|By Thomas B. Hunter|
The US military's top counterterrorist teams, officially categorized as "Tier One" units, have long been the subject of an insatiable public interest and a corresponding amount of speculation as to their missions and other operational details. This information has, and continues to be, highly classified. However, despite the tight restrictions on information pertaining to such Tier One units as the US Army's Delta Force (1st Special Forces Operational Detachment - Delta) and the US Navy's SEAL Team Six (also known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, DEVGRU, or "DevGroup"), the publication of autobiographies from the founding fathers of both units cracked open the door into the secretive worlds of these units.
Most notably, former SEAL Team Six commanding officer Richard Marcinko published a wildly popular memoir in 1993, which detailed the founding, selection process, training, and other details of the US Navy's elite counterterrorist unit. While the book did not discuss operational details, it did provide insight that had not previously been made available to the public ...
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Since that time, much speculation about this elite team has reached its way onto the pages of newspapers, magazines, and books seeking to satiate an ever-growing public interest.
Prior to the events of September 11, 2001, however, there still remained little information in the public domain relating to DevGroup, largely because its covert, global operations occurred far from the public eye. Since that tragic date, however, the team's operational tempo increased dramatically, to include (but not limited to) participation in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in the larger Global War on Terror (GWOT), under the direct operational control of the US military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) as part of the joint counterterrorist team Task Force 88. Their participation in these theaters of operation has resulted in much more widespread coverage of DevGroup's operations in the domestic and international press. It is exclusively from these open sources that this article obtained its information highlighting the team's operations in the ten years since the 9/11 attacks.
Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-present)
Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the White House focused much of its attention on the capture or killing of al-Qaida terrorists, with the primary target being the group's leadership cadre, to include Osama bin Laden. To this end, in addition to the massive influx of conventional US forces, the Department of Defense (DoD) deployed elements from its Tier One units, whose highly specialized skill sets provided the best hopes for bringing to justice those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. As a result, DevGroup (despite its long-held primary responsibility for maritime counterterrorism) carried out dozens of operations in support of the overall effort to track down wanted terrorists and Taliban insurgents scattered throughout the region.
Despite the considerable efforts expended by DevGroup, however, the most senior al-Qaida leadership (designated High Value Targets, or HVT) remained largely intact, having long-since dispersed throughout the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in an effort to remain hidden from US and NATO forces. Nonetheless, DevGroup, operating both independently and as part of "black" joint special operations task forces (such as Task Force 373, for example), reportedly conducted many successful operations, resulting in the deaths and captures of scores of terrorists.
DevGroup's operations have not gone without its own losses, however. While details of these losses remain classified, US press reports from September 2008 indicated one DevGroup operator was lost when he was swept away in a turbulent river while attempting to cross during combat operations. Later that same month, US press once again reported on DevGroup casualties, indicating that two operators were killed during a classified mission. Prior to September, the team had not suffered a combat-related death since March 2002.
It is worth noting here that, throughout Operation Enduring Freedom, DevGroup worked closely with the Army's elite helicopter unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (also known as the "Nightstalkers"), which once again proved a truly invaluable resource given the harsh, mountainous terrain found along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region where many capture/kill operations have taken place. The two units have operated closely together not only in Afghanistan, but dating back as far as 1981 in support of counterterrorism operations worldwide.
Karzai Close Protection Detail (2002)
Early into the invasion of Afghanistan, the US military offered to provide President Hamid Karzai with US special operations personnel, to include a small team from DevGroup, to serve as his close protection detail, an offer to which he readily agreed. This decision bore fruit on 5 September 2002 when a terrorist wearing a stolen uniform of an Afghan National Army soldier opened fire with an automatic weapon on Karzai's black Mercedes (driven by a DevGroup operator alongside a fellow SEAL as front seat passenger) as his personal convoy drove through a large, cheering crowd lining a narrow roadway in the city of Khandahar. The initial burst of fire wounded a senior Afghan official and a member of the DevGroup protective detail. Reacting as they had long trained, SEALs immediately returned fire, killing the terrorist and an Afghan bodyguard standing nearby.
