US SIGINT aircraft crash lands in Kurdish region of Iraq

Nothing yet known about it's mission or why it crash landed

by Ian Greenhalgh

A  small twin turboprop aircraft came down in a field in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq this morning, as reported by

US coalition passenger plane makes crash landing in open field near Erbil

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—A US passenger plane made a crashing landing near Erbil Saturday morning which according to local officials was due to technical failure.

The plane N6351V registered by the US government under the army landed in an open field near the town of Kawrgosk 37 km west of the capital Erbil and 10 Km from the international airport.

correspondent near the site said that US army helicopters evacuated four passengers who were aboard the plane.

Around 30 US soldiers arrived and sealed off the area.

An eye witness who saw the crash landing told Rudaw, “The plane was flying very low and its propellers were not working. When it landed American soldiers came soon afterwards and searched the area. They took away the passengers,”


In the video you can clearly see several unusual antennae sprouting from the top of the aircraft, most prominently a large white dome. The aircraft is a Beechcraft King Air and according to Rudaw carried four passengers.

The troops seen in the video are clearly US special forces, perhaps Delta Force, indicating this plane and/or it’s passengers were important enough to warrant launching a Spec Ops retrieval mission.

We don’t know why the aircraft came down nor do we know who was onboard; however, we can make an educated guess at who was operating the flight and what it was doing.

The crash site in NE Iraq, near Erbil.

The crash site in NE Iraq, near Erbil.

The big clue is found in those unusual antennae which indicates a SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) role. There is a branch of US Army Special forces that flies Beechcraft King Air planes specially outfitted with SIGINT gathering equipment and it appears highly likely that is what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq.

The unit which operate these aircraft is called the ISA (Intelligence Support Activity) or just ‘The Activity’ to those in the know. The ISA has been at the forefront (although very much in the background) of most of America’s special operations since the early 80s.

Being a top secret intelligence unit, specific details are somewhat scarce; however some info on The Activity can be found at:

US Army Intelligence Support Activity (USAISA), also known as ISA, The Activity, GREY FOX and, in recent times, the Mission Support Activity (MSA), is a top secret Army intelligence unit. The Activity grew out of the need for specialized intel support for US Special Operations that was highlighted by the failed US attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran in 1980

The Activity’s primary role is to gather actionable intelligence in order to pave the way for special operations undertook by units such as Delta Force (known as ‘operational preparation of the battlespace’). The forms of intelligence gathered by the Activity include:

HUMINT (HUMan INTellgence)
Intel gathered through eyes and ears on the ground, both directly and through agents run by The Activity.. An example would be having ISA operatives, working undercover, do a recce of a suspected terrorist’s safe house, finding routes in and out, looking for blind spots, assessing the numbers and dispositions of hostile forces etc. The ISA also cultivates and runs agents in order to infiltrate organisations and gather intelligence.

SIGINT (SIGnals INTelligence)
monitoring and tracking radio communications e.g. finding a hostage by homing in on the kidnapper’s cell phones or tracking a terrorist organisation through its communications network.
Intelligence Support Activity – Organization

The Activity is thought to made up of around 300 operators and is under the command of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command).

The unit is organized into several elements

  • Administration
  • Training
  • SIGINT – the ‘knob turners’, who monitor and track radio, cell phone and other electronic communications
  • HUMINT – the HUMINT element runs agents, carries out reconnaisance, prepares safe houses, transport, plans and proves infil/exfil routes etc.
  • Direct Action
  • Delta Force-trained soldiers who act as the unit’s ‘shooters’.

Since its inception, the Activity has been providing invaluable intelligence and support to many United States operations.

DAYTON, Ohio -- Beech VC-6A at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio — Beechcraft King Air VC-6A at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Activity have been known to use light aircraft, such as the Beechcraft King Air, as airborne SIGINT listening posts. Flown by CIA Special Activities Division Air Branch pilots, these planes are modified to accommodate various antennas that feed signals into state-of-the-art processing units fitted in the cabins.

Activity SIGINT operatives monitor and track the signals on board and also relay them on to a local HQ. A ‘knob turner’ fluent in the native language is usually on the aircraft in order to translate and react immediately to any intel collected.

Therefore it appears highly likely that the four ‘passengers’ retrieved from the crash landed King Air were a CIA pilot, his co-pilot and a pair of ‘knob turners’ from the US Army’s top secret Intelligence Support Activity.

A brief rundown of the recent missions carried out by The Activity gives us some insight into their roles and what they might have been upto in Iraq:

2001-present – Afghanistan – Operation Enduring Freedom
SIGINT specialists and agent runners from the Activity, now code named ‘Gray Fox’, joined the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Gray Fox operatives joined Task Force Sword, a joint unit of Delta, Devgru, British SAS and Task Force Orange (as Gray Fox was referred to in Afghanistan). TF Sword’s role was to hunt down Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership targets. TF Orange SIGINT teams tracked their quarry through cell and radio transmissions while HUMINT agent runners used their networks of informers.

Gray Fox also supplied men to Task Force Bowie and Advance Force Operations (AFO) teams made up of Delta, SEALs, USAF CCTs and Gray Fox SIGINT operatives. In February 2002, AFO recon teams infiltrated into the Shah-i-Khot region in preparation for Operation Anaconda, a large scale assault on the region, where many al-Qaeda and Taliban diehards were holding out.

2002 – Yemen
The Activity deployed SIGINT specialists as part of a Special Operations task force sent into Yemen to train Yemeni forces to fight al-Qaeda forces believed to be active in the country. When the training mission ended, Activity operatives stayed on and helped disrupt several al-Qaeda operations.

In November 2002, Activity SIGINT identified and tracked Abu Ali al-Harithi, al-Qaeda’s top man in Yemen, and the man thought to be the mastermind for the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.. When al-Harithi’s cell phone was tracked to his Toyota Land Cruiser moving along a remote desert road, a MQ-1 Predator UAV, operated by the CIA, was vectored in from nearby Djibouti, where a significant US counter-terrorist presence had been established.

This Predator was a little different from the unarmed variant operated by the Air Force. This one carried 2 AGM-114 laser-guided anti-tank missiles under its wings. Activity SIGINT operatives had hacked into al-Harithi’s phone and were able to surreptitiously turn it on, creating a signal for the Predator to home in on. Once the target was found, the CIA operator, working remotely from a control room in Langley, Virginia, sent the commands to launch a missile, which duly streaked down and destroyed the Land Cruiser and its six occupants.

2003-present – Iraq – Operation Iraqi Freedom
In the opening stages of Gulf War II, the ISA assisted a Delta Force mission to attack Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. ISA SIGINT experts accompanied US and British Special Forces in various operations in the Western Iraqi desert.
It is believed that the Gray Fox is part of a multi-national task force (known as TF-88, previously called TF-145). The Activity element of TF-88 is known as ‘Task Force Orange’.

TF Orange provide SIGINT and other intel for TF-88 operations. Other members of TF-88 include Delta Force, the British SAS, SBS and elements of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment and 18(UKSF) Signals, the British equivalents of the activity.


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Posted by on March 5, 2016, With 8680 Reads Filed under World. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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One Response to "US SIGINT aircraft crash lands in Kurdish region of Iraq"

  1. Howie  March 6, 2016 at 8:22 am

    Nice belly landing.

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