12 July 2023
Introduction & Details
The sniper has special abilities, training, and equipment. His mission is to deliver discriminatory, highly accurate rifle fire against enemy targets which cannot be engaged successfully by the rifleman because of range, size, location, visibility, or fleeting nature. Sniping requires the perfection of basic infantry skills (1).
The birth of the modern sniper first emerged during World War 1. With the emergence of trench warfare,
trench snipers would move about the battlefield alone, searching for targets of value, observing enemy positions, and record his observations in a special notebook (2). In the decades following World War 1, the art of sniping has developed into a highly skilled profession, mainly in Western militaries. Modern military snipers are now expected to operate complex communications devices, state of the art electro-optical devices for long range surveillance and intelligence gathering, and master expert level field craft.
While insurgencies and non-state actors have employed their own snipers, at various skill and efficiency levels, this report will focus on the most up to date (2014 – Present) employment and strategies of insurgencies in relation to sniper attacks. Previous battlefield shortcomings for insurgent groups have been overcome by the introduction, though illicit and grey market means, of more advanced night vision (NV) and thermal optics. Insurgent forces equipped with even a small amount of NV or thermal optics can dramatically over match an underequipped opposing force on the battlefield in the dark of night.
Purpose of Use & Details
"Insurgents may use a wide range of conventional tactics. Insurgents often employ ambushes for harassment and disruption. Snipers or sharpshooters may be an effective means of engaging government forces without becoming decisively engaged" (13). This excerpt is from the U.S. Army’s publication “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies” from 2014. While Western militaries employ snipers for precision fire and battlefield intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, insurgent groups and non-state actors do not have access to the high end equipment needed to fulfill the textbook definition of a sniper role. Insurgent groups come to rely on their snipers for varying levels of precision shooting and propaganda footage.
Past Uses & Renowned Cases
Insurgencies all around the globe employ snipers in various fashion, but a few notable groups come to mind for the more professional employment of their snipers, as well as the more well documented and publicized. These groups include – Xhemati Alban (Albanians in Syria), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Another infamous noteworthy figure in this realm is the Juba Sniper. While an older example from the Iraqi insurgency, Juba, either an individual, or group operating under the name capitalized on the filming of targeted killings of American and coalition forces (3).
Xhemati Alban today largely operates in Latakia, southeastern Idlib and western Aleppo. The group claims to have been established in 2012 and claims to have taken part in fighting for Ras al-Ayn and Abu al-Duhur Airbase (14). This fighting was most likely done under the banner of Al-Nusra Front prior to the creation of HTS, as these battles took place in 2012-2013. Both results of these battles ended in wins for the rebel groups that fought against the Syrian government forces.
The Islamic State on their offensive across Iraq, specifically Anbar and Baghdad, employed snipers against the poorly trained Iraqi security forces. The Anbar campaign of the Islamic State was a sweeping victory that capitalized on their early momentum. In the Saladin Governorate of Iraq, the group produced a 10 minute montage video of their (poorly trained) snipers in action (15).
HTS has continued to carry out sniper operations with great success in the Aleppo region. The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights tracked 8 successful sniper attacks carried out by HTS just in the month of December of 2022, with some sniping attacks resulting in multiple kills in one attack (16). It is important to remember that HTS is a large group made up of smaller groups and it could be possible some of their sniper attacks are carried out by the sub-group Xhemati Alban.
To further analyze the broader employment tactics of snipers by insurgent forces, a breakdown of capabilities is important. The table below is pulled from the United States Army Field Manual on Tactics in Counterinsurgency and breaks down the three levels of insurgent snipers (4). The U.S. Army Field Manual has been selected for this breakdown as the U.S. Army’s Publishing Directorate has published hundreds of Technical Manuals and Field Manuals related to important how-to information for soldiers of all MOS’s (Military Occupational Specialities) operating on the battlefield. Most notably the Ranger Handbook TC 3-21.76, and the U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 3-05.70. The Field Manual on Tactics in Counterinsurgency was written based on lessons learned from historic counterinsurgencies and current operations (circa. 2009).
Figure 6-14 is used for reference in grouping observed insurgent snipers and their battlefield tactics. (4)
→ Level III Armed Irregular
The lowest ranked in Figure 6-14. Given that there is no concrete outline of descriptors for a Level III Armed Irregular, we can make educated observations from open-source information. Below will be pictures and screengrabs of Level III Armed Irregulars.
