Russia and the Lebanese Islamic militia Hezbollah have become close allies in the civil war in Syria, with both of them supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the conflict. Their relationship has not always been so friendly. When members of Hezbollah kidnapped four Russian diplomats in 1985, killing one of them, Russia dispatched the KGB’s Alpha Group to deal with the situation.
Alpha Group is part spy network, part counterterrorism team, part general-purpose commando squad — and entirely terrifying.
It first gained notoriety for leading the assault on the presidential palace in Kabul during the initial phases of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, its members participated in several high-publicity take-downs of terrorists, insurgents, and kidnappers.
When the KGB and parts of the Soviet military attempted a coup in 1990, members of Alpha Group were given the job of securing the parliament in Moscow and neutralizing then-president Boris Yeltsin.
Alpha Group survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and currently operates under the auspices of the FSB, the successor to the KGB. Yet its confrontation with Hezbollah during the hostage crisis in Lebanon remains one of its most widely discussed, and strikingly brutal, operations.
The KGB created Alpha Group — or Spetsgruppa A —in 1974 in response to the Black September attacks at the Munich Olympics two years earlier.
Eight terrorists linked to the Palestinian Liberation Front had infiltrated the Olympic Village, killed two Israeli athletes and took several others hostage. West German police botched a rescue attempt at a NATO airport hours later. Nine more Israelis died there, along with five of the terrorists and a West German police officer.
Alpha Group formed in the fiasco’s aftermath. But the group quickly took on a broader role than mere counterterrorism.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Alpha Group and the KGB’s Zenith Group, other special forces unit, led a contingent of 700 troops in the assault on the Tajbeg Palace in Kabul, according to David Cox in his book Close Protection: The Politics of Guarding Russia’s Rulers.
The commandos entered the country under the auspices of protecting the Russian embassy. The assault on Tajbeg Palace on Dec. 27, 1979, was the first phase of the Soviet invasion. Afghan president Hafizullah Amin was hosting a party at the palace that evening. Numerous civilian guests and palace residents, including women and children, were present when the assault began.
A special forces officer who participated in the raid told the BBC in 2009 that the officers in charge ordered soldiers to kill everyone in the building.
“I was a Soviet soldier,” Rustam Tursunkulov recalled. “We were trained to accept orders without question. I was in the special forces — it’s the worst job.”
An Afghan named Najiba was inside the palace when the Soviets arrived. She was only 11 years old at the time. “The things I saw,” Najiba told the BBC. “My God — people on the floor. I saw a person … like a scene from a nightmare movie. Dead bodies. Lots.”
“Please try to understand that when there’s a battle going on, it’s hard to know there are children there,” Tursunkulov explained. “In any army, there has to be someone who’ll do the harshest, most horrible tasks. Unfortunately, it’s not soldiers, but politicians who make wars.”
Amin’s 11-year-old son was killed in the attack on the palace, and Amin himself either died during the action or soon afterward — perhaps executed. According to Tursunkulov, the bodies of everyone killed in the palace were wrapped in carpets and buried nearby without ceremony.
Alpha Group continued to lead KGB efforts in domestic counterterrorism and counterintelligence through the 1980s. The unit targeted CIA agents and operatives and led the raid against the hijackers of Aeroflot Flight 6833 in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1983. They killed three of the hijackers and captured the rest, but lost five hostages.
It was the group’s involvement in a 1985 hostage crisis in Lebanon that earned the Alpha Group an international reputation as a vicious — but effective — counterterror unit.
On Sept. 20, 1985, the Islamic Liberation Organization, a part of Hezbollah, kidnapped four Russian diplomats in Beirut. A message from the terrorists “warned that the four Soviet captives would be executed, one by one unless Moscow pressured pro-Syrian militiamen to cease shelling positions held by the pro-Iranian fundamentalist militia in Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli,” according to a contemporary report by Jack McKinney of Philadelphia’s Daily News.
Moscow initially attempted to open communication channels in the hope of negotiating the release of hostages. But after the captors executed one of the Russians, Moscow sent in Alpha Group.
The remaining hostages were released within a few weeks, which came as a surprise to journalists, considering that many hostages taken in Lebanon were held for months or even years.
Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, who was the chief of intelligence for Syrian forces in Lebanon at the time, was originally credited with orchestrating the Russians’ release. This account trickled out to journalists in other countries.
“Western journalists reported that the kidnappers were forced to free the hostages because a block-to-block search by pro-Syrian militiamen was closing in on them,” McKinney wrote.
