ISA: Soldier Spies of the Intelligence Support Activity 

The Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), the 1st Capabilities Integration Group (Airborne), or simply The Activity is a component of the US Army and acts as a dedicated intelligence group for JSOC. ISA has gone by many names over the years but its current one is not public knowledge.

  • 1st Capabilities Integration Group
  • Task Force Orange
  • Gray Fox
  • Army of Northern Virginia
  • Office of Military Support
  • Centra Spike
  • Torn Victor

Its purpose is unlike many other special operations forces of the US military, not dedicated to direct combat, and more towards secretive and clandestine actions necessary to support other military operations. Its scope is quite large, and it often works in support of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), SOCOM and even other intelligence agencies. Originally the ISA operated as a tactical arm of the National Security Agency. Nowadays the ISA focuses on the preparation of the battlespace for military operations across the globe. Primarily acting as enablers for JSOC special mission units. (Source)

1. Intelligence Support Activity Doctrine

Operationally, the ISA is a dedicated intelligence group, doing the intelligence leg work for special operations groups. The ISA is perhaps the most major outlier doctrinally from its other, better known, counterparts within JSOC and SOCOM as a whole. While Delta and DEVGRU focus on direct engagement and specialized combat tactics, the ISA conducts intelligence and espionage operations at a tactical level. 

The Intelligence Support Activity conducts its operations during and in advance of US military operations. Human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) are the most common products of their operations. The ISA’s HUMINT collectors gather information from human sources via coercion and interrogation depending on the asset. Additionally, ISA gathers SIGINT primarily by intercepting enemy communications or sending an agent to physically bug a target. There are also teams within the ISA who can conduct direct action missions should the need arise. (Source)

2. History of the Intelligence Support Activity 

Years before its actual formation, the need for the ISA, or an operational entity like it, was already being examined. The Department of Defense in 1965 outlined its need to be more involved with collecting intelligence, supported by Robert McNamara. (Source) The US military sought to carry out intelligence operations without the direct need of US intelligence agencies.

Originally the unit was known as the Field Operations Group or FOG and was designed to fill the Army’s need for clandestine intelligence collection. In 1979 the need for a dedicated special operations intelligence unit was solidified following the overthrowing of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. The US wanted a team to covertly survey the situation on the ground and provide officials with a survey of the US embassy. Members of FOG infiltrated Nicaragua using false passports. Once they arrived they took pictures of the embassy from every angle, recorded the types of locks on all doors, inside and outside, recorded the number of windows and exits, and created a blueprint of the building. The US recognized the usefulness of this unit and began surveying embassies across the world. (Source)

2.1. Eagle Claw and Credible Sport

The failure of Operation Eagle Claw was a turning point for US special operations. It was Delta Force’s first mission and a horrific failure. In the aftermath, the FOG was hard at work gathering intelligence in Iran in preparation for Operation Credible Sport, the second attempt to rescue the hostages. Initially, Delta Force turned to the CIA for information regarding the number of guards, how they were armed and what security measures they had in place. However, the CIA couldn’t provide these answers so Delta turned to the FOG. The FOG was able to clandestinely enter Tehran and gather the required intelligence. Ultimately, Operation Credible Sport was cancelled but the FOG had proven its usefulness. Rather than disbanding the unit, it was expanded. With the expansion, the FOG has renamed the ISA and officially established as a unit on January 29th, 1981. (Source)

3. Intelligence Support Activity Organisation

The ISA comprises 5 primary elements: administration, training, SIGINT, HUMINT and direct action. There are four primary battalions with various responsibilities being spread across them. Within these battalions, there is a cyber ops teams, technology ops teams and mission support teams. Each of these groups achieves different specialised tasks for their assigned mission. 

For the four main battalions, numbering in total over 300 operators, there are different roles members could fall into. HUMINT collection can’t be done without boots on the ground, so members of the main battalions are likely conducting field operations. They also have direct action elements within their battalions, alongside specialists in HUMINT and SIGINT. (Source) These collectively will compose some of the roles within a primary battalion of the ISA.

3.1. Additional Components

The cyber operations team extends into other offsets of intelligence gathering, including OSINT, cyber threat intelligence and cyber warfare. The ISA initially had only support activity and HUMINT gathering functions. (Source). It later took on other roles like SIGINT as battlefield requirements changed over time. The ISA also has likely integrated other new intelligence fields into its scope.

