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The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service: From the War on ISIS to the Future

Above: CTS board Iraqi Army Mi-17, 2011. (Photo credit: Andrew Jacob, US Special Operations Task Force-Central.)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi announced Iraq as fully liberated from ISIS in December 2017, although there were still a few ISIS pockets in remote areas, as well as sleeper cells. The force that played a pivotal role in the conventional defeat of ISIS in terms of it no longer holding cities and large swaths of land was the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), an independent security and intelligence agency that works directly for the prime minister.

Before the war on ISIS began in 2014, CTS was one of the most disliked and feared organizations in Iraq. Due to its secrecy and close ties to the US, which created it during the Iraq War, Iraqis saw CTS as a US surrogate that adhered to a US agenda. They also viewed it as former Prime Minister Maliki’s praetorian guard and anti-coup force which he used to attack political opponents. The CTS was formed based on prime ministerial directives, and a law to formally establish it as a legitimate security organization languished in the Iraqi parliament for years in fear that it concentrated too much power with the prime minister. Other Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) saw it as a threat and wanted to abolish or absorb it.

This perception has been reversed today, and CTS is arguably the most popular security organization in Iraq. Fears of CTS being employed as the prime minister’s force for a political agenda ended when Maliki stepped down in August 2014. More importantly, CTS maintained its organizational cohesion and fighting abilities in 2014 when ISIS began its sweep while other ISF collapsed. CTS, along with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which were supported and heavily influenced by Iran, held territory, and CTS went on to spearhead most of the operations to retake cities from the ISIS.

To say that CTS is popular is an understatement. It is the subject of songs and music videos, college students wear t-shirts with CTS logos, and some of its leaders have a cult like status and were central figures in the Iraqi ethos in the war against ISIS. One observer noted that they are like “the NASA astronauts in the US in the 1960s.” However, most importantly, the Iraqi parliament passed the CTS Law in August 2016, giving it a legitimacy that it never held before, with a budget and established structure with the mission of coordinating and leading all counter terrorism efforts while still working directly for the prime minister and separate from the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Ministry of Interior (MoI).

The CTS Structure

The central identity of CTS is that it is independent of politics and nonsectarian, representing all Iraqi demographics. Sectarian expressions of any kind are not allowed in CTS, and those who express them are expelled. By law, CTS members cannot be in political parties, and there are no associated members of the PMF in CTS due to the careful screening and vetting of applicants and a strong anti-sectarian culture.

At its height in 2013, CTS had a strength of 13,000. It was organized with a CTS headquarter, a Counter Terrorism Command (CTC), and three Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) brigades. The CTS headquarters was intended to be a strategy, policy, and resourcing organization that provided oversight of operations and interfaced with the Iraqi government. CTC was the operational level command and directly controlled the ISOF brigades. The 1st ISOF Brigade was located at Baghdad, the 2nd ISOF in Mosul, and the 3rd ISOF in Basra. The brigades controlled ISOF regional commando battalions that were based in Iraq’s provinces, less the provinces in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Battalions were located in provinces due to a lack of helicopters to transport units based in Baghdad throughout Iraq. Additionally, each brigade contained a support battalion that provided logistics and a recce battalion that developed intelligence.

The 1st ISOF Brigade also had additional battalions in Baghdad, the 1st Battalion, also referred to as the 36th Commando Battalion based on its original designation when created by US Special Forces (USSF), the 2nd Battalion, also referred to as the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force, or ICTF. Additionally, there was a Special Tactics Unit (STU). All three units operated as country-wide forces not focused on any specific province. The ICTF and STU conducted high end counter terrorism missions such as hostage rescue, while the other battalions conducted raids, ambushes, and detention operations of suspected terrorists. The three ISOF brigades are collectively referred to as the Golden Division, a Saddam Hussein-era term. While in theory CTC controlled the ISOF brigades, in practice this function was controlled by the CTS headquarters, and CTC became mainly an administrative organization and was increasingly marginalized.