The above pictures are prime examples of what the U.S. military classifies as Level III snipers (Armed Irregulars). Other than being in possession of scoped rifles, these individuals likely do not posses advanced marksmanship skills or field craft training. For insurgencies employing Level III snipers, their main objectives revolve around more accurate fire (more so accurate harassing fire due to lack of marksmanship training), propaganda footage, and the psychological effect of a sniper’s prescience on the battlefield.
Recognizing that Level III snipers lack the professional marksmanship training to consistently be the “one shot one kill” combatants that most western military snipers are, we will focus on what has been recorded as their go to battlefield strategy. Level III snipers are the most effective in urban guerrilla operations. During the Chechen wars, Chechen forces employed snipers in the urban environment to devastating effect. Snipers were a key and very effective element of the urban guerrilla operations conducted by the Chechens. They often targeted radiomen and officers (5). They were positioned and fired from deep within rooms to avoid detection and were used as scouts as much as for sniping (5). The psychological effects of the snipers was just as great, or greater, than their physical contribution (6). They were highly feared by the Russian soldiers and operated in both the day and night (5). Snipers were often used to draw Russian forces into baited ambushes (6). They were also used to control the approaches to specific intersections from roofs or upper floors (7).
This video shows a YPG sniper using what appears to be a craft made anti-material rifle, more than likely chambered in 12.7x108mm. He appears to be engaging targets beyond his capabilities for accurate hits and is merely providing harassing fire.
→ Level II Trained Marksman
As mentioned in the earlier table, Level II snipers center around being trained soldiers and capable marksman on the battlefield. Prominent examples of these types of snipers can be seen with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), and Al-Rahman (a Qatar backed group). The FSA and YPG both benefit from US support, funding and training programs that have allowed them to employ more capable snipers (8).
The video below presents a Level II sniper. These snipers exhibit more standardized equipment (camouflage uniforms, radios and communication equipment, scoped rifles and bolt action rifles with currently produced scopes as well as additional rifle accessories). A common tactic of Level II snipers is the targeted attacks on prominent enemy positions, such as forward operating bases and roadside checkpoints. It is important to note, these “targeted” attacks are not usually the specific assassination of an important leader, but more so attacks on targets of opportunity and great propaganda pieces for social media.
Psychological effects of these sniper attacks cannot be understated. Targeted sniper fire on these combatants is extremely taxing on their morale, especially when these attacks are on their bases and checkpoints that they are required to stand guard at. A prolonged duration of sniper attacks can have a serious impact on the defensive nature of a base. Many of the soldiers on the receiving end of sniper fire hide behind cover or limit exposure to such a degree they cannot appropriately observe for advancing enemy forces.
Al-Rahman Legion snipers engaging regime soldiers in Syria. This video is a mixture of scripted scenes showing a sniper team in a hide, and actual combat footage that is obviously recorded from other locations.
In this video from Al-Rahman, the targeting of soldiers at their outpost/bases is featured heavily. The behavior of the victims seems to emulate that they have been under repeated sniper fire or know that a sniper is operating in the area, this is evident by how they try to remain hidden behind cover. Sniper attacks like the ones featured above are becoming easier for insurgent groups to carry out in large part to access of modern rifle optics, training (whether formal or informal) and the capture and transfer of modern military rifles capable of extremely accurate long-range fire.
→ Level I Specially Trained Snipers / Specially Equipped Individuals
Level I specially trained snipers can be narrowed down to groups such as Xhemati Alban and Ahrar Al-Sham. Xhemati Alban is a group of Sunni jihadi militants that are ethnically Albanian and operate in the Idlib Governorate. It is important to note that it is widely believed that this group falls under Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Ahrar al-Sham at one point in the Syrian civil war, was one of the best-armed and most powerful rebel factions active in the conflict. Ahrar al-Sham grew significantly by absorbing other factions into its ranks, along with rumored funding and arming from backers such as Turkey and Qatar (9)(10).
Level I specially equipped snipers center around insurgent or non-state actors that employ modern day night vision or thermal sighting systems. A profound change in low intensity and small unit fighting on the battlefield has been the introduction of commercial grade thermal and night vision optics through the black market/grey market. These devices tend to originate from China (InfiRay, Longot), Russia (Dedal), and Europe (Fortuna and Pulsar) are smuggled into various combat zones across the MENA and Asian continent.
