Tag Archives: special operations

Unlimited Deception: Blowing Up People with Booby Traps

Controlled Explosion of IED, US Army Iraq

The Iraq war was, in part, a proxy battle between the US and Iran….By early 2007, some US intelligence estimates held that as many as 150 Iranian operatives were in Iraq. Many were member of the Quds Force, the covert arm of Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy. Their mission was to coordinate the violent campaign being waged against US forces by Iraq’s Shi’ite militias.“It was 100 percent, ‘Are you willing to kill Americans and are you willing to coordinate attacks?’ ” said an officer who studied the Quds Force’s approach closely. “ ‘If the answer is “yes,” here’s arms, here’s money.’ ”

The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) set up a new task force, named Task Force 17.Its mandate was simple: go after “anything that Iran is doing to aid in the destabilization of Iraq,” said a Task Force 17 officer…But political restrictions hobbled Task Force 17, particularly as the US lowered its profile in Iraq. The country’s Shi’ite-dominated government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, wasn’t happy with any attacks that targeted Iran operatives or their Iraqi proxies.  But for a small number of Shi’ite targets, JSOC found a way around the political restrictions by killing its enemies without leaving any US fingerprints.  The command did this using a device called the “Xbox.”

Developed jointly by Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, the Xbox was a bomb designed to look and behave exactly like one made by Iraqi insurgents, using materials typically found in locally made improvised explosive devices…[The Xbox] was made by the Delta and Team 6 explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) personnel… After capturing some IEDs intact on the Afghan and Iraqi battlefields, the EOD troops set about taking them apart.  It wasn’t long before they realized they could build them as well..  At first, the officer said, JSOC’s bomb makers used components typically found in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater: “Chinese circuits and Pakistani parts . . . and explosives from old Soviet munitions, et cetera.”  The intent was to create a device that if it were sent to the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center in Quantico, Va., the Bureau’s experts would mistakenly trace the bomb back to a particular terrorist bomb maker because of certain supposedly telltale signature elements of the design that JSOC’s explosive ordnance disposal gurus had managed to re-create.

But the Xbox was different from regular IEDs in several ways… First, unlike many IEDs, such as those detonated by vehicles running over pressure plates, it had to be command detonated, meaning an operator somewhere was watching the target and then pressing a button. Another design requirement was that the Xbox device had to be extremely stable, to avoid the sort of premature explosions that often kill terrorists.

JSOC wanted to use the device to kill individuals, rather than crowds…JSOC used reconnaissance operators, who are typically some of Delta’s most experienced, because getting the device into position, by placing it in the target’s vehicle, for example, was “a lot of work,” he said. It usually involved surveillance of the target for days on end, understanding his pattern of life — his daily routines — so that the operators could predict when they would be able to gain access to his vehicle unobserved….[A] senior Team 6 source, who questioned the morality of using the device [said]: “[It’s] a great tool, but as many of us have said — hey, we’re no different than the enemy if we’re just blowing people up with booby traps.”

Excerpted from Sean Naylor “Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command” (2015)

Markets Love a War

Heckler & Koch MP7 rifles, image from wikipedia

Naval Special Warfare DEVelopment GRoUp is the official Pentagon acronym for the group more popularly known as “SEAL Team 6,” and is subordinated to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC and  the U.S. Special Forces Command — SOCOM). Drawn from the very best operators within the Navy’s already-superb SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) teams, DEVGRU spearheaded the fight against the Taliban’s top leadership in Afghanistan, and in 2011 launched a daring nighttime raid into Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden….

DEVGRU operators are outfitted with “customized” weaponry, specially tailored to their missions. German-made Heckler & Koch MP7 rifles equipped with suppressors, infrared lasers, and thermal optics are just the start of their arsenal. “The SEALs were equipped with a new generation of grenade — a thermobaric model that is particularly effective in making buildings collapse,” reports the NY Times….

Detailed information on funding for DEVGRU is not easy to come by. Media reports suggest that total “special forces” in the U.S. military may now number 72,000, with an overall budget in excess of $10 billion, but a search for contracts awarded via the U.S. Department of Defense specifically benefiting DEVGRU yields a null result. Likewise searches for SEAL Team 6.  Contracts more broadly defined as benefiting SOCOM, however, appear with some regularity in the Pentagon’s daily briefing on contract awards.
•On Feb. 6, 2008, drone specialist AeroVironment received an order for $46 million worth of SOCOM-variant Raven unmanned aerial vehicles.
•Feb. 4, 2011: General Dynamics won a $84 million contract to support “data, voice, and video communications networks” run out of SOCOM headquarters.
•On Feb. 10, 2014, privately held Oregon Iron Works won a $400 million contract to develop Combatant Craft Medium Mark One (CCM Mk1) stealth fast-attack boats for use by SOCOM.
•And to illustrate just how large these contracts can get — on June 21, 2010, Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract worth up to $5 billion “for contractor logistics support services in support of US SOCOM worldwide.”And four years after bin Laden exited the world stage, the special forces contracts just keep coming.

