Obama’s secret army

At a time when many think the US government is inept, Special Forces are getting the job done around the world, writes Daniel Klaidman

Some of these critics are also worried that Special Forces, if their numbers bloat any further as a result, won’t be so special any more

ONE of Barack Obama’s earliest kills came in Apr 2009. Somali pirates had stormed the Maersk Alabama, a US container ship in lawless waters off the Horn of Africa. The American crew had tried to overwhelm the pirates, who fled on a covered lifeboat, taking with them a 53-year-old hostage: Ship captain Richard Phillips. Armed with AK-47s and pistols, the pirates stashed Phillips below deck and threatened to kill him if they didn’t get $2m (€1.5m) in ransom.

Obama, not yet three months into his presidency, had undergone a crash course in battlefield management. He had authorised drone strikes in Pakistan and sent 17,000 troops into Afghanistan. However, he had not experienced the personal immediacy and political risk of a kill operation involving an American hostage. Nor had he worked with Seal Team 6, the elite “tier one” commandos who carry out many of the dark missions in the shadow wars.

Early in the standoff, the US navy had requested permission to use force, but the White House held back. Military commanders had dispatched a destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, and a frigate, the USS Halyburton, to the scene. Transport planes ferried in the Seals, who parachuted into the Indian Ocean. On Apr 11, three days after the hostage taking began, Obama agreed to the use of military force — but only if the captain’s life was in imminent danger.

As Obama’s military advisers monitored events in the White House situation room, the president popped in for updates. Seal Team 6 snipers were positioned on different ships to maximise the chances of getting clean shots. At one point, the navy laid a trap for the vessel, but the pirates, by sheer luck, “waltzed” around it, said one source.

All the while, the pirates were drifting toward shore. If they were able to reach a Somali beach with their hostage, a rescue would be much more difficult. Seal boats zoomed around the pirates, using “shouldering and blocking” tactics to keep them away from shore.

By dusk on Apr 12, Seal snipers on the fantail of the USS Bainbridge were in position to shoot the pirates. However, with the covered lifeboat bobbing on the water, it was tough to get clean shots. They attached night-vision scopes to their rifles and waited. At one point, two pirates came into plain sight. The sharpshooters saw a third pirate through a window pointing his gun at Phillips. Each sniper fired a single round, and it was over. Three shots, three dead pirates. An assault team took Phillips to safety.

In the White House, officials quietly celebrated. So much could have gone wrong. For a young president with little experience overseeing military operations, a botched job would have invited charges of fecklessness from Republicans. “Mr President, it worked out. But if it hadn’t, it would have been my ass,” one military adviser told Obama. “It would have been our ass,” the president said.

Obama has come to rely more on “special operators”. In an era of dwindling budgets and hidden enemies, when Americans have become fatigued by disastrous military occupations, the value of pinprick operations by elite forces is clear. The budget for the Special Operations Command has more than doubled since 2001, reaching $10.5bn, and deployments have quadrupled. Now the head of that command, Admiral William H McRaven, is calling for more resources and more autonomy.

On Feb 12, The New York Times reported that McRaven was “pushing for a larger role for his elite units who have traditionally operated in the dark corners of American foreign policy”. He wants to expand these units in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and have the authority to move forces and equipment as needed.

Who can blame him? The Navy Seals, in particular, have never seemed so heroic and effective. They killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year, and just last month rescued aid workers held hostage in Somalia. At a time when many Americans think the government is incompetent, the Seals are public employees who get the job done. They’re a morale booster, and they know it. Which may explain why they collaborated in an upcoming full-length feature film starring active Seals called Act of Valour — a controversial undertaking, intended to bolster recruitment, which some regard as foolish and helpful to the enemy.