Today, the fundamental structure of CTS remains unchanged and has been formally codified by the passage of the CTS Law. The law abolished the CTC since it was viewed as redundant, although the organization still exists today due to the popularity of its commander, his strong political support, and relationship with the prime minister. An additional change is that another STU was created in the summer of 2015 and added to the 1st ISOF Brigade to provide additional counter terrorism capabilities in the Iraqi capital. Altogether, there are 16 commando battalions (14 regional battalions and the 36th and ICTF battalions), two STUs, three recce battalions, and three support battalions, making total CTS strength less than a US division. CTS leaders are close hold regarding total strength of the organization, especially information regarding casualties, but its strength today is probably around 10,000.

Above: the "targeting cycle" as applied to counter-terrorism operations.

CTS Change of Mission

Before the rise of ISIS, CTS conducted counter terrorism operations using a highly refined targeting process which was developed in conjunction with US advisers. It contained a series of checks and balances to prevent targeting that was potentially politically or sectarian related. CTS had arrest powers but could not pursue terrorist targets without warrants from independent judges. It developed intelligence and conducted multiple takedowns of insurgent cells and used intelligence from them for future operations. Most CTS missions were performed at night, and almost all operations were conducted at the company level and below. Multiple battalion level operations were extremely rare. During the hundreds of missions CTS performed during the Iraq War, it suffered very few casualties, and at times there were no casualties. More were killed by accidents in combat than by insurgents or terrorists.

But while al-Qaida had focused on carrying out large scale terrorist attacks, ISIS operated like a regular army, capturing and occupying territory. In January 2014, ISIS took Fallujah and in June, Mosul. It also rolled into Saladin and Babel provinces and approached the Baghdad security belt, as the Iraqi Army and Federal Police were unable to hold ground. ISIS fighters were flexible and quickly changed tactics, which was difficult for conventional ISF to counter.

As one of Iraq’s few effective fighting forces remaining during the ISIS onslaught, CTS was forced to adapt to conventional combat. The ISOF brigades and battalions no longer operated in their assigned provinces but were committed throughout Iraq. But CTS had no experience in this type of warfare, particularly the urban combat needed to dislodge ISIS from cities. CTS mostly abandoned the conduct of precision counter terrorism, and the targeting process and warrant system were only used in non-combat zones.

CTS’s new role was liberating urban areas and preparing for ISIS counterattacks, which is the role normally performed by conventional militaries, not Special Operations Forces (SOF), and especially not counter terrorism forces. CTS now conducted operations at the battalion level and above as an infantry force, conducting combined arms operations requiring artillery, close air support, and close coordination with other ISF units. It massed as many as 14 battalions at a time in conventional battles, as in the case of west Mosul, a use that years earlier would have been inconceivable. CTS was able to adapt to the new tactics, however, it suffered high casualties and lost most of its original soldiers trained by the US from the early years of the organization in late 2003.

CTS leaders said it was not their job to conduct urban combat but were thrust into that role as the only reliable force. CTS leaders were shocked at the inability of the Iraqi Army and other ISF to stand up to ISIS attacks in 2014 and 2015. Initially the Iraqi Army, Federal Police and tribal forces were not capable of holding the terrain CTS had taken. CTS went from an elite force with a very specific mission to the only force on the ground, except for the PMF, which CTS saw as reliable. CTS largely carried the ISF since the start of the war against ISIS and this continued until the start of the battle of west Mosul in 2017. CTS played an oversized role, as did Coalition airstrikes.

As mentioned, CTS is close hold on casualty figures, but former advisors estimated it suffered 3,700 to 4,000 casualties, with 400 killed, from 2014 through the end of the battle of Fallujah in June 2016. The battle of Mosul lasted from October 2016 to July 2017, and in May 2017, the US estimated that CTS had suffered 40 percent losses in the battle to that point. The US later stated that Iraqi forces suffered 1,200 to 1,500 killed and approximately 8,000 wounded during the battle of Mosul, but did not specify which Iraqi forces had suffered these losses, but CTS spearheaded much of the battle of Mosul, especially in east Mosul, where it was the only force in the city for about six weeks. It is safe to assume a great deal of these were CTS casualties.