The mission support teams help actualize the other major goal of supporting other forces in a battlespace. The ISA consistently attaches itself to other units, either as a temporary or more permanent component. Due to their specialization in intelligence, they can operate as vanguard teams to support another unit’s operations. Zones are prepared, field intelligence is gathered, and targets are laid out for other forces.

4. Intelligence Support Activity  Selection and Training

The selection process and training for special operations groups are secret. The training processes of other military groups however grant general insight into the selection and training of the ISA.

The selection process for the ISA prioritizes both a physical skill for field operations and a skill for intelligence operations. Typically the ISA pulls from the Green Berets due to their prior special operations experience, language skills, and autonomy. ISA members are often multilingual. The unit selects operatives for deployments based on their language proficiency and their ability to blend in with the locals. Additionally, ISA recruits from other branches of the US military and potentially elsewhere in the intelligence community. (Source

The ISA’s selection and training is geared towards intelligence specialisation despite conducting occasional direct engagement. During the operations training course, candidates are taught infiltration techniques, advanced air operations, offensive and off-road driving, personal defensive measures and communications. (Source)

Once a member of the ISA passes the initial selection, it trains alongside different intelligence specialists, including members of the CIA. (Source) Training involves different espionage and intelligence methods that allow ISA members to carry out their essential HUMINT operations. More technical training on SIGINT, such as transmission and signals interpretation is also a component of the training.

4.1. ISA Case Officers

While the nerdiest Green Berets and special operators comprise the bulk of ISA, there are also non-traditional operatives who have not passed the selection course. These members function as case officers. A case officer is someone who handles a foreign asset by giving them collection requirements and ensuring their safety. Case officers also target and recruit potential assets. These operatives mirror the function of CIA case officers and even go through CIA training at the Farm in Virginia. (Source)

5. Intelligence Support Activity Organization

The exact makeup of ISA’s force structure is hard to determine. Everyone in the unit is on on the Department of the Army’s Special Roster, “which means they don’t exist.” For obvious reasons, the unit doesn’t exactly publicize their makeup. However, through OSINT collection we know that there are three primary squadrons:

5.1. Operations Squadron

Sometimes referred to as HUMINT or Ground squadron, Operations Squadron functions as ISA”s HUMINT collection squadron. In 2003 four troops: A,B,C, and D made up the squadron. Alpha and Charlie troops utilize official cover to collect human intelligence. Meaning that the government of the country these troops are operating in known that they work for the US government, however they don’t necessarily know that they’re a spy. Subsequently, they’re protected by diplomatic immunity if they’re compromised during an espionage operation.

Bravo and Delta troops utilize commercial or non-official cover. These operatives have a cover in the commercial sector, typically as an international businessperson. The cover of these operatives is typically much harder to develop since it requires a reason to be in and out of the target country on a frequent basis, and to have inauspicious ties to the target country. Delta troop is tasked with countries that are a softer target for infiltration such as the Philippines or Morocco. Bravo troop tackles the extremely difficult target countries like Syria which had a sophisticated counterintelligence network. It’s worth noting that Bravo troop was never compromised while conducting espionage against the Assad regime in Syria. (Source)

5.2. SIGINT Squadron

As the name implies, SIGINT Squadron is responsible for ISA’s signals intelligence mission. These operatives were responsible for helping take down insurgent networks in Iraq. Operatives infiltrated internet cafes in Baghdad and conducted flyover operations in aircraft filled with signal interception gear. From 5 miles away and 4,575m above the ground, operatives could target insurgents communications via cellphone. On the ground, these operatives can use a directional antenna programmed to pick up a specific cellphone’s signal, even if it was turned off, providing Delta Force with a target building to raid.

Additionally, these operatives can remotely turn on a cell phone that’s been turned off, which allows them to hear everything going on near it. Or these operatives can clone a cellphone, allowing them to send and receive communications to and from the phone from a remote location. The exact breakdown of this squadron isn’t known, however it is a reasonable assumption that it’s divided into troops based on the specific mission, such as airborne SIGINT or ground SIGINT. (Source)

5.3. Mission Support and Other Elements

The third known squadron is the Mission Support Squadron. The breakdown of this squadron isn’t known either but it likely contains logistical support for the two operational squadrons. Such as procuring equipment, getting funding for operations/training, and human resources functions.

