Tag Archives: US Special Operations Command

US Special Forces Wars: 2017

location of drone base in Niger

Yemen to Syria to Central Africa, the Trump administration is relying on Special Operations forces to intensify its promised fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups as senior officials embrace an Obama-era strategy to minimize the American military’s footprint overseas.

In Africa, President Trump is expected to soon approve a Pentagon proposal to remove constraints on Special Operations airstrikes and raids in parts of Somalia to target suspected militants with the Shabab, an extremist group linked to Al Qaeda. Critics say that the change — in one of the few rejections of President Barack Obama’s guidelines for the elite forces — would bypass rules that seek to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks and commando operations.

The global reach of special operators is widening. During the peak of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 13,000 Special Operations forces were deployed on missions across the globe, but a large majority were assigned to those two countries. Now, March 2017, more than half of the 8,600 elite troops overseas are posted outside the Middle East or South Asia, operating in 97 countries, according to the Special Operations Command.  Still, about one-third of the 6,000 American troops currently in Iraq and Syria are special operators, many of whom are advising local troops and militias on the front lines. About a quarter of the 8,400 American troops in Afghanistan are special operators.

In Africa, about one-third of the nearly 6,000 overall troops are Special Operations forces. The only permanent American installation on the continent is Camp Lemonnier [Djibouti], a sprawling base of 4,000 United States service members and civilians in Djibouti that serves as a hub for counterterrorism operations and training. The United States Air Force flies surveillance drones from small bases in Niger and Cameroon.

Elsewhere in Africa, the roles of special operators are varied, and their ranks are small, typically measured in the low dozens for specific missions. Between 200 and 300 Navy SEALs and other special operators work with African allies to hunt shadowy Shabab terrorists in Somalia. As many as 100 Special Forces soldiers help African troops pursue the notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. And Navy SEALs are training Nigerian commandos for action in the oil-rich delta.

The United States is building a $50 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, that is likely to open sometime in 2018 to monitor Islamic State insurgents in a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Chad.  Mr. Trump’s tough talk on terrorism has been well received in Chad, where American Special Operations and military instructors from several Western nations finished an annual three-week counterterrorism training exercise last week.

Excerpts from AERIC SCHMITT, Using Special Forces Against Terrorism, Trump Seeks to Avoid Big Ground Wars, Mar. 19, 20187

All for the Hard Drive

The Pentagon has quietly ordered new commando deployments to the Middle East and North Africa amid an unprecedented series of American airstrikes in Yemen, counterterrorism officials tell ABC News.  The moves appear to signal that the U.S. military is kicking off a more aggressive counterterrorism campaign… against Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS strongholds in Syria and areas in North Africa.

The Trump administration in late January 2017 launched the first known ground force operation in Yemen in two years followed by an unprecedented two-dozen or more airstrikes the first week of March 2017 targeting al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, including airstrikes March 2, 2017 night. This week also saw the killing of al-Qaeda’s overall deputy leader in a U.S. drone strike in northwestern Syria….

Un-announced fresh deployments of elite American commando units from the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEAL teams continue…

But the first known ground force operation in two years on Jan. 28, 2017 raid by the Navy’s “black ops” counterterror unit, SEAL Team Six, came at a high price.  The experienced operators were caught in a withering mountain gunfight with fighters from AQAP, the only terrorist group which has succeeded three times in smuggling sophisticated bombs aboard U.S.-bound jetliners, which were defused before they exploded.

“There were women straight up shooting at the SEALs,” said a counterterrorism official briefed on the fight, describing the unusual battle, which resulted in one SEAL killed in action, some children in the compound killed by crossfire as the SEALs tried to search buildings and then broke contact, leaving the site aboard MV-22 Osprey aircraft. One Osprey had to make a hard landing, which injured three SEALs and the aircraft had to be destroyed in place by the operators….

One computer hard drive and phones containing a wealth of contact information for al-Qaeda operatives around the region were recovered by the SEALs…While the Yemen operation has become politicized in Washington as having “failed,” with some Democrats questioning whether any intelligence gains were worth the high cost of SEAL Ryan Owens’ life, a $75 million aircraft crashed and children killed in crossfire, military analysts continue “docex” — document exploitation — in an eavesdrop-proof sensitive compartmented information facility….

Excerpts from JAMES GORDON MEEK,US special ops step up strikes on al-Qaeda and ISIS, insiders say, Mar. 3, 2017

 

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)

SOCOM; the power of the United States Special Operations Command

Admiral McRaven’s [head of the SOCOM] broad goal is to obtain new authority from the Defense Department to move his elite forces faster and outside normal Pentagon deployment channels. That would give him more autonomy to position his personnel and their fighting equipment where intelligence and world events indicate they are most needed. It would also allow the Special Operations forces to expand their presence in regions where they have not operated in large numbers for the past decade, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

At a time of declining Pentagon budgets and a waning public appetite for large wars of occupation, the Obama administration hopes to rely more on foreign troops and security forces to tackle extremist threats abroad. These new realities have led to a larger debate within the military about its future priorities, and not all senior officers welcome Admiral McRaven’s ambitious proposals, suspecting a power grab that might weaken the authority of regional commanders.  “I was trying to figure out how to stand in front of this juggernaut that is the Special Operations Command, particularly in today’s world,” Adm. Timothy J. Keating, a former head of the military’s Northern and Pacific commands, said at a Special Operations conference in April in Washington. “I don’t fundamentally understand what needs fixing.”