Reports later speculated that the SEALs believed the bodyguard to be a potential second assassin - a matter complicated by the original gunman's uniform. Nonetheless, many reporters with little to no understanding of the dynamics of protective details and close quarters combat, focused on the loss of civilian lives, which may have (perhaps due to the negative press reporting that followed) caused the replacement of DevGroup operators with other security teams. Nonetheless, despite the tragedy of the loss of the Afghan bodyguard, the SEALs accomplished their assigned mission, eliminating the threat and permitting Karzai to escape unharmed. US military responsibility for Karzai's close protection was reportedly transferred to the private security firm DynCorp in 2002.
Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-present)
In March 2003, the US and Great Britain spearheaded the Coalition-backed invasion of Iraq, with the stated goal of removing Saddam Hussein's ability to produce and deploy weapons of mass destruction. While this effort resulted in a failure to find such weapons, the ensuing ground war would last from March 2003 to the present day, offering DevGroup myriad opportunities to demonstrate its considerable capabilities.
Unlike the massive influx of conventional forces that were in place at the outbreak of the March offensive, elements of DevGroup, along with Delta Force and CIA operators, were deployed to Iraq well prior to the start of hostilities. Their earliest responsibilities consisted primarily of conducting long-range reconnaissance missions, identifying potential targets, and related intelligence gathering operations. The team was designated Task Force Blue, joining other special operations teams such as the highly classified Task Force Orange (a highly specialized and equipped intelligence gathering element). DevGroup also worked with Task Force Black, which was comprised of the British SAS and Special Boat Squadron, or SBS (the British equivalent of DevGroup), and other special operations units from the US and allied nations.
Soon after the outbreak of the shooting war, Task Force Blue took up residence in a safe house in Baghdad (inside the relative safety of the Green Zone) from where it could rest and recuperate between missions, store its weapons and equipment, and also plan for future operations. As the war progressed, the main priority assigned to Task Force Blue was the location and apprehension of HVTs throughout Iraq, including al Qaeda terrorists. It has been reported that DevGroup conducted many dozens of such missions, resulting in captures of numerous wanted Iraqis from the Hussein regime as well as other insurgents and terrorists.
Other reporting indicates that DevGroup was also involved in direct action operations to interdict Iran's covert efforts to infiltrate men, equipment, and weapons across the northern Iran-Iraq border. Of additional concern was the fact that Iranian trainers from Quds Force, an elite paramilitary element of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were assisting the Iraqi resistance (in particular, Shiite insurgents) in the construction and employment of advanced IEDs that were designed specifically to cut through the armor of American military vehicles. The capture or elimination of these personnel remains a high priority for American and British special operations teams.
Open source reporting has indicated that DevGroup may have also been involved in the capture of wanted terrorist Abu Ghadiya during a cross-border operation on 26 October 2008. Ghadiya was wanted for his role as a senior logistics facilitator for al-Qaida terrorists crossing the Syrian border into Iraq to combat Coalition forces. US counterterrorist forces, including operators from the CIA's paramilitary Special Activities Division, reportedly crossed the Syria-Iraq border in the late afternoon, via four 160th SOAR MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. During the ground phase of this operation, several Syrians were killed and injured, though the US team returned to Iraq with Ghadiya and without friendly casualties. This action resulted in a formal, public complaint from the Syrian government; however, additional reporting indicated that the operation may have taken place with covert support from Syrian intelligence, who also sought to remove the al-Qaida presence from its soil.
M/V Maersk Alabama Hostage Rescue (April 2009)
As recounted in detail in an earlier issue of the Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International (magazine date here), the cargo ship M/V Maersk Alabama was hijacked by a small team of four Somali pirates on 8 April 2009. The crew of 20 was taken hostage, though the pirates' plans soon unraveled owing to a number of critical factors. These included the sheer size of the ship itself, which such a small team of pirates could not hope to control, actions by the crew to disable the vessel's essential systems, and an apparent failure of the hijackers' reinforcements to arrive and assist with the takeover. As result, the hijackers grabbed ship captain Richard Phillips and the five men climbed into one of the ship's lifeboats, which was then launched from the larger vessel, connected only by a line from the larger vessel's stern.