Additionally, ISA operates a number of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and these pilots fit somewhere into the puzzle that is ISA. The Headquarters element of ISA is located in Fort Belvoir, VA but the squadrons and supporting elements are scattered across the Maryland/D.C./Virginia area. (Source)

6. Intelligence Support Activity Tactics, Techniques, Procedures (TTP)

The tactics and techniques of the ISA are some of the most unique among all the JSOC special operations  groups. These techniques include intelligence gathering, infiltration and intelligence support. (Source)

6.1. Intelligence Gathering

Outlined as the primary purpose of the ISA since its inception, intelligence gathering is one of its most essential tasks. US intelligence gathering methods centre around the US intelligence process, composed of the phases of Plan, Prepare, Collect, Process, and Produce. These intelligence-gathering methods outline how intelligence is gathered and what is done with it afterwards. (Source)

US Army intelligence defines HUMINT as including:

  • Conducting source operations
  • Liaising with host nation officials
  • Eliciting information from select sources,
  • Debriefing US forces,
  • Interrogation
  • The exploitation of documents, media and materials. (Source)

The sources of this information can come from enemy combatants, including regular armed forces, and civilian sources. 

ISA operatives are highly skilled in the various arts of HUMINT gathering including: (Source)

  • Screening
  • Tactical questioning
  • Debriefing
  • Liaison operations
  • Interrogation

It is unclear how often the ISA interrogates subjects, though given their covert operations they likely at least interrogate high-value targets.

Female soldier interacting with children.
A member of the 504th Military Intelligence Brigade interacts with locals in Afghanistan, as part of ongoing HUMINT operations. Such operations would be common for members of the ISA. Image credit to US Army, image via Army.mil (Source)

6.2. Infiltration

A critical component of clandestine activity is the ability to infiltrate enemy territory ahead of more formal military action.

Infiltration relies much less on stealthy engagement, and much more on subtlety and effective tradecraft. It is common for the appearance and demeanour of an agent to be the key to their success as an infiltrator. (Source) Operatives must not look out of place or easily recognizable. Operatives must also go unnoticed, being able to blend into crowds and not draw attention. They must maintain a demeanour of trustworthiness and calmness, so any approached HUMINT sources feel safe and trusted.

Highly detailed knowledge of an infiltration location is also key. This extends beyond knowledge of things like general location, language and culture. Understanding all the following is necessary for successful infiltration: (Source)

  • Understanding of local customs.
  • Clothing worn by locals, even in specific areas.
  • Laws, including local and statewide.
  • Traditions (religious, political, societal).
  • Differences in human behaviour.
  • Non-verbal communication.

The ISA considers the ethnicity of agents when they are deployed. (Source) Sending agents that not only act but look like the people of the country they seek to infiltrate makes for an even more effective cover.

1st Capabilities Integration Group
A member of the ISA, the second person from the left, among non-US forces during the Battle of Tora Bora. Image via Reddit (Source)

6.3. Intelligence Support

When conducting more integrated operations with other parts of the military, the skill of intelligence support comes into play. Every modern military relies on intelligence, and the US military is a voracious consumer of intelligence, from both an analytical and functional standpoint.

The support provided can come in a range of different forms. These are primarily preparation intelligence and tactical/ strategic intelligence for active operations. (Source)

Active operational support is also a crucial role of the ISA. This has been more visible in their operations in Afghanistan, Operation Winter Harvest and Operation Queens Hunter. During these operations, the ISA operated alongside other combat groups, providing them with signals intelligence support and field intelligence, including HUMINT. People know ISA mostly for its involvement in Operation Anaconda. During Anaconda, ISA intelligence helped save both the 10th Mountain Division and 101st Airborne Division at Takur Ghar. (Source

Additionally, the ISA has acted as a pseudo-security element for the CIA. In 2003 the CIA and ISA conducted a joint operation in Somalia. The CIA was leading extraordinary rendition operations in Somalia in conjunction with the ISA and the help of local warlords. The CIA would talk directly to the warlords while the ISA provided SIGINT support and ground security for them. (Source)

6.4. Tradecraft

ISA operatives are masters of tradecraft. As previously mentioned, its members cross-train with the CIA, America’s most comprehensive civilian intelligence agency. Operatives’ tradecraft for avoiding detection is impeccable. Its members often use disguises to avoid detection and if they are compromised they can quickly disappear from sight and completely change their appearance. Operatives can covertly enter enemy buildings to plant cameras.

“Talk about close target recce.… That’s pretty frickin’ ballsy.… Two people with a lockpick kit and a camera. If they would have been caught, they were done.”