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Who is Marsoc

Marine special operators conduct combat operations in eastern Afghanistan.  Image from wikipedia

The Marine Corps is close to completing a realignment of its elite Special Operations troops, sending some of them to the Middle East in January 2015.  Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, the new commander of the Marine Corps’ Special Operations force said they will be spread across the Middle East and focused on training and coordinating with friendly governments to guard against insurgencies. Others already have been deployed to Africa and the Pacific….

The new deployment to the Middle East is part of a wider effort to “regionalize” Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), the general said…The force’s three battalions have been reorganized regionally, with one each focusing on the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East…

MARSOC was first established in February 2006 at the order of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as the Iraq War raged and an increasing emphasis on Special Operations emerged….

The command was established by pulling Marines from the service’s highly trained Force Reconnaissance units, however, and first sent a Special Operations company to Afghanistan in 2007. The first deployment was mired in controversy after a convoy of Marines in Nangarhar province was ambushed in March 4, 2007, and a firefight led to the death of at least 10 Afghan civilians. Army commanders removed the unit from the battlefield, but top Marine Corps commanders ultimately found that no one involved should face criminal charges.  MARSOC eventually found its footing in Afghanistan. Deployed mostly to western and southern Afghanistan, the unit trained Afghan Local Police and other Afghan troops and engaged in combat regularly with the Taliban and other insurgent groups….

While much of the military shrinks after years of war in Afghanistan, MARSOC is still expanding. The organization is expected to eventually have about 2,500 troops, including 830 elite “critical skills operators,” …[Bu] roles that MARSOC trains for, but also are carried out by Navy SEALs, Force Reconnaissance Marines and other well-trained U.S. troops.

Excerpts from Dan Lamothe, Marine Corps realigns its Special Operations, sends elite troops to Middle East, Washington Post, Jan. 20. 2015

Why the CIA Loves Somali Warlords

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and US military special operations teams carried out frequent espionage and counter-terrorism missions inside Somalia starting in 2003, according to a recent series of articles in a newspaper focused on the US Army.Secret operatives who flew or swam to Somalia planted cameras and phone-tapping devices and paid local warlords to help hunt for key figures in Al Qaeda’s East African network, the reports in Army Times reveal.

Sean Naylor, a reporter for the privately owned Virginia-based newspaper, attributes the disclosures mostly to anonymous sources currently or formerly affiliated with US military or intelligence services.  For example, he quotes “an intelligence source with long experience in the Horn” indicating that although Al Qaeda’s “centre of gravity” was in Mogadishu, “there was a huge support cell split between Nairobi and Mombasa.”  Some of the clandestine missions inside Somalia yielded important results, Army Times reports.

In late 2003, CIA agents persuaded warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed to sell them about 40 surface-to-air missiles, each capable of shooting down a civilian jet liner, the newspaper recounts.  It was a weapon of this type that was fired at, but missed, an Israeli aircraft taking off from the Moi International Airport in Mombasa in 2002.  The CIA paid about $360,000 for the missiles — a sum described by a US intelligence source as “peanuts.” They were taken initially to the US military base in Djibouti and later flown out, Army Times writes.  American agents were flown into Somalia from Kenya on civilian turboprop planes loaded with miraa, the newspaper says.  “The safest flight you can be on in Somalia is the miraa flight,” a source is quoted as explaining.  The planes are said to have landed at the K50 airport, about 50 kilometres southwest of Mogadishu.  From there, CIA case officers and “shooters” from a US special operations force travelled to Mogadishu in small convoys escorted by militants loyal to one or another warlord, Naylor reports.

Devices for eavesdropping on mobile telephone conversations were seeded in several locations in the Somali capital. “The ability to listen to Al Qaeda in East Africa’s phone calls paid big dividends,” Naylor writes.  The ultimate aim of these undercover missions was to capture or kill the 20 or so most important Al Qaeda figures in Somalia, Army Times says. “But rather than use US forces to do this, the CIA’s plan would have Somali warlords capture the Al Qaeda personnel before turning them over to the US to send — or ‘render’ — them to an American ally or one of the agency’s secret prisons,” according to Naylor’s account. At least two of the targets were subsequently hit.

Saleh Ali Nabhan, described as a key Al Qaeda operative in East Africa, was killed in a 2009 raid by US Navy special forces; Aden Hashi Ayro, a leader of Al Shabaab, was among several militants who died in a US airstrike in 2008.  In southern Somalia, US intelligence agents paid local spies up to $2,000 a month, Army Times reports.  A key point of interest was a rumoured Al Qaeda training camp in Ras Kamboni, a coastal town three kilometres from the Kenya border.  But it was not until 2007 that the US became convinced that “hundreds” of fighters were indeed training in and near Ras Kamboni, the newspaper says.