Although CTS counter terrorism capabilities atrophied during the ISIS campaign, the two STUs remained focused on counter terrorism and continued to use the targeting procedures and legal warrants while making arrests of suspected terrorists. These two units were maintained at a high state of readiness with constant training, with their manning and equipment at full strength. However, their activities were mainly restricted to the Baghdad area, where they also served as an emergency reserve for the prime minister.

CTS Training

Despite the high casualties, CTS was able to maintain its strength levels due to the efforts of its Academia, the CTS training arm. The war on ISIS drove changes to CTS training, and it has been greatly expanded. It now takes eight to twelve months to produce a soldier. Training is conducted by both CTS instructors and US led Coalition instructors from many nations. Non-US forces provide most of the Coalition led training, although it is primarily based on US Army Ranger doctrine. But in matching training methods used by USSF that created the force, training now includes job specific training for the functions soldiers will perform. The specialized training is included for such jobs as counter terrorism operator, urban warfare operator, sniper, counter-improvised explosive device specialist, mortarman, heavy weapons operator, driver, communications operator, forward air controller, medic, and officer. The new specialty courses were first conducted in late 2015 and early 2016.

The number of trained soldiers produced each year has decreased with the new training. In July 2017, an US estimate was that the Academia produced about 2,000 new CTS soldiers a year, while in 2015, CTS leaders said it produced 4,500 a year. Another problem is maintaining high training standards at times when CTS is sustaining high losses, and former US and other advisors report that there is virtually no attrition in the training and that almost everyone who begins training completes it, which is a marked departure from when all the training was directly overseen by USSF before the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. A final criticism is that so many different Coalition nations are involved in training that it is disjointed as compared to when USSF exclusively trained CTS. Each Coalition nation has its own distinct tactics, techniques, procedures, military doctrine, and language, which creates confusion.

Above: CTS training facility, Iraq. (Photo: US Central Command.)

CTS Continued Challenges

In 2017, the Iraqi national budget included it first funding line for CTS at $687 million, which represents a significant increase to previous funding. On the surface, this is good news. Formerly, due to its lack of legal status, CTS used a hodgepodge of different funding mechanisms, but nothing worked well.

However, in May 2017, the Pentagon said in a funding request document that CTS was still not receiving its portion of the Iraqi budget, and in December 2017, a coalition advisor confirmed this was still the case. In September 2017, the CTS director stated that CTS had a budget but that it was insufficient due to falling oil prices, and that CTS only had about 30 percent of its equipment and lack of funding limited training. Additional indications that either CTS does not have a dedicated budget or that it is insufficient are Iraqi Ministerial Council meetings which approve CTS recruiting drives, discuss contracts for training and arming it, and discuss specific amounts of funding to be committed to it. If CTS had a budget, it could well accomplish these tasks on its own.

Although in theory CTS is independent with the passage of the CTS Law, it is tied to MoD for certain administrative functions, such as paying salaries, managing promotions, and supplying ammunition and some weapons, which MoD contracts for through its budget. But MoD is not providing CTS with the needed resources due to an alleged dislike of it.

While the Iraqi defense minister is a former CTS member, CTS has opponents within the lower levels of MoD. For example, when CTS began the Mosul battle, it was critically short of medical supplies such as bandages, tourniquets, and individual first aid kits. It was also lacking metal detectors and other equipment needed to counter ISIS improvised explosive devices.

In many ways, the various security agencies and ministries in Iraq are competing fiefdoms in a struggle for resources, power, and influence, and CTS is not exempt from this struggle. Staff General Talib Sheghati al-Kenani has been the director of CTS since its creation. Kenani is noted for his strong sense of non-sectarianism and his pro-US stance. In 2014, Kenani was appointed as the commander of the Iraqi Joint Operations Command, in addition to serving as the CTS director. In March 2017, Kenani was replaced in this position in part due to intense competition between ISF, and the fact that CTS had overshadowed other forces during the first half of the battle of Mosul. And although the CTS Law has granted ministerial status to Kenani, it was never fully bestowed on him by parliament due to rivalries with other ISF and bitterness by some members of parliament over methods Kenani had used for years in lobbying members to pass the law.