SMU OPERATOR (ON ISA BREAKING INTO AN AL-QAEDA SAFEHOUSE)

Additionally, HUMINT operatives working deep undercover will sometimes work in male-female teams. Establishing cover as husband and wife to live in and conduct intelligence collection missions within a target country. This is especially useful in countries where men and women socializing is frowned upon outside of the family. (Source)

7. Equipment of the ISA

For a Tier 1 group dedicated primarily to intelligence collection and support, the equipment of the ISA cannot be completely verified, nor can any weapon’s or equipment’s continued use be verified. It is after all, not a strictly combat-oriented role like its other Tier 1 operators.

6.1. Weapons

Given the nature of their operations and the close work and training they receive alongside other US special operations forces, much of their equipment is likely to mimic that of the special mission units they support and work alongside.

Like many special operations groups, their active arsenal is not likely a small rigid loadout, it is a range of various weapons that are available to suit the unit’s needs. Most ISA trainees are from Army Special Forces, meaning many have skills in CQC, sniping, counter-sniping and general tactical engagements. (Source) This indicates that members of the primary four battalions who are combat specialists will have a wide range of skills, and therefore a high range of weapons they utilize. 

However, due to the nature of ISA’s mission, its operators are rarely likely to carry weapons into the field. ISA operatives often work in disguise and undercover. If an operative is in a country with an official cover, possessing a firearm can mean being sent to prison or death. When operatives are in less restrictive environments they can often be seen carrying weapons used by locals, most often in the form of AKs. Additionally, conceal meant can be a factor in weapon selection too. Based on photos of ISA operatives and reasonable assumption, they are most likely to carry:

  • Rifles
    • M4A1
    • M4A1 Block II
    • HK 416
    • HK 416c
    • AKM
    • AK-74

  • Submachine Guns
    • MP5k
    • MP7

  • Pistols
    • Glock 17
    • Glock 19
    • Glock 26
    • Sig M17

6.2. Special Equipment

For a unit like ISA, firearms are not its primary weapons. Tools like radios, computers and lockpicks are much more crucial to the success of its missions. ISA has been known to utilise signal skimmers to pick up enemy radio transmissions and zero in on their location. The unit conducts close surveillance with cameras, even going as far as covertly entering terrorist’s safe houses and planting hidden cameras.

At one point during the Global War on Terror, ISA along with a component from the Airforce and Delta began to build a fleet of ISR aircraft. Known as “the Confederate Air Force”, a joke referencing their title, “the Army of Northern Virginia”. The fleet was comprised of 15 different types of aircraft for a combined total of 40 aircraft, all decked out with SIGINT interception technology. (Source)

7. Notable ISA Operations

Some of the more well-documented operations of the ISA shed light on the general nature of the ISA’s overall operations. These deployments include Operation Winter Harvest, Operation Queens Hunter and their role in Operation Anaconda. 

7.1. Operation Winter Harvest

In the 1980s, extremist parties on both sides of the political spectrum plagued Italy. One such organization, the Red Brigades, composed of far-left communist-leaning extremists, kidnapped U.S. Brigadier General James Dozier. Dozier was taken hostage and mistreated, with the Red Brigades viewing him as an ideological foe that needed to be made an example of. (Source

Two task forces of JSOC took part in the search and rescue operations, Delta Force and a detachment of the ISA. The SIGINT group of the ISA gathered signal intelligence via aircraft, which was then passed on to NSA analysts. This intelligence then triangulated the possible location of Dozier. (Source) Once the safe house was located, using a mixture of SIGINT, GEOINT and HUMINT, a raid was initiated.

Italian forces conducted the raid itself; rescuing Dozier and returning him to the US without a single casualty. Not only did this demonstrate that the ISA was functionally effective, it showed that it could operate alongside not only various elements of the US military but foreign military elements as well.

7.2. Operation Queens Hunter

The Intelligence Support Activity’s operations in El Salvador, under Operation Queens Hunter, demonstrated the effectiveness of the newly founded squadron’s mastery of SIGINT and cross-departmental cooperation. 

Working alongside SEASPRAY, a specialized aviation unit that would later form a part of Delta Force, the ISA would conduct aerial SIGINT operations to assist the Salvadoran Army against guerrillas. (Source) At the time, the Salvadoran Army was facing attacks from leftist groups and more lethal right-wing death squads. The monitoring of guerilla factions allowed the Salvadoran Army to successfully defend against their attacks. SIGINT operations extended to areas with overlapping guerrilla operations, such as Nicaragua, which was facing the increased foe of the Contras. 