It is important to note that many thermal optics seen today with insurgent groups are not 'military grade', but mainly commercially available optics. The Russian military has been well documented in using Chinese made InfiRay thermal weapon sights on their rifles. The actual transfer of advanced U.S. made thermal optics into the hands of insurgent groups has mainly occurred as battlefield pickups from lost or abandoned gear.
The employment advantages of thermal and NV weapon sights are most notable when used against under equipped or poorly trained militaries, such as the Afghan Army, Pakistan Military or Syrian Army. The pictures and videos below are taken from Taliban, PKK and other insurgent groups that have managed to procure these devices. These attacks take place at night, normally a time when insurgent groups are at a distinct disadvantage, but now can operate with little restrictions and greater lethality.
TTP sniper engages Pakistani military with thermal sight equipped rifles. We can surmise this attack took place at night, leaving the under equipped Pakistani soldiers to fire blindly into the night.
For insurgent snipers, urban environments are the ideal operating terrain. Urban cities and towns provide a vast amount of potential firing locations, over head protection from military air assets, potential civilian collateral damage considerations for government forces, and shorter engagement ranges. The Chechen wars is a well documented example of insurgent forces using their urban environment against a conventional military. A very well documented case that involved brutal urban warfare carried out by insurgent forces would be both Chechen Wars. In both wars the Chechen defenders had the home field advantage as well as many other advantages that are outlined in the report ‘ Russia’s Chechen Wars 194-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat’. Key points from the report - the Chechens knew their cities and prepared to defend them, many rebels had served in the Soviet and Russian armies brining with them prior knowledge of MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) lessons from WWII, Chechen small-unit organizing principles were ideal for urban terrain, and snipers were well-employed (5).
Since the employment of snipers first occurred in World War I, militaries and non-state combatants have devised tactics and equipment to counter snipers on the battlefield. For standardization of countermeasures, the focus will be on conventional military countermeasures to snipers.
Below will be active and passive countermeasures that can be found in the U.S. Army Field Manual FM 3-24.2 (4).
These active countermeasures seek to detect and destroy the sniper before he can fire, or engage and neutralize him after he fires. For simplicity, each bullet point will shortened from its original length.
Observation Posts and Observers - Observation post should have access to powerful spotting telescopes, night observation devices, remote control closed circuit cameras, as well as electronic detection devices for acoustic detection of sniper fire.
Patrols - Constant reconnaissance and security patrols around a unit’s position hinder a sniper from getting into a firing position undetected. Sniper Kill Teams, Small Capture Teams, or small observation teams (SOTs) conduct ambushes of likely sniper positions.
Counterinsurgent Sniper Teams - Counterinsurgent sniper teams can be a very effective counter to enemy snipers.
Return Fire and Maneuver - If a unit can determine the general location of a sniper, it should return suppressive fire while maneuvering to engage the sniper from close range.
Obscurants - Projected smoke that builds quickly is a good response to protect a unit from further casualties if engaged by an enemy sniper. It greatly limits his ability to acquire targets.
Passive countermeasures prevent the sniper from acquiring a clear target and prevent his fires from causing casualties. Passive countersniper measures are rarely successful by themselves. If passive measures are the only measures enacted, they may also create a siege mentality and pass the initiative over to the sniper. They include;
Limiting Sniper Exposure - If soldiers limit their sniper exposure, they can marginalize sniper operations. Some examples include using covered and concealed routes, avoiding lighted areas at night, moving tactically while using traveling or bounding overwatch, and staying away from doors and windows.
Wearing Protective Equipment - Other sniper protective measures include wear of the kevlar helmet, protective eyewear, and body armor systems. These should be worn anytime soldiers are exposed to potential sniper fire.
Using Armored Vehicles - Whenever possible, move around in the urban area in a protected vehicle with as little exposure as possible.
Erecting Screens and Shields - Use simple canvas or plastic screens to make a dangerous alleyway or street crossing safer for foot traffic. Adapt screens on windows to allow vision out while hiding personnel inside. See picture 4.0.
Picture 4.0 - A sheet covers a damaged road from snipers in Sheikh Maksoud, Aleppo, September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Molhem Barakat. WE DOT NOT CLAIM TO HAVE IMAGE RIGHTS OVER THIS PHOTO.
There are also a range of Anti Sniper Detection Systems, which will be outlined below. This list is not designed to be exhaustive, but to highlight lesser known products designed to aid military and public safety agencies in preventing and detecting snipers both before they fire and after.
