma, HH-60 & A-10 photos via DoD, pilot held captive via public domain, assault on mock compound and blackhawks and soldier via AP
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com