While it is not unusual for branches of the armed services or combatant commands to lobby Congress for troop benefits or weaponry, like new fighter jets or artillery systems, the Special Operations Command’s hurried pitch because of the pending legislation did not go down well.  In its request in April 2012, the command sought a new $25 million fund to buy uniforms, build barracks and ferry foreign troops rather than using existing Pentagon and State Department aid programs that could have added months to the process. That required changes in the law, so the command asked to tuck them into a Pentagon budget bill the House was poised to pass.

In a three-page, confidential draft legislative proposal, the command argued that by coupling the proposed changes with its existing special fast-track acquisition authorities, it could provide “a fast turnaround resource for dealing with breaking issues.” Special Operations officers would work closely with American ambassadors in each country and the State Department to support foreign policy goals.  The legislative draft filled in some details of a plan sketched out for Congress on March 27 by the Pentagon’s top civilian Special Operations policy official, Michael A. Sheehan. Citing Africa as a prime example, Mr. Sheehan, a West Point graduate who is assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and low-intensity conflict, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “We will need different authorities, we will need different types of programs in order for us to engage with the range of countries, from Libya down through Mali, which is obviously in the middle of chaos right now, to Mauritania, all the way — and, quite frankly, all the way over to Nigeria.”

But lawmakers and State Department officials were puzzled. Only last year, Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton, backed by Congress, agreed to pool resources from their two departments in a new fund to respond more quickly to counter emerging threats from Al Qaeda and other militants in places like Yemen and the Horn of Africa.  The program, the Global Security Contingency Fund (pdf), is small as government programs go — $250 million a year, mostly from the Pentagon — but it is meant to address many of the needs the command’s proposal outlined.

A report accompanying the military budget bill that the House approved last month summed up the objections of not only lawmakers in the House and Senate, but also high-ranking administration officials who met on May 7 at the White House to work out the dispute. “The committee is concerned that the proliferation of similar, overlapping and/or competing building partner capacity authorities creates unnecessary confusion and friction,” the House report said.

Excerpt, ERIC SCHMITT, Elite Military Forces Are Denied in Bid for Expansion, New York Times, June 4, 2012

Israel’s Covert War

Amid deepening tension between Iran and its principal adversaries — the United States and Israel — the Jewish state has formed a Special Forces command to carry out strategic strikes deep inside hostile territory.   The formation of the new command indicates that Israel’s military envisages long-range, largely clandestine and multi-arm operations will have a much higher priority than the conventional operations…  Israeli defense officials say the elite new corps’ area of operations includes the “third circle,” a term that usually encompasses the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa.  Indeed, the new formation, officially known in Hebrew as the Depth Corps, has been popularly dubbed the “Iran Command” so ingrained has the Islamic Republic become in the national psyche as the main existential threat to the Jewish state because of its alleged quest for nuclear weapons.

The Depth Corps is the equivalent of the U.S. Special Operations Command that oversaw the clandestine operation that led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May and will have the authority to initiate special operations.  It’s the brainchild of the recently appointed chief of the general staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, until recently head of the Northern Command along the border with Lebanon.  Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier and a legendary Special Forces leader, green-lighted the project.

The corps will integrate the Israeli military’s various special units such as the elite Sayeret Matkal of Military Intelligence, the air force’s Shaldaq and the navy’s Flotilla 13, coordinating their operations and their unique specialties to an unprecedented degree.  Sayeret Matkal was commanded by Barak in the 1970s. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, then an army captain, was one of his officers.  They both participated in the May 9, 1972, storming of a hijacked Boeing 707 of Sabena Belgian Airlines at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv — now Ben Gurion International — held by Black September Palestinian militants to free the 100 hostages aboard the jet.

The new corps will be commanded by Maj. Gen. Shai Avitai, a former Sayeret Matkal chief and a close associate of Barak. Israel’s military objectives are primarily focused on Iran at this time, with threats to unleash pre-emptive strikes, primarily using fighter-bombers and ballistic missiles, against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear infrastructure.  But it’s also concerned with clandestine arms shipments, mainly from Iran, funneled through the Red Sea into Egypt via Sudan. At least two long-range strikes were reportedly carried out in January 2010 against arms convoys moving north through the Sudanese desert.But the formation of the new command follows major gains by Islamist radicals in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya amid the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings that began in January.

The seismic shifts in the Arab world’s geopolitical landscape, with a savage confrontation under way in Syria between the minority Alawite regime of President Bashar Assad and its opponents that could produce another Islamist-dominated power, have radically altered Israel’s security perspective…..The Post’s military correspondent, Yaakov Katz, said that, Iran aside, likely targets for the Depth Corps is Lebanon and Syria.

Israel forms corps for strategic strikes, UPI.com, Dec. 19, 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

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