The ISA’s execution of SIGINT monitoring was so successful that the month-long operation was extended to three years.  Being highly proficient in the collection of HUMINT and SIGINT has made them a very effective, yet specifically dedicated, intelligence task force.

7.3. Afghanistan: The Fox and The Anaconda

Every component of the US military was involved in the Invasion of Afghanistan, including the ISA. Under the guiding hand of JSOC, the ISA operated alongside other JSOC and CIA elements, under the codename Gray Fox. (Source) Gray Fox operators and intelligence specialists operated alongside other special operations units, including Delta Force and DEVGRU, as well as other components of the US Army. 

The vast majority of the ISA’s operations in Afghanistan are still classified. However, Operation Anaconda is one of few of the ISA’s Afghanistan operations known to the public. Operation Anaconda highlights how vital of a role the ISA plays in the battlespace.

Soldiers running at twilight.
Soldiers from 10th Mountain preparing fighting positions during Operation Anaconda (Source

Operation Anaconda was, by most standards, a very difficult engagement. The terrain was extremely rugged, the enemy was far more entrenched than anticipated, and Murphy’s Law was in full effect. . During the period leading up to the engagement, as well as potentially during the infamous Battle of Takur Ghar (aka the Battle of Robert’s Ridge), ISA operators conducted aggressive SIGINT operations, intercepting enemy communications and feeding them to allied forces. (Source) This allowed the forces involved in the surrounding Shahikot Valley to be more informed of enemy movements and positions. In effect, the ISA’s exploitation of signal intelligence saved the lives of 100’s of US soldiers from the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne divisions.

7.4. Iraq: Red Dawn

The Invasion of Iraq was an extremely complex time for the US military with units scattered across the country conducting a wide variety of missions. Some forces were focused on eliminating Iraqi forces and others focused on deposing the ruling Hussein family. Under the umbrella group of Joint Special Operations Task Force 20, the Intelligence Support Activity helped track down and locate Saddam Hussein. (Source

Prior to Saddam’s capture, over 40 members of his family were captured and interrogated to determine his whereabouts with little success. However, the ISA intercepted Iraqi communications that corroborated intelligence collected from his family members. Subsequently, Task Force 121, a collection of special mission units and conventional forces organized a raid on a small farming compound in rural Iraq. Initially, the raid appeared to be a bust until a Delta operator kicked some debris on Exfil. The debris revealed a spider hole and as an operator prepared a grenade, Saddam poked his head out of the hole.

Saddam laying on the ground while a man poses with him and men with rifles stand half in frame.
Saddam Hussein after being captured by TF 121. (Source)

It is not certain that ISA operators were on the scene at the moment of his capture, but the operational intelligence provided was critical to the success of the operation. 

7.5. Centra Spike

The trials of the ISA in Queens Hunter were not the only time the team was tested in South America. Guerrilla insurgents in Nicaragua composed only one part of the multitude of threats facing the US  With cartels all over South America creating chaos for pro-US forces, Pablo Escobar and his cartel were the targets of several US government agencies and departments, including the ISA. (Source)

Under the operational codename “Centra Spike”, the Intelligence Support Activity operated alongside CIA and local police elements to track down Escobar. Through their mastery of SIGINT, the ISA quickly got on the task of intercepting radio and telephone transmissions. They were so adept that observers commented they could “…literally pluck information from the air”, speaking not only to the revolutionary use of SIGINT but also the skill of the ISA. (Source)

Centra Spike agents operated all around Colombia, as well as neighbouring countries where the cartel’s influence extended. In line with their proficiency in infiltration, they had an array of passports, credit cards and falsified documents to allow easy movement between territories. Eventually, agents had pinpointed the locations of a number of cartel hideouts and high-value targets, including Pablo. The eventual shootout that ended Pablo’s life may not have directly involved the ISA, however, its efforts certainly aided in the eventual locating and killing of the cartel boss.

8. Summary

As with any clandestine unit, only so much can be known about any of the JSOC special mission units. No unit is quite as secretive as the Intelligence Support Activity. The vast majority of their operations are clouded not just in shadow, but in complete darkness. The ISA differs from its brother and sister task forces in that it is not primarily a combat-oriented team, excelling in HUMINT and SIGINT operations that allow it to provide extremely valuable intelligence to other military elements.

Though its history is relatively brief and known missions it has undertaken even briefer, it has become one of the most interesting and influential special operations groups at the disposal of JSOC and the US military.

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