Staff Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi is probably the most famous CTS leader. He served as the field commander for CTS in nearly all of major operations against ISIS and often led all Iraqi forces participating in specific battles such as Beji, Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah. His reputation peaked in the battle for Mosul, where he again served as the CTS field commander. During the Mosul battle, al-Saadi was so in the spotlight that pressure was applied from other rival ISF organizations to prevent al-Saadi from leading CTS in the following battle of Talafar, and he played a smaller role there.

As mentioned, during the battle of east Mosul, CTS fought in the city by itself for almost six weeks and ISIS was able to focus solely on it. There were accusations that other ISF deliberately stayed out of the city to avoid the type of losses CTS faced and to take it down a notch since it had had the lion’s shares of news headlines. Later, in west Mosul, the Iraqi Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD) treated the battle as a competition with CTS, seeking to outshine it and using reckless tactics to take terrain, and in the process, inflicting unnecessary civilian casualties. CTS’s success during the war on ISIS has also caused MoI and MoD to begin creating their own CTS like forces. The Army has formed Ranger battalions, and MoI is forming similar units to be assigned to each of Iraq’s provinces, like the CTS model.

CTS Today and Future Plans

The CTS director indicated that after Mosul he wanted to return CTS to it pre-ISIS mission: intelligence collection, tracking terrorist targets and networks, arresting them in accordance with Iraqi law, and returning the battalions to their provinces. However, CTS would go on to participate in the battles of Talafar, Hawija, and west Anbar, and was heavily involved in Baghdad’s push into Kirkuk Province and other disputed areas in October 2017. A good portion of CTS is still embroiled in this dispute, with the 2nd ISOF Brigade responsible for security in Kirkuk, where it has arrested car stealing gangs. CTS is still too busy to refocus on its primary mission.

In the funding request document from May 2017, the Pentagon stated that CTS intends to refocus on counter terrorism while maintaining a portion of it as an elite infantry force and growing it to a strength of 20,000 in the next three years. US funding would assist with this effort, which is important since CTS did not have a budget. However, currently, the US and Coalition in Iraq are not advocates of CTS growth other than replacing losses and rebuilding lost counter terrorism capability since it has been doing conventional operations since 2014.

The US said in January 2018 that CTS is backing off expansion plans for now as it refocuses on rebuilding. But former advisors report that CTS has plans for even greater growth, adding four new commando battalions and a new STU, with each brigade organized like the 1st ISOF Brigade, with a 1st and 2nd battalion not focused on any single province, an STU for each brigade, and additional engineering and maintenance capabilities. Ultimately, CTS wants to grow to a strength of a little over 38,000, which would mean adding more than just these new units. The Coalition ponders such questions as how CTS will execute more advanced tasks such as cyber counter terrorism or whether one battalion per province is sufficient for some of the larger and more unrestful provinces such as Anbar.

CTS is in the process of creating an airborne capability since it is the only Arab SOF without it, and wants to specialize battalions based on their assigned provinces, with the Anbar battalion having specialized desert training and the Basra battalion having maritime and anti-piracy capabilities. CTS endeavors to establish greater counter terrorism cooperation with neighboring countries and participate in international exercises. It wants to create an international training center in Iraq, like one in Jordan, where regional countries can come for counter terrorism training. CTS also wants capabilities for a few battalions to be able to deploy outside of Iraq as a US partner force to hotspots. There are discussions of creating an Iraqi Joint Special Operations Command containing CTS, ERD, and the Army’s new Ranger units.

Above: CTS officers and proffessors attend a celebration of Iraq's victory over Daesh at the University of Tikrit, December 10th 2017.


