Training for Victory

Iraq’s Counterterrorism Academy teaches tactics honed during combat with terrorists



The training and preparation of a Soldier is the cornerstone for building high-capacity professional forces. A fighter’s professionalism and education are essential to win battles and the hearts and minds of the populace. The people of Mosul and Fallujah have witnessed the good treatment of liberation forces and their respect for civilians. To gain familiarity with the process of preparing fighters for the battle against terrorism, Unipath interviewed Staff Brig. Gen. Hadi al-Kanani, commander of  Iraq’s Counterterrorism Academy.

Unipath: Please describe the qualities of an effective Soldier.

Brig. Gen. Hadi: He is a fighter who reaches the upper stages of professionalism in training and fighting as well as acknowledges his duties with respect to human rights by following his commitment to his oath made when he graduated as a fighter in special operations. Such a Soldier faces his enemy courageously without divesting himself of humanity in the treatment of the captured and the wounded. Our goal at the Counterterrorism Academy is to prepare and train the fighter to be worthy to wear the logo of special operations, to serve as a role model for his colleagues and to provide the beautiful image of the hero in the minds of Iraqis.

Unipath: Counterterrorism forces gained great experience from battles such those in Fallujah, the “Charge of the Knights” in southern Iraq and the liberation of hostages at the Church of Our Lady of Deliverance. How did the academy integrate these lessons into its curriculum?

Brig. Gen. Hadi: We have benefited greatly from experiences in the field in the war against Daesh since 2014. The duties initially assigned to counterterrorism forces differed from those assigned to conventional forces. Our main task was tracking and capturing high value targets — the leaders of terrorist organizations, their financiers and their field commanders. But we were forced to take the field after 2014, when it became our duty to defend Iraq. Iraq was subjected to a major attack by Daesh in 2014, when major cities such as Mosul were assaulted, forcing us to fight in urban areas and hold defensive positions.

Graduates of Iraq’s Counterterrorism Academy parade in November 2017.

In addition, the commander in chief of the Armed Forces tasked us with liberating cities from Daesh gangs. These endeavors have given us great experience, and the academy’s training curriculum has been developed on this pattern of fighting. We learned many great lessons not only for our forces, but for all the special operations forces in the world. We have seen Daesh in combat evolving rapidly and using certain tactics; we have changed training curricula based on the changes in the field. We have also focused on building the skills of platoon-level officers to make decisions in the field based on circumstances on the battlefield. Preparing young officers and noncommissioned officers is key to victory in the urban fighting.

For example, we have witnessed the method of car bombs used by terrorists on the battlefield and how they exploited urban areas to conceal them for use against our advancing troops. We have started training fighters on how to frustrate enemy tactics by identifying the location of car bombs and destroying them before an attack. Furthermore, Daesh terrorists adopted a new method of fighting by using tunnels to hide in and allow themselves freedom of movement and to resupply themselves. The academy incorporated special training on how to destroy tunnels. In addition, Daesh deployed unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs — in western Mosul to attack our forces with grenades or select the placement of car bombs to disable our advancing columns. With the help of our coalition partners, we developed effective training to defend against the dangers of this weapon.

Unipath: Is this training suitable only for seasoned Soldiers or is it also useful for new recruits?

Brig. Gen. Hadi: After each battle, we regroup and train each unit to prepare for upcoming battles. During this training, we hold open discussions in which fighters share their experiences. On the other hand, we share techniques adopted by other units in other battles to thwart enemy tactics. We are working with our coalition partners to find tactical solutions to defeat enemy tactics in upcoming battles.

As for new recruits, up until the year 2014 our procedure began with selection, then ranger school and then placement in tactical units. But after 2014 we thought Soldiers needed more training, based on orders we received from the general commanding the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS). So we began to provide specialized training to fighters who successfully completed the ranger courses. This specialization included fighting in urban areas, a counterterrorism course, and courses in weapons, mortars, first aid, communications and handling explosives. This ensured our graduates came equipped with more skills than fighters who graduated before 2014. This is one of the most important lessons we have learned from the battlefield after 2014.

