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How military drones, Predators & Reapers, helped drive ISIS out of Raqqa

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U.S. forces, coalition partners and Syrian Democratic Forces liberated Raqqah, Syria from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s control in early October. ISIS used the city as its capital for terrorist operations since January 2014.

Combat remotely piloted aircraft such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper were heavily integrated during combat operations to liberate the city. RPA aircrews tirelessly flew more than 44,000 hours and employed approximately 20 percent of the coalition strike effort.

The final push to free Raqqa city and eliminate the ISIS strongholds started in June 2017. In less than five months the ground forces captured the city. During that time, combat RPA aircrews leveraged their persistence by giving a continuous bird’s-eye view of the battlefield while providing precision weapons strikes.

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“Primarily we were doing things like close air support, tactical reconnaissance and overwatch of our allies as they fought to take back the city block by block,” said Lt. Col. Nicholas, a 432nd Wing squadron commander. “What our aircraft brought that was unique to the fight was persistence. We were over the city around the clock and that allowed us to have detailed knowledge of where the friendly forces were as they progressed.”

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When the ground troops encountered ISIS fighters, MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircrews were able guide weapons from another aircraft to the target, a tactic known as buddy lasing, or strike with their own precision munitions, oftentimes within close proximity to friendly forces.

An MQ-9 Reaper flies a training mission Oct. 18, 2017, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Combat remotely piloted aircraft such as the MQ-9 and MQ-1 Predator were heavily integrated during combat operations to liberate Raqqah, Syria, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s control in early October. During the push to free the city, RPA aircrews flew more than 44,000 hours and employed approximately 20 percent of the coalition strike effort. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Clausen)

“We were there to provide fire to break that contact [sustained by the friendly forces] and allow them to either advance or retreat to a safer location,” Nicholas said. “Many times we employed in danger-close situations within meters of friendly forces because it’s a confined city.”

According to Nicholas, this urban CAS environment is where the advantages of using MQ-1 and MQ-9 capabilities are more apparent as aircrews can maintain visual contact before, during and after strikes.

While operating in a dense urban environment is difficult according to the crews, they also overcame other challenges to get the job done.

“Raqqah was different in the sense that we were trying to enhance our operations and bring lessons learned from other fights to this one,” said Senior Airman Chandler, a 432nd Wing sensor operator. “It was very dynamic and there were many partners around, so there was a lot of airspace coordination. What really stuck out, however, was that ISIS was trying harder to blend in.”

As the SDF cleared structures in the city, combat RPA aircrews frequently witnessed civilians fleeing to Coalition and partner ground forces, who then escorted them away from the fighting.

“It wasn’t our aircrew just striking ISIS targets,” Nicholas said. “We also were safeguarding and watching over SDF as they cleared civilians moving out of the city to safe locations.”

It’s reasons like this why Chandler believes that combat RPAs made a real difference in this operation.

The city of Raqqah has been liberated, however, according to the Combined Joint Task Force OIR, there is still work to be done in parts of Iraq and Syria to fully eradicate ISIS forces from the battlefield.

“My favorite part of this job is that I’m able to help civilians be safe and I’m able to help liberate whatever city we need to and there’s no better feeling than knowing you can directly impact the battlefield and other people’s lives,” Chandler said. “It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s extremely rewarding.”

“There are families in the Middle East who are returning home free from ISIS control in part due to the 432nd Hunters,” said Col. Julian Cheater, 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing commander. “I couldn’t be more proud of our Airmen. Day in and day out, they stand ready at our nation’s call and every day they continue to deliver justice.”

Big League National Security

Sinaloa Cartel Suspects Arrested at Border for Carrying $3.5 Million in Cash and Massive Amounts of Cocaine and Fentanyl

Drug Cartels Will Have a Field Day During a Biden Administration

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On November 24, 2020, the Justice Department published a press release on how three Mexican citizens suspected of trafficking enormous quantities of illegal drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel received charges in federal court. This case is likely the biggest seizure of ammunition, cash, and narcotics in the district.

Jesus Burgos Arias, Juan Alatorre Venegas, and Jose Yee Perez were arrested on November 20, 2020. This arrest was the product of a joint investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, San Diego Police Department, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, that set its sights on individuals connected to the Sinaloa Cartel.

During these arrests, agents confiscated roughly $3.5 million in cash, 685 kilograms of cocaine, 24 kilograms of fentanyl, and about 20,000 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition and hundreds of body armor vests at a truck yard in Otay Mesa.

In a complaint filed in federal court, the defendants received a drug trafficking conspiracy charge. The defendants were transferred from the San Diego Central Jail to federal custody and made their first appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara L. Major.

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“This historic seizure and prosecution is a clear indication of the success of our joint investigative efforts,” declared U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer. “To eradicate this threat to San Diego and our partners in the Republic of Mexico, we will continue to aggressively attack the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug smuggling, money laundering, and arms smuggling operations – depriving them of their illegal merchandise, their profits, and a safe haven.” Brewer gave praise to prosecutor Matthew J. Sutton and the federal and local agents and officers for their diligence in this case.

“Thanks to the collaborative work with our state and federal law enforcement partners, we are able to announce this blow to the Mexican Cartels operating in San Diego,” remarked DEA Special Agent in Charge John W. Callery.  “We are further encouraged that we were able to separate them from their dangerous .50 caliber ammunition and over $3 million in drug proceeds that they have gained through selling death here in our community and throughout the US.”

“This seizure is significant not just because of its size, but because it demonstrates the direct correlation between narcotics, illicit money, and guns that drives violence in our communities and destroys lives,” stated Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) Special Agent in Charge Cardell T. Morant. “HSI will continue to work with our law enforcement partners and prosecutors to aggressively pursue the Sinaloa Cartel and other transnational criminal organizations.”

“The Sheriff’s Department is committed in working with our justice partners throughout the region to combat the dangerous drugs and violence associated with narcotic trafficking,” commented San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore. “Sheriff’s deputies see the destruction and damage that illegal drugs cause every day.  We are proud of what this case has accomplished, and the continued work being done to hold these criminals accountable.”

The Southern District of California led an investigation over the past five years that resulted in the aforementioned case being brought forward. The overall investigation has brought charges against over 125 people and has greatly affected the global operations of the Sinaloa Cartel.

The investigation started in late 2011 when authorities busted a small-scale drug distribution cell in National City and Chula Vista. After substantial investigation, law enforcement discovered that the Sinaloa Cartel was involved and the case morphed into a massive investigation that crossed state and national lines. The broader case led to dozens of arrests and seizures of 1,397 kilograms of methamphetamine, 2,214 kilograms of cocaine, 17.2 tons of marijuana, 95.84 kilograms of heroin, and $27,892,706 in drug-related funds.

With the Biden administration coming into power, similar cases will abound as it becomes clear that border security will become an afterthought during a Biden presidency.

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