→ TRV OSD 2500 Long Range Optical Sniper Detection Unit
The OSD 2500 is a multifunctional long range optical sniper and observer detection unit produced by a company in Turkey. This ia a multi-sensor detection system that can inform on the targets (sniper) location and relay this information to counter sniper units.
The Boomerang Gunshot Detection system is developed by Raytheon and is an acoustic sniper detection system. These types of systems are nothing new but the Boomerang offers some versatility, being vehicle mounted or static mounted for base defense.
→ Laser Anti-Sniper Detection Systems
Laser anti-sniper detection systems come in many shapes and sizes and are made by various companies. These types of systems detect the optical devices of sniper scopes and observation equipment via laser. More advanced systems are capable of detecting optic devices that even have anti-reflective coating. These types of devices focus on finding the sniper before they shoot.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - ARMY PUBLISHING DIRECTORATE. 2017. FM 3-22.10 Sniper Training And Employment. Website. TC 3-22.10. TRADOC. https://www.scribd.com/doc/84566136/FM-3-22-10-Sniper-Training-amp-Employment#.
(2) - ARMY PUBLISHING DIRECTORATE. 2017. FM 3-22.10 Sniper Training And Employment. Website. TC 3-22.10. TRADOC. https://www.scribd.com/doc/84566136/FM-3-22-10-Sniper-Training-amp-Employment#.
(3) - ABC News. 2006. “Baghdad Sniper: Myth or Menace?” ABC News, February 11, 2006. https://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=1604797.
(4) - Staff, U. S. Army, and Us Army. 2009. Tactics in Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24. 2: US Army Field Manual 3-24. 2. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.
(5) - Oliker, Olga. 2001. Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat. Rand Corporation.
(6) - Speyer, Arthur L. III, “The Two Sides of Grozny,” in Russell W. Glenn, (ed.), Capital Preservation: Preparing for Urban Operations in the Twenty-First Century—Proceedings of the RAND Arroyo-TRADOC- MCWL-OSD Urban Operations Conference, March 22–23, 2000, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, CF-162-A, 2001.
(7) - Thomas, Timothy, The Battle of Grozny: Deadly Classroom for Urban Combat, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Foreign Military Studies Office Publications, downloaded from http://call.army.mil/call/fmso/ fmsopubs/issues/battle.htm (originally appeared in Parameters, Summer 1999, pp. 87–102).
(8) - Schmitt, Eric, and Ben Hubbard. 2015. “U.S. Revamping Rebel Force Fighting ISIS in Syria.” The New York Times, September 7, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/07/world/middleeast/us-to-revamp-training-program-to-fight-isis.html.
(9) - “Islamist Mergers in Syria: Ahrar al-Sham Swallows Suqour al-Sham.” n.d. Carnegie Middle East Center. https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/59471?lang=en.
(10) - “The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front - By Aaron Y. Zelin and Charles Lister.” 2013. Foreign Policy. June 24, 2013. https://web.archive.org/web/20131207083011/http:/mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/06/24/the_crowning_of_the_syrian_islamic_front.
(11) - Obscura, Calibre. 2018. “The Albanian Sniper Squad in Syria and Their Weapons.” Calibre Obscura, December. https://www.calibreobscura.com/the-xhemati-alban-sniper-squad-and-weapons/.
(12) - . 2022. “Retaking the Night: Low-Light Capabilities in Idlib.” Calibre Obscura, December. https://www.calibreobscura.com/retaking-the-night-low-light-capabilities-in-idlib/.
(13) - Government, Us Army United States. 2014. Field Manual Fm 3-24 Mcwp 3-33.5 Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies May 2014. CreateSpace.
(14) - Mick. 2021. “Albanians Fighting in Syria: Xhemati Alban in 2020-Part 1.” Silah Report. March 27, 2021. https://silahreport.com/2021/03/27/albanians-fighting-in-syria-xhemati-alban-in-2020-part-1/.
(15) - Boring, War Is. 2018. “Islamic State Wants You to Fear Its Snipers - War Is Boring - Medium.” Medium, March 20, 2018. https://medium.com/war-is-boring/islamic-state-wants-you-to-fear-its-snipers-c6542a3c69b9.
(16) - “H*T*S Escalated Attacks in December 2022 Hezb*ollah Commander and Member and 45 Regime Soldiers and Loyalists Killed by H-T-S.” 2023. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. January 1, 2023. https://www.syriahr.com/en/282908/.