We engage them in classes divided into several specialized groups, each course taking as long as 60 days. The fighter spends almost six months at the academy before assignment to tactical units. This training has yielded greater professionalism. As a result, field commanders have witnessed the success of this program, especially having highly capable fighters using fresh tactics. Gen. Talib Shaghati Alkenani, our commander, has given us instructions on how to improve curricula and intensify courses even more. The next phase will include troops training a full year before being sent into the field.

Unipath: What is the role of international partners in building the capacity of professional special operations forces in Iraq?

Brig. Gen. Hadi: The creation of Iraqi Special Operations Forces was initiated by United States Special Operations after 2003. They started as Unit 36, followed by the formation of the second battalion called the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force (ICTF). Members were sent to specialized training courses in Jordan. U.S. special forces played a major role in training and equipping this strategic force, and we have close ties with our American friends and conducted many joint missions between the years of 2006 and 2008. After 2014, the relationship between the Iraqi special forces and our partners in the international coalition has become so profound that today we have experts from the United States, Australia, France, Poland, Belgium and Spain working with us as a team to build Iraqi special operations. The training is conducted between the coalition forces and Iraqi instructors.

Unipath: Brig. Gen. Ahmed Kaiber, director of the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC), recently expressed pride in the victories of Iraqi Special Operations Forces. What can you say about the role of KASOTC and cooperation between Iraq and Jordan?

Brig. Gen. Hadi: We have had a great relationship with our brothers in Jordanian special operations since 2003. Our special operations training began in Jordan, and many Iraqi special operations fighters graduated from KASOTC. After the Daesh occupation of Mosul, KASOTC played a critical role in rebuilding the capacity of Iraqi Special Operations Forces, where training was provided by American experts in cooperation with Jordanians. We also sent troops to attend specialized courses on freeing hostages and the handling of hijacked aircraft, as well as several other courses. Iraq and Jordan cooperate closely, specifically in this area, and we are grateful to our brothers in Jordan for hosting Iraqi Special Operations Forces and for standing with Iraq in this crisis.

As you know, terrorism has become a cross-border problem, and all nations must work together to prevail. We are working with all the coalition countries to build the combat capabilities of Iraqi Special Operations Forces; our academy is engaged in significant work in this area. We are grateful to our partners in the international coalition for their dedication and cooperation with the academic staff in the training and reorganization of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service. Their efforts have been significant in the performance of our fighters in the field.

Unipath: What differentiates counterterrorism units from the rest of the Armed Forces in the process of selecting the fighter?

Brig. Gen. Hadi: First, new recruits must pass a health and fitness exam. Fighters must demonstrate strength and endurance and adapt to any terrain or environment. Basically, we focus on high physical fitness. New recruits must also qualify for security clearances, which means no adverse political or militant affiliations, and possess a clean criminal record. When these guidelines are completed and met, we start the training courses. We don’t assign fighters based on favoritism and social status but on their loyalty to Iraq.

We endorse the principles and policies of the CTS through lectures. The CTS shows zero tolerance for ethno-sectarianism. Violators are immediately expelled, because our mission is to serve under the banner of a single Iraq. These principles were the main foundation of the CTS, which helped us to cohere and survive the darkest days of sectarian violence. When our fighters liberate an area, they treat civilians fairly, and citizens have witnessed this fact. Our men were able to win the hearts and minds of residents, who quickly shared information about Daesh hideouts and weapons caches. There is no doubt that intensive training and education made a significant, positive impact on how fighters engaged with civilians in combat zones.

Unipath: Do you have a message for your training partners in the coalition forces?

Brig. Gen. Hadi: We are grateful and appreciative for their efforts and time in training our fighters. These trainers have left their loved ones behind and traveled across oceans to participate in this demonstration of global unity in the fight against terror. They have supported the CTS and improved it organizationally and tactically in the fight against Daesh. Words of appreciation aren’t enough to express how we feel about our partners.