However, according to Israeli sources cited in the Daily News, it was actually the KGB that negotiated the release. And in Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, Matthew Levitt clarifies that it wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill KGB operatives. It was the Alpha Group.
“In one retelling,” Levitt writes, “the KGB kidnapped a relative of the hostage-taking organization’s chief, cut off the relative’s ear, and sent it to his family. In another, the Alpha unit abducted one of the kidnapper’s brothers and sent two of his fingers home to his family in separate envelopes.
“Still another version has the Soviet operatives kidnapping a dozen Shi’a, one of whom was the relative of a Hezbollah leader. The relative was castrated and shot in the head, his testicles stuffed in his mouth, and his body shipped to Hezbollah with a letter promising a similar fate for the 11 other Shi’a captives if the three Soviet hostages were not released.”
While the details of the various “retellings” differ, the effect is much the same. Given the fact that the Alpha Group was dispatched to Beirut, and that the hostages were released so quickly when other countries, including the United States, had failed to facilitate such prompt responses from hostage-takers in Lebanon, it seems reasonable that it was Alpha Group rather than a Syrian search that prompted the quick release.
Russia has a longstanding policy of targeting family members of terrorists. The reports of Alpha Group’s alleged actions in Beirut are consistent with this tradition.
The Beirut saga is arguably the most sensational of Alpha Group’s operations. But the unit continued to play a prominent role in Soviet and Russian military, intelligence and counterterrorism efforts.
A Lithuanian detachment of the Alpha Group attempted to quell the secession movement there in January 1991, killing 14 civilians and injuring hundreds more when they seized the Vilnius television tower.
Later that same year, Alpha Group officers stormed the Russian parliament during a coup against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. They were directed to capture Russian Federation president Boris Yeltsin — or to kill him if it seemed he might escape.
Twenty Alpha Group officers refused the order, delaying the mission long enough for the coup to collapse.
More recently, the counterterrorism unit was involved in ending the hostage crisis at the Beslan school in North Ossetia in 2004. During the battle between the Alpha Group and dozens of terrorists, 330 people died, including 186 children.
The Alpha Group commandos were criticized for their reckless use of excessive force at Beslan, notes Glenn Peter Hastedt in Spies, Wiretaps and Secret Operations. Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his special operators, saying they had not planned on storming the school and did so only after reports that the terrorists had begun executing the children inside.
There have also been reports of Alpha Group fighting in the civil war in Ukraine.
This article by Darien Cavanaugh originally appeared at War is Boring in 2016.
Time for Change in U.S. Special Operations Command?
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command has gained manpower and money as well as responsibility for an ever-wider range of missions. But now Congress is beginning to question, and push back against, the commando mission-creep.
At present SOCOM is the lead agency for U.S. military counterterrorism operations and security-force assistance. The latter involves U.S. forces training foreign armies and other proxy forces.
SOCOM in 2016 also assumed the lead role in combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction, a mission that previously belonged to U.S. Strategic Command. More recently, SOCOM became the lead command for America’s “military information support operations.” In essence, propaganda.
The command wants even more responsibility, according to CRS. “The current unified command plan stipulates USSOCOM responsibility for synchronizing planning for global operations to combat terrorist networks,” CRS noted.
This focus on planning limits its ability to conduct activities designed to deter emerging threats, build relationships with foreign militaries and potentially develop greater access to foreign militaries.”
USSOCOM is proposing changes that would, in addition to current responsibilities, include the responsibility for synchronizing the planning, coordination, deployment and, when directed, the employment of special operations forces globally and will do so with the approval of the geographic combatant commanders, the services and, as directed, appropriate U.S. government agencies.
Further, the proposed changes would give broader responsibility to USSOCOM beyond counterterrorism activities, to include activities against other threat networks.
But the world has changed in those nearly two decades. Congress increasingly has questioned SOCOM’s sprawling responsibilities and recently ordered two separate reviews of the command.
Lawmakers in part were motivated by reports of misconduct by SOCOM personnel as well as by SOCOM’s alleged participation in conflicts for which Congress did not provide authorization, specifically in Niger.
Four SOCOM troops died on Oct. 4, 2017 when militants ambushed their patrol in Niger in Central Africa.
“Prior to starting out on the ill-fated patrol, two junior officers, including an Army captain who remained at the base in Niger and the team leader, falsified a document to get approval for a mission to kill or capture a local ISIS leader,” CNN reported.