The CTS should not expand beyond its present strength and become a new republican like guard. It should focus on its original mission, as articulated in the CTS Law. CTS is already larger than the entire US Army Ranger Regiment and the elite high-end US counter terrorism units combined. Expansion will lead to a degradation of training standards, and original expansion efforts in the wake of the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 had the same results. Keeping CTS with its current structure with a very specific mission will reduce the pressure it will face from other ministries and agencies if it tries to expand and permanently assume roles traditionally performed by the Army and Federal Police.

If CTS tries to be both an elite conventional, infantry force and a counter terrorism force, it will likely be neither. It will also create an unhealthy competition within CTS itself as to which part of it is the best, the most elite. CTS cannot be the answer to every problem in Iraq, which led to it performing missions well beyond what it was equipped or trained to do. The Iraqi Army needs to be formed into an effective and trusted force, and indications are the Iraqis are planning to conduct major reforms of the Army this year. The CTS needs to focus on high tier terrorist targets and leave lower level targets to the police or other ISF.

The US should maintain a close relationship and presence with CTS and support it fully, so that it serves as the entry point into the US-Iraqi military relationship and strengthens the state “monopoly on force.” A greater presence of US advisors can assist in maintaining high training standards and reduce petty corruption. The US should be the primary nation advising and training CTS.

CTS was created by USSF and based on US doctrine and it has a cultural similarity to USSOF. The ad hoc approach of many nations training it has led to disjointed efforts and confusion. The CTS director has stated that while CTS has received assistance from many nations, he values US training, technical assistance, weapons, and air support the most since they are the best. One of the reasons CTS was so successful fighting ISIS was that during the Iraq War, it had more US attention, training, and advising than any other unit in Iraq, and USSF passed along a culture of adaptability, flexibility, and low-level decision making that did not exist in Iraqi military culture. This is one reason CTS was able to successfully adapt to conventional warfare in a short period. The continued presence of US advisors can help maintain and spread this culture. That is not to say that other nations cannot be involved in aspects of helping create new CTS capabilities, such as in the cyber realm, or countering the ideology that leads to terrorism.

Although CTS never maintained its own aviation assets, before the ISIS war, CTS was routinely supported by Iraqi Army Aviation, but this relationship has diminished during the war on ISIS with conventional fighting. A squadron of Iraqi Army Aviation should be focused solely on supporting CTS, while these aviation assets remain under MoD’s control. It would be difficult and costly for CTS to create its own aviation arm.

Some have argued that the ERB should be absorbed into CTS since it was also created by the US and has similar capabilities. This should not be done. The ERB contains members of the Iranian backed Badr Organization, and the prime minister acknowledged that some ERB members committed abuses against civilians in Mosul. ERB currently works for MoI, which is strongly influenced by Iran. However, most vitally, the Iraqi government should commit to fully funding and supporting CTS and reducing the competition among the various ministries and agencies, where a great deal of effort is spent in just securing basic resources.

Another reason CTS was successful is because it was a small force outside of the traditional military structure and was not prone to the levels of corruption, nepotism, and bureaucracy that plagued MoD. This model of a small, elite force outside of traditional, bureaucratic ministries could be used by other countries in the region that are facing terrorism. But, it is important if this model is applied, that the new force created does not become a second military that assumes all the roles of the traditional security ministries, which ultimately should be reformed.

Although recommendations are easy, their implementation is always difficult in Iraq, where priorities often go well beyond basic military considerations that an outsider could probably never fully comprehend. But, a significant terrorist attack occurred in Baghdad on January 15, 2018, killing and injuring over 100 civilians. This is an indication of what post ISIS Iraq will look like for some time. It is vital that CTS disengages from its conventional role, retrains, and refocuses on what its name implies, counter terrorism. CTS leaders have said it will take years to counter the ideology that led to ISIS. The sooner they can start, the better.

David M. Witty is a retired US army colonel who formerly served as an advisor to CTS. He wrote a paper on CTS for the Brookings Institute in 2015 and is currently working on a follow-up report. He works for the Advanced Computer Learning Company (ACLC) based in Fayetteville, NC. He also works as an adjunct professor for Norwich University. He can be followed on Twitter at @DavidMWitty1.

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