The U.S. Marines Are Flying All Over the Middle East on Secretive Missions
Leathernecks work closely with American commandos
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The U.S. Marines’ top officer in the Middle East wants to lend a hand in the war on the Islamic State. “Some of the missions [the Pentagon is] executing now could be executed by well-trained and disciplined general purpose forces like U.S. Marines,” Lt. Gen. William Beydler recently told Military.com.
But Beydler’s comments belie an existing and largely hushed Marine presence in the conflict. In fact, Beydler’s leathernecks are working closely with special operators in the region — according to a set of briefings War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The current Marine presence in the Middle East largely dates to the September 2012 terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, which killed four Americans including a U.S. ambassador.
After the attack, the U.S. military created a network of quick-reaction forces across the globe. In 2013, the Marines created a task force close to potential hot spots in Africa. And by 2015, a second Marine force set up in Kuwait.
Over time, different Marine units have taken turns supplying troops for the overseas-deployed forces. These troops are ready to go if another crisis erupts — and they’re specifically deployed to prevent another Benghazi-like attack from happening again.
It’s all part of a broad, secretive Pentagon operational plan nicknamed “New Normal.” Yet the U.S. government has been tight-lipped about the specifics.
There’s substantial evidence to believe the scope of this so-called “Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force” stretches far beyond protecting embassies. The force was set up to perform at least eight different tasks, according to one heavily redacted Corps briefing.
In addition, American forces in the Middle East can call on the unit to do “any other mission as may be directed,” the briefings stated.
Before the first Marines touched down in Kuwait, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr. — Beydler’s predecessor — and his staff outlined the new unit’s relationships with other services in the region. The leathernecks would keep in touch regularly with U.S. Navy and Army commanders.
Given the experience of the Benghazi attack, the task force planned to set aside a whole company — around 200 Marines — to protect American diplomats. The unit would have speedy MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors and KC-130J Hercules tankers to rush the troops anywhere they needed to go.
There’s more. The Marines have a “SECFOR” — or security force — for an unknown commando team, according to another briefing. The name of the team is secret, but the leathernecks provide “direct support” to the group. Army Special Forces soldiers were also attached to the unit.
We don’t know much more about the relationship between the Marines and the Pentagon’s top headquarters in the Middle East. The Pentagon routinely declines to provide details about missions in the area due to the threat from the Islamic State terrorist group.
The Marines are actively involved in the war, however. In August 2014, the Corps moved Ospreys to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
From there, the tiltrotors flew commandos to Mount Sinjar where thousands of trapped Yazidis — a religious minority targeted by the Islamic State for genocide — desperately attempted to hold out.
Two months later, Gen. James Amos, then-commandant of the Marine Corps, told USA Today that additional Ospreys had rushed to Kuwait from Afghanistan for the operation. In the end, Kurdish troops and American air strikes gave the stranded civilians the opportunity to escape to safety.
By the end of October 2014, the new task force had Marines guarding the American embassies in Iraq and Yemen, according to an unclassified Marine Corps briefing. Four months later, the leathernecks in Kuwait had branched out to training and advising foreign troops.
In Iraq, approximately 300 of the unit’s Marines were training Baghdad’s troops at Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad. In Jordan, the task force became responsible for some 20 leathernecks helping prepare Jordanian soldiers for missions in Afghanistan.
Historically a mission for commandos, the Pentagon has relied more and more on regular troops to work with allies since the end of the Cold War. Early on, the Marines decided the new task force would be available to cooperate with friendly forces.
So, when Beydler talks about the skills his unit offers in the region, he’s speaking from recent and very real experience. “There’s a range of things Marines are especially well trained to do,” the general said in his interview with Military.com.
By the beginning of 2016, the special task force had proven it could handle conventional combat missions on top of its other priorities. The unit’s F/A-18 Hornet fighter bombers and AV-8 Harrier jump jets have bombed Islamic State positions in Iraq, while their EA-6B Prowler jamming planes scrambled terrorist radios.
But as the Pentagon continues to revise and expand its strategy in Iraq and Syria, American commanders in the region might take up Beydler’s offer to send the Marines wherever necessary.