Obama wants to balance the need for the services of special operators with an assessment of the strategic implications of expanding their missions. He’s right to be mindful of the dangers: Mission creep, hubris, a messy “Black Hawk Down” disaster. Act of Valour represents its own kind of overreach: The military knows little about moviemaking, and the film reflects that. The kinetics will impress, but the acting and script will not. (One Seal, about to parachute into a dangerous mission, says to another: “I’ll tell you what, the only thing better than this right here is being a dad. Except for that whole changing diapers thing.”)

Other kinds of hubris get people killed, and can tarnish America’s standing for years. That’s why some US diplomats and military officers, have expressed misgivings about expanding Special Ops.

Some critics worry that the Special Forces, if their numbers bloat further, won’t be so special any more. “The whole idea of Special Ops is quality, not quantity,” says Peter Singer of the 21st-Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a thinktank in Washington DC. “But there are concerns in that community of, how big could it reasonably get before it gets bogged down?”

The challenges of secret missions are many: Legal, moral, practical. Few people are more aware of that than the man who ultimately pulls the trigger. Obama’s generally balanced approach to such missions is captured in the story of an operation against a key al Qaeda terrorist in Sept 2009.

The CIA and US military had been hunting Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan for years. He was a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and had been implicated in attacks in East Africa.

He was a link between al Qaeida and its Somalia-based ally, al Shabaab, and a potential wealth of information on how the jihadist networks operate. Killing him would have been a victory, but capturing him alive would have been even better.

After months of watching him, American intelligence officers learned that Nabhan would travel on a remote desert road in southern Somalia. There wasn’t much time. Early one September evening, more than three dozen officials assembled by secure videoconference to consider options.

The meeting was led by Adm Mike Mullen. He called on Adm McRaven, then head of the Joint Special Operations Command and one of the military’s most experienced terrorist hunters. Nabhan had been under surveillance for months. He had stayed mostly in heavily populated areas, where the risk of casualties was too great — but now it looked as if Navy Seals had a window of opportunity

McRaven said Nabhan’s convoy would soon be setting out from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, on its way to a meeting of Islamic militants in the coastal town of Baraawe. The square-jawed Texan and former Navy Seal laid out several options as well as collateral-damage estimates.

The military could fire Tomahawk missiles from a warship off the Somali coast. This was the least dangerous option in terms of US casualties but not the most precise.

The second option was a helicopter assault on Nabhan’s convoy. There was less chance of error: Small helicopters would allow the commandos to “look the target in the eye and make sure it was the right guy”, according to one military planner.

The final option was a “snatch and grab”, an attempt to take Nabhan alive. Tactically, this was the most attractive option, but the riskiest.

Hanging heavily over the group was the memory of another attempted capture in Somalia.

Many on the call had been in key national-security posts in Oct 1993 during the ill-fated attempt to capture a Somali warlord that became known as “Black Hawk Down”. It left 18 dead army rangers on the streets of Mogadishu, and inspired al Qaeda leaders to think they could defeat America. As Daniel Benjamin, the US state department’s co-ordinator for counter-terrorism, said during the meeting: “Somalia, helicopters, capture. I just don’t like the sound of this.”

As everyone left the meeting, it was clear that the only viable plan was the lethal one. Obama signed off on Operation Celestial Balance. The job was given to Seal Team 6.

The next morning Somali villagers saw low-flying attack helicopters emerge over the horizon. Several AH-6 Little Birds, deployed from US naval ships off the Somali coast, approached the convoy, strafing Nabhan’s jeep and another vehicle. Nabhan and several other militants were killed. One of the helicopters landed long enough for commandos to scoop up some of Nabhan’s remains — DNA to prove he was dead.

One of the debates around such operations concerns something called sensitive site exploitation (SSE). Special Ops Forces had learned that the best intelligence often came from sifting through after-action debris.

They wanted not just to kill terror targets but to rummage through their belongings.

“This is where the [political] fight comes,” says one Pentagon official.

“From that day forward we wanted to put our boots on the ground to do SSE, but the president was not supportive ... That would become the issue between Special Operations Forces and the administration.”