Somali warlords who did not agree to co-operate with the US in exchange for payoffs were threatened with the possibility of air strikes, Naylor reports. That was supposedly a bluff on the part of the CIA, however.

In the first of his articles, published in Army Times on October 31, Naylor describes an operation involving about a dozen forays into Somalia to plant cameras that had been disguised to look like natural or man-made objects.  These “Cardinal” devices were put in place by special forces who travelled via small submarines to within a mile of the Somalia coast and then swam to shore through what the newspaper describes as some of the world’s most shark-infested waters.  The cameras were placed near suspected militant training sites as well as in Kismayu and other ports where foreign fighters were believed to be arriving.

The missions were opposed by then-US ambassador to Kenya Mark Bellamy as well as by the CIA station chief in the Nairobi embassy, Naylor reports.  On the other side was US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. President George W Bush was eventually persuaded to approve the missions, Naylor reports.  One of the devices was discovered in January 2004 by fishermen from Ras Kamboni, Army Times says, citing a report on a Somalia news website.  “Nothing” came out of these operations, however, says a source cited by Naylor. A “senior intelligence official” offered the same verdict: “If it were a business, it’s not making any money.”

Seven or eight years ago, “the warlords’ fear of being whacked by US air power was groundless. There were no US aircraft overhead,” Naylor writes.  He quotes a US source as saying, “We had very, very few imagery assets available — everything was still dedicated to Iraq.”  It was the lack of pilotless aircraft and a shortage of reliable local spies inside Somalia that led the US to undertake risky espionage missions that, in some cases, produced no useful information.

KEVIN KELLEY, Reports detail past CIA operations in Somalia, East African, Nov. 20, 2011

Secret+Cheap Modern Wars

Four months ago, Admiral William McRaven commanded the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Now, as the new head of U.S. special forces, he argues that his shadowy, secretive warriors are increasingly central to how America and its allies fight.  When the suntanned, towering SEAL testified to the Congressional House Armed Services Committee in September, just a few weeks after he took over his new role, he used posters detailing the growth of his forces. In the decade since Sept. 11 2001, U.S. Special Operations Command personnel numbers have doubled, its budget tripled and deployments quadrupled.

The Bin Laden takedown is simply the tip of an iceberg of fast-growing, largely hidden action by the United States and its allies. Those with knowledge of such operations say this changing state of warfare could spark a range of unintended consequences, from jeopardizing diplomatic relationships to unwanted, wider wars.  That’s not entirely new. Secret wars against communism in Southeast Asia in the 1960s helped spawn larger conventional conflicts. In the 1980s, the “Iran-Contra” arms-for-weapons scandal embarrassed the Reagan administration, while support for Islamist guerrillas fighting Russian occupation in Afghanistan helped produce Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.  And it’s not just western powers. Just last week, the United States accused Iran of a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador.

The appeal of such tactics is clear. Military operations are far more politically palatable if you keep dead bodies off TV screens. A computer worm planted in Iran’s nuclear program, secret help to rebels in Libya, drone strikes to cripple Al Qaeda — all can achieve the desired effect without massive publicity.  In an era of budget cuts, they are also cheap — particularly compared with the cost of maintaining and deploying a large conventional military force. McRaven said his 58,000 operatives cost a mere 1.6 percent of the Pentagon’s predicted 2012 budget.

“Put simply, (they) provide a tremendous return on the nation’s investment,” McRaven told the unclassified portion of the Congressional hearing. “The special operations forces have never been more valuable to our nation and allies around the world than they are today, and that demand will not diminish for the foreseeable future.”

The CIA has long retained its own, much smaller band of paramilitary operatives, sometimes operating with military special forces. Their numbers have also risen sharply in recent years to hundreds or even thousands, security experts say. Under its new director, General David Petraeus, the agency is expected to further increase such deniable operations as assassination and sabotage.

Britain, Israel and others are also believed to have renewed their focus on specialist, hidden techniques, and are ploughing resources into emerging fields such as cyber warfare.  As the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns ramp down, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines and Mexico are all touted by security and intelligence experts as potential theaters for new operations. U.S. special forces are now deployed in some 75 countries, where their missions range from training to assassinations.

Yet even some supporters of the new tactics worry about the lack of public discussion.  “We may find ourselves fighting more wars with fewer people,” says John Nagl, a former U.S. Army officer who wrote its counterinsurgency manual and now heads the Centre for New American Security, a think tank. “That raises some interesting questions — like whether we have the right to do that. There is much less public debate. Society doesn’t pay the cost and so doesn’t ask the questions.”

