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Inside the world’s most fearsome special forces from Iraq’s skull-faced commandos to Russia’s secret death squads

IRAQ'S skull-faced commandos and Russia's secret death squads are among some of the world's most fearsome special forces.

ISIS has rampaged across the Middle East in recent years, but the fanatical jihadis have been met with the wrath of some of the region’s most elite soldiers who have fought back until the bitter end.

In the summer of 2014, the Golden Division, a US-trained brigade of special forces soldiers, spearheaded a brave offensive to recapture villages, towns and cities until it finally took control of the last ISIS stronghold of Mosul.

Also known as Iraq’s elite Counter Terror Service, the tough troopers wear all black, with black armoured humvees, while some don skull face-masks, skull balaclavas, or skull insignias.

Specialised in fighting terror and operating as a finely-tuned counter-terrorism machine, the Golden Division was set up by the US military shortly after the invasion of Iraq.

The soldiers were cherry picked from the best ranks of the Iraqi security services and tasked with carrying out anti-terror raids intelligence operations from the outset.

US general Mick Bednarek once described the Golden Division as "lead sled dog" in the fight against ISIS – with each member receiving the same gruelling training as a US Army Ranger.

General Talib Shaghati al-Kinani, the commander of the Golden Division, described one fierce mission undertaken by a special forces fighter whose family had been brutally murdered by ISIS.

“He lost everyone,” he told the Independent. “So he decided to infiltrate Isis. He grew a beard and dressed like them.

"After staying with them for a week he blew up the whole place. The heroes of the Golden Division did many things."

He added: "At one point we requested another 1,000 recruits, but 312,000 applied.

"This is because they love the CTS and they know it is the force that beat ISIS."


Meanwhile, Russia's infamous Alpha Group is part spy network, part counter-terrorism team, part commando squad - and truly terrifying.

To start, Alpha Group boasts by far the toughest SAS fitness test - including a literal fist fight as the final task.

The squad gained notoriety for leading the assault on the presidential palace in Kabul during Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

A special forces officer who took part in the raid said the officers at the helm ordered the soldiers to slaughter everyone in the building.

Rustam Tursunkulov told the BBC: "We were trained to accept orders without question. I was in the special forces - it’s the worst job.

"In any army there has to be someone who’ll do the harshest, most horrible tasks."

In a brutal show of strength in 1979, the commandos shot dead a young Soviet Ukrainian, named Yuri Vlasenko, who was occupying a room in the US Embassy in Moscow, demanding to be granted asylum in the US. 

And throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Alpha Group executed several high-profile take-downs of terrorists, insurgents and kidnappers.

The elite squad stepped up to play a vital role in the Russian government's assault to put an end a series of mass hostage crisis incidents.

The commandos targeted CIA agents and operatives, and led the raid against the hijackers of Aeroflot Flight 6833 in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1983, killing three of the hijackers.

And in October 1995, the team killed an armed man who hijacked a bus packed with South Korean tourists in Moscow, who had demanded $1million and to be flown out of the country.

It's also thought the Alpha Group fought in the civil war in Ukraine, according to photographs obtained by The Daily Beast.

The Soviet KGB created the 30-man Alpha Group in 1974 in response to the Black September attacks at the Munich Olympics two years earlier.

The crack commando team formed in the fiasco’s aftermath, but group quickly took on a broader role in counter-terrorism.

Alpha Group survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and now operates under the auspices of the Russian Federal Security Service - the successor to the KGB - with some 700 elite soldiers.

Although little is known about the exact nature of the group's directives, it's thought the unit is given orders from Russia's top political leaders.


Back in the Middle East, SAS-trained Afghan commandos vowed to fight till their "last drop of blood" to take their country back from the Taliban following the takeover in August.

Trained by soldiers from the US and Britain - reportedly including the SAS - the troopers are considered the best of the best and had been attempting to hold the line.

But the elites are up against Taliban special forces fighters, who were pictured arresting and blindfolding an ISIS suspect before driving him away in a military jeep.

And in Israel, Shayetet 13, the special forces unit of the Israeli Navy, is extremely skilled in counter-insurgency, maritime sabotage, and search and rescue.

It is one of the oldest and most respected special forces in the world - on par with the US Navy Seals.

The unit - also referred to as "people of silence" - is one of the most secretive in the Israeli military, and the details of its missions and identities of active operatives are kept highly classified.