Yet, despite the fact that the hijackers could now easily control a single hostage and still make demands, this action proved to be their ultimate undoing. The US Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge was quickly dispatched to the scene where, upon arrival, immediately took up position several hundred yards from the lifeboat, out of range of the Somalis automatic weapons. At this time, too, a forward deployed element of DevGroup, which included four of its highly trained snipers, was transported to the destroyer and immediately took up positions on the Navy ship's fantail.
On 12 April, under orders from the Bainbridge's captain, who reportedly feared Captain Phillip's life was in imminent danger, ordered the SEALs to engage the hijackers at the first, best opportunity. As luck would have it, all four Somalis had their upper bodies exposed, owing to the extreme heat inside the small lifeboat. The DevGroup snipers, working as one, simultaneously fired a single shot, with each of the four rounds finding its target and killing the hijackers instantly. With this, Captain Phillips was successfully rescued, and the SEALs eventually returned to their forward base.
Operation Neptune Spear (2011)
The aptly-named operation to capture or kill Osama bin Ladin will almost certainly go down the history books as the unit's most celebrated operations since its founding in 1980. Much has been written about this operation, providing extensive details about the action taken that night to bring to justice the world's most wanted terrorist. It is perhaps interesting that a counterterrorist unit whose responsibilities historically had been in the maritime realm, would be called on to conduct a wholly overland operation.
Operation Neptune Spear had its beginnings in a months-long covert CIA operation to investigate reports that Osama bin Ladin had taken up residence in Bilal Town, Abbottabad, in northeast Pakistan, just 34 miles (55 km) from the capital Islamabad. Using a system of informants, on-the-ground surveillance, satellite imagery, and the assistance of a variety of agencies within the US Intelligence Community, it was soon confirmed that bin Ladin indeed was living in the three-story compound. Armed with this intelligence, the White House authorized an operation to capture or kill the al-Qaida leader, though some reporting indicated that the latter outcome was the preferred conclusion to the mission.
Planning for the raid began in March, with DevGroup selected as the primary assault team, after considerable debate and review of all possible options. In support of this effort, two compounds, identical to the actual bin Laden residence, were constructed, one on the West Coast and the other on the East Coast. As the timing for the operation drew closer, however, the team was moved to Camp Alpha, within Bargram Air Base, Afghanistan. Again using a mockup of the actual compound, DevGroup operators conducted their final training evolutions in anticipation of the raid. On 1 May, CIA Director Leon Panetta gave approval for the immediate execution of the assault, with the SEALs under temporary operational control of the intelligence agency.
Departing from a forward staging area in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, the 24-man assault team was loaded onto two two heavily modified "stealth" Blackhawk helicopters from the 1st Battalion of the Army's 160th SOAR. The two aircraft then flew from the forward base directly towards the bin Ladin compound, flying nap-of-the-earth for most of the flight. This, coupled with the stealth technologies incorporated into the aircraft design, enabled the two helicopters to cross into Pakistan undetected.
The original plan for the assault had one team fast roping onto the roof of the structure, and making entry from the top-down, while the other team would be inserted close to the compound grounds, with the second element making its way into the building and working upwards. However, as the two helicopters approached the compound, one encountered a rare flight complication known as a vortex ring state, which caused the tail section to clip one of the walls, resulting in a soft crash landing, with the aircraft rolling onto its side. Miraculously, none of those on board were injured and the SEALs exited the wounded aircraft and made entry into the house from the ground floor. Simultaneously, the second Blackhawk landed just outside the compound and the SEAL assaulters quickly scaled the walls and also made their way into the building.