Quietly, this approach is already redefining how conflicts are waged. Conventional troop surges might have dominated coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, but behind the scenes the generals were heavily dependent on secret, special operations. Intelligence operators, remote-controlled drones and troops from the SEALS, Delta Force, Britain’s SAS and other forces fought hidden campaigns against insurgent leaders and bomb makers, working with local communities to turn conflicts against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their allies.  “There has been a real renewed focus on special operations and clandestine services,” says Fred Burton, a former U.S. counterterrorism agent and now vice president for strategic intelligence firm Stratfor. “They were always there, of course, but they had become somewhat sidelined. That’s definitely changed now.”

To an extent, the shift is down to technology. This provides some entirely new weaponry — such as the cybermunition Stuxnet, which caused Iranian nuclear centrifuges to rip themselves apart. It also allows force to be more targeted.  “You change your ability to integrate information, which in many ways is at least as important as collection,” says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior U.S. intelligence official now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “You have collation of information almost in real time. You can pull together the information and find the target.”

That is already changing the shape of western militaries. A drone can be flown remotely by just one pilot, but it takes around 20 analysts to interpret and assess the data it collects. This in turn produces a much larger array of potential targets. In Afghanistan alone last year, McRaven says his forces conducted some 2,000 raids against identified high-value adversaries.

To work with tribal groups and win their loyalty, language skills and cultural awareness are essential. Special forces helped shape both the “Sunni awakening”, which swept Al Qaeda and its allies from much of Iraq, and the more recent rebel victory in Libya. McRaven said he believed the Afghan “village program”, working with local communities and police, might prove his forces’ most important contribution to that war.  The need for such skills is not new, of course. McRaven demands all his officers and NCOs learn a second language. Others in the field read ancient histories or the writings of idiosyncratic English archeologist T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”.

But some argue the most important force driving the new tactics is an almost visceral objection to more conventional warfare in the wake of the Iraq conflict, and Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza.  “It’s almost always a matter of political will,” says Nigel Inkster, a former deputy chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). “The new technologies do give you some new options, but broadly these capabilities have always existed. The question is whether you choose to take the more covert route or send in the 101st Airborne.  Cash flow is also key. Those with knowledge of western strategy towards Libya say it was driven more by what could not be done than what could. A wider military intervention was politically impossible and financially unaffordable, yet politicians demanded something be done.   Some of the most successful strategies were not conventional. British officials say the secret “oil cell” that helped starve Muammar Gaddafi of fuel supplieswas key to rebel victory, yet involved the use of little or no military force.

Besides straining budgets, the global financial crisis has also made great powers more reluctant to risk the economic shock of serious conflict. One reason Stuxnet was such an appealing tool, security experts say, is that it carried less risk of Iranian military retaliation against shipping in the Gulf. That would have sent oil prices soaring.  A senior Israeli official has said cyber warfare offers a less politically dangerous option for nations in a media-saturated age. Israel suffered widespread international scrutiny and frequent condemnation for its wars in Lebanon and Gaza.

“War is ugly, awfully ugly,” Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor — who overseas spy services and nuclear affairs — told diplomats and journalists at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs in February. “War is all the time on television… people see this and can’t take it… Because it is difficult, one looks for other ways. One of these ways is the intelligence community … are trying to do things that don’t look that ugly, don’t kill people.”

But the secret campaign against Iran’s nuclear program has not been entirely bloodless. Sabotage might be relatively clean, but Israel’s Mossad is also suspected of being behind the killings of several of Tehran’s nuclear scientists.  With so much now taking place behind the scenes, a handful of critics is expressing concern that there is simply far too little scrutiny.  “The implications are vast,” says Patricia De Gennaro, a counterinsurgency expert and professor at New York University who has worked with U.S. forces in the Middle East. “There is no accountability. People have been basically brainwashed, with the help of the media and others in the Beltway, into believing we don’t have a right to know what their military is doing.”  In an era that may see heightened state-to-state rivalry — not least between older western powers and increasingly assertive emerging states such as China — any operations that go awry could heighten tensions further  The information revolution may also be making it harder to keep operations secret. The Bin Laden raid was reported by a local resident on Twitter within minutes of the helicopters touching down.  It would be a delusion to see covert operations as a simple solution to global problems. “This comes in cycles,” says Cordesman.  “There is a tendency to grossly exaggerate success and underestimate the cost… These things are never under control, not even in a democracy. Nothing you ever do with violence is going to be clean or simple. But sometimes you just have to look at the options, look at the consequences of not acting, and then do it.”

Peter Apps, The rise and rise of western covert ops, Reuters, Oct 18 2011

CIA and JSOC

Wars of the Future

New Weapons