An official says the Pentagon misinterpreted many of the president’s questions. He was not opposed, he just wanted to do cost-benefit analysis on a case-by-case basis.

Obama has certainly been impressed with the Special Ops — their precision and their professionalism. A wooden board that hangs above the Seal training grounds in Coronado, California, is inscribed with a line that all newbies internalise: “The only easy day was yesterday.”

Instructors make sure “everything goes wrong” on a training mission, says Don Mann, 53, a retired Seal and author of Inside Seal Team Six. Mock raids include booby traps, faulty equipment, and unexpected snipers. Special operators “will get off [a real] mission and say that was a piece of cake, only because they were used to difficult training”, says Mann.

Still, no amount of training can teach fighters what they can learn in life-and-death situations. Better-honed skills are one clear benefit of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where special operators carried out mission after mission. Some went badly, of course.

In 2010, Seal Team 6 conducted a raid to rescue Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove and three Afghan colleagues from Taliban captors. Tragically, a grenade thrown by one of the commandos killed Norgrove. Many special operators have also sacrificed their lives, including 22 on a helicopter that was shot down in Afghanistan last August. Howard Wasdin, a former Seal, says the high risk of death is built into the job.

“We used to have a saying,” he says: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also accustomed the special operators — and their political bosses — to cross-border operations. There was hesitation at first. In 2007, for instance, when the insurgency was raging in Iraq, al Qaeda fighters were pouring across the Syrian border to join the fight. US intelligence believed the Syrian government had helped or looked the other way. The Bush administration placed diplomatic pressure on Damascus to try to end the terror pipeline, but the problem persisted. Something had to be done.

In Oct 2008, General David Petraeus ordered a helicopter assault in Syria. Two dozen commandos dropped out of Black Hawk helicopters into the village of Sukkariyah, about six miles from the Iraqi border. Their mission was to kill or capture Abu Ghadiyah, an al Qaeda cell leader co-ordinating the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq. A gun battle erupted and up to nine terrorists were killed, including Abu Ghadiyah. The Americans returned to base unharmed. Syria closed down several US institutions in Damascus and protested to the UN.

In some lawless places, or countries that harbour terrorists, such operations may be necessary — but what about elsewhere? Act of Valour shows the Seals moving from place to place — Costa Rica, the high seas, Somalia, Mexico — treating the world as their warzone. In real life they do a lot of collaborating, but there are risks in projecting an aggressive Hollywood image to the rest of the world.

The Rambo approach doesn’t always sit well with diplomats. “If you start taking out people all over the world in other people’s countries, some of whom we are at peace with, I think you’ll get into some serious diplomatic issues of people saying the US isn’t the global police,” says Ronald Neumann, a former deputy assistant secretary of state. “There is also the risk a mission will eventually go wrong and we’ll end up with lots of prisoners somewhere in the world.”

Military critics have other concerns.

“One of these days, if you keep publishing how you do this, the other guy’s going to be there ready for you,” fumed retired Lieutenant General James Vaught at a conference in Washington. He was speaking directly to Adm McRaven: “Mark my words. Get the hell out of the media.” Vaught knows a thing or two about how things can go wrong. He ran the taskforce that tried to rescue the US hostages in Iran in 1980, which became a fiasco after aircraft ran in to dust storms and other problems.

McRaven responded to Vaught’s criticism by saying the military was in a different era now and needed to be more open. “With the social media being what it is today, with the press and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s very difficult to get away from it,” he said, adding that “not only does the media focus on our successes, we’ve had a few failures. And I think having those failures exposed in the media also kind of helps focus our attention, helps us do a better job.”

McRaven defended Act of Valour as a natural progression of portraying Special Ops in Hollywood. He saw it as a recruitment tool, and related them to his own experience. His infatuation with the military and Special Ops began, he said, when he saw John Wayne in The Green Berets.

* With Daniel Stone and Aram Roston in Washington DC, and RM Schneiderman in New York.

Copyright Newsweek/Daily Beast

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