Once inside, the DevGroup team encountered resistance from a number of individuals, one of whom fired an AK-47 at the raiders. The gunman was quickly dispatched, along with several others who appeared from adjacent rooms. Moving quickly, the SEALs made their way up the main staircase and saw bin Ladin as he looked over the third floor interior balcony. One SEAL took aim at the al-Qaida leader, but missed, and they raced up past the second floor to the third, where they found bin Ladin in his bedroom and engaged him with well-practiced close quarters gunfire. One round impacted the terrorist's chest, knocking him backward, with another shot entering his left eye, killing him instantly.
With their target dead, they team moved to secure the body into a bodybag and to search the residence for any items of intelligence value. This action was completed quickly but thoroughly (some reports indicating the entire operation took but 38 minutes), and the SEALs then exited the residence and made their way to the lone Blackhawk. Along the way, they placed explosives in the downed Blackhawk in order to destroy its highly classified "black box" systems as well as its equally secret design characteristics. The resulting explosions left little behind, save a section of the tail rotor (which was later returned to the US by the Pakistani government). This completed, the entire team called in a backup helicopter, and the two aircraft lifted off and returned without incident to Afghanistan.
With the successful completion of Operation Neptune Spear, DevGroup once again proved its invaluable contribution to the national security of the United States, and the incalculable value of highly trained, dedicated counterterrorism teams capable of conducting the most sensitive and dangerous missions. Given the nature of international terrorism, and specifically that terrorists might be found almost anywhere across the globe, it remains imperative that the US retain this demonstrated capability and continue to provide the necessary resources for these elite teams to maintain a constant state of readiness so that they may be called on at any time in the interest of the safety and security of the United States and its citizens around the world.
Selected SEAL Team SIX Operational History
Founding of SEAL Team Six (1980)
Operation Urgent Fury (1983) - Operations in support of the invasion of Grenada, with notable loss of four SEAL Team Six operators during pre-mission, over-water helicopter insertion.
MS Achille Lauro (1985) - Deployment in support of potential effort to retake cruise ship and rescue hostages, though no direct action taken.
Official unit name change to Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU, or "DevGroup") (1987)
Operation Just Cause (1989) - Operations, along with Delta Force and other US special operations teams, to locate and arrest wanted criminal Gen. Manuel Noriega
Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991) - Various classified operations in support of US invasion of Iraq.
Rescue of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991) following public unrest unrest in Haiti (Operation name unknown).
Operation Gothic Serpent (1993) - Limited actions in support of failed US special operations forces in Mogadishu, Somalia, to capture warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid.
Hunt for Bosnian War Criminals (1996-unknown) - Missions undertaken with foreign special operations teams (notably British 22 Special Air Service) to capture wanted war criminals.
Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-present) - Various classified operations to kill or capture wanted terrorists and insurgents. Additional duties involved close protection for Afghan President Karzai.
Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-present) - Various classified operations to kill or capture wanted terrorists and insurgents.
October 2010 - Failed rescue of British aid worker Linda Norgrove, who died during a pre-dawn raid on a Taliban mountain stronghold. Tragically, a later inquest would confirm that she had died from injuries sustained by the explosion of one of the SEAL's hand grenades as the team attempted to gain entry and access to the hostage.
M/V Maersk Alabama Hijacking (2010) - Successful shipboard-based sniper engagement to eliminate Somali pirates and rescue hostage Richard Phillips.
Reported official name change in 2010 (new name currently classified)
Operation Neptune Spear (2011) - Successful Mission to kill Osama bin Laden and recover vital intelligence.
Ambinder, Marc, "The Secret Team that Killed Bin Laden," MSNBC.com, May 3, 2011.
Hunter, Thomas, "Naval Special Warfare Development Group," Special Operations.com (http://www.specialoperations.com/Navy/NSWDG/profile.htm)
Marcinko, Richard, Rogue Warrior, Pocket Press, 1993.
Meek, James Gordon, "Two More Counterterror SEALs Die in Afghanistan," New York Daily News, 14 September 2008.
Wasdin, Howard and Stephen Templin, SEAL Team SIX: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper, St. Martin's Press, 2010.