“That mission was never approved by the proper chain of command, according to [an official] summary. A much lower-risk mission was instead submitted and approved. However, the team was unable to locate the ISIS leader during their unauthorized mission.”
“Some believe this situation calls into question the adequacy of civilian oversight and control of U.S. SOF,” according to CRS.
The reviews of SOCOM that CRS mentioned will “take an introspective look at U.S. SOF’s culture, roles and responsibilities, adequacy of resources, organizational structure and the adequacy of training, education and personnel,” the research service reported.
“Some have suggested these provisions are a precursor for congressional and [Defense Department] actions to ‘rein in and reorient’ U.S. SOF from fighting terrorists to taking on nation-states, instead.”
Aware that U.S. [special operations forces] are overburdened and that there is a need to find the right balance between continuing to challenge terrorist organizations while simultaneously addressing growing irregular warfare threats posed by nation-states, policymakers will likely make good use of the two forthcoming congressionally mandated reviews.
It is possible that over the next few years, significant public policy debates on the future of USSOCOM and U.S. SOF will be undertaken, potentially resulting in a number of changes.
After 17 years at the forefront of the global military campaign against terrorism, policymakers, defense officials, and academics are questioning the future role of USSOCOM and U.S. SOF.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.
US SOF strengthen relationships with allied partners through combined training
U.S. Air Force’s 7th Special Operation Squadron, assigned to 352nd Special Operation Wing, based out of Mildenhall, England, deployed to Bacau, March 10-15, 2019, to conduct mission essential tasks, and simultaneously, familiarize Romanian SOF with the CV-22 Osprey.
“The importance is not only for the commonality of our tactics, techniques, and procedures between US forces and partner forces but combining that within the NATO spectrum to make sure we are all operating in the same format,” said a U.S. Air Force Special Operations Capt., the mission commander for the training event and flight lead pilot . “Being able to get these staged drills out of the way now in a safe and effective training environment, allows us to be able to have the confidence to forward deploy in any contingency operation.”
The 7th SOS operates the CV-22B Osprey throughout the entire range of military operations in support of conventional and special operations. The 7th SOS executes this mission at night, in adverse weather, performing long-range insertion, extraction and resupply missions in hostile, denied and politically sensitive territories.
US and ROU SOF conducted day and night fast rope infiltration and exfiltration operations (FRIES) and low-level flying. These capabilities are something ROU SOF are (trained and) skilled in; however, this was their first time conducting FRIES out of the CV-22.
“Everyone here had used fast rope before, on different platforms, so they understood their techniques,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt., 7th SOS, special mission aviator. “One of the main differentiators from our side was just reminding them that the CV-22 creates a lot more downwash and it’s a much different experience when it comes to deploying out of our aircraft, compared to a conventional rotary wing aircraft.”
Through these pieces of training, SOF members demonstrate and strengthen partner nation relationships and air operations in the European Theatre.
“The ROU SOF was able to extend the CV-22 familiarization training invitation to other units that are not co-located here at Bacau,” said the mission commander. “So they were able to cycle through as many of their special operation ground forces as they could, during this timeframe.”
Along with developing combined leaders, this deployment gave the US SOF members the opportunity to establish professional development at the tactical level.
“I’ve been flying for the Air Force for 15 years, and all my training has been stateside, so even for me in the short time I’ve moved to RAF Mildenhall,” said U.S. Air Force Capt., an instructor pilot for the 7th SOS. “I’ve learned a lot working with Allied partners, whether it’s working through language barriers or just the different techniques. It’s eye-opening.”
The 7th SOS mission commander was very thankful for the ability to utilize the diverse NATO terrain and base resources to accomplish their objectives.
“The Romanian Government and Air Force Base here in Bacau have been extremely supportive with their ability to reach out to us and help,” said the mission commander. “They’ve been able to work on request, with short notice, to include base access, providing us workspace and just being very accommodating when it comes to airspace and tower-controlled patterns that they run here on the airfield.”
This collaborative training event allows each force to improve its individual and collective capabilities, and the 352nd SOW and ROU SOF will continue to train shoulder-to-shoulder in similar exercises.
“The biggest takeaway for me, is the Romanian partners are more than willing to host us, but they are thirsty to work with us as far as continued training,” said the mission commander. “Looking forward to coming back, not just in Bacau but into Romania in general, so that we can work in the dynamic air space that they have, and their terrain, but also working with the ROU SOF members who seem to be very much interested in working with specialized air power like the tilt-rotor Osprey.”