Spe­cial ops on front lines in fight against ter­ror­ism

Ob­scure com­mand be­came nerve cen­ter af­ter 9/11 at­tacks

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

Is­lamic ex­trem­ists jarred Amer­ica 14 years ago in a co­or­di­nated at­tack that also rat­tled to at­ten­tion a back­wa­ter mil­i­tary com­mand that had done a lot of train­ing in past decades but only spo­radic fight­ing.

Shortly af­ter al Qaeda’s mas­sacres in New York, the Pen­tagon and a field in Penn­syl­va­nia, then-De­fense Sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld is­sued one of his whitepa­per memos di­rect­ing his forces to get into the man­hunt­ing busi­ness.

Much of the hunt­ing would by done by that then-ob­scure out­post — U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand. SO­COM over­sees some of the na­tion’s most ruth­less and so­phis­ti­cated war­riors, yet re­mained on Sept. 11, 2001, an lit­tle-known group, housed on an Air Force base amid Tampa’s palms and warm rains.

To­day, SO­COM is the bustling nerve and mus­cle cen­ter of the war on terror. Its ranks have swelled and its tech­nol­ogy has ad­vanced. Its air force is larger, faster and stealth­ier. Al Qaeda saw this skill set in May 2011, when su­per-quiet Black Hawk he­li­copters pen­e­trated Pak­istan’s air space: Their pas­sen­gers, Navy SEAL Team Six mem­bers, killed Osama bin Laden.

“When I was in SEAL Team Six, we fo­cused a lot of time on train­ing,” said Rep. Ryan Zinke, Mon­tana Repub­li­can, re­call­ing the pre-9/11 era. “We looked at pos­si­ble mis­sions. We looked at ad­vanc­ing tac­tics, tech­niques, pro­ce­dures and equip­ment. And then, oc­ca­sion­ally, we would go into con­flict, usu­ally of short du­ra­tion. Then you would re­turn to the cy­cle of train­ing.”

“To­day,” he said, “our young war­riors, whether they en­ter as Green Berets or SEALs or one of the other spe­cial oper­a­tions units, they’re com­ing into a ser­vice that is at war. It’s likely they will spend their en­tire ca­reer at war.”

Mr. Rums­feld, who openly talked of the need to kill ter­ror­ists, handed SO­COM another prize. He made it a “sup­ported” com­bat­ant com­mand — Pen­tagon-speak for say­ing it now had the power to plan and ex­e­cute its own mis­sions. On the or­ga­ni­za­tion chart, it ranked with Cen­tral Com­mand and Pa­cific Com­mand as a ma­jor com­bat­ant player.

SO­COM was spend­ing about $2 bil­lion a year when hi­jacked air­lin­ers hit the World Trade Cen­ter and the Pen­tagon in 2001. Its bud­get to­day passed the $10 bil­lion mark. Its to­tal force has nearly dou­bled, to 71,000 com­man­dos and sup­port per­son­nel serv­ing in 80 coun­tries. On the bat­tle­field, they fused into spe­cial task forces with the CIA and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency to co­or­di­nate the hunt for ter­ror­ists.

SEAL Team Six, where Mr. Zinke com­manded a squadron, has ex­panded in both men and ter­ri­tory at its base at Dam Neck, Vir­ginia, un­der an of­fi­cial name: Naval Spe­cial War­fare De­vel­op­ment Group.

“It’s much larger to­day,” the con­gress­man said. “When I was there, we were all in one build­ing. You could tell ev­ery­one in the com­mand by their first name. Not only did I know ev­ery­one’s name, I also knew their wives’ first names. To­day, when I go back to the com­pound, it’s huge. The mis­sion port­fo­lio is also more com­plex.”

Within a month of 9/11, Green Berets in­vaded Afghanistan to oust al Qaeda’s main ally, the Tal­iban. Within sev­eral years, a mix of Green Berets, Delta Force, Navy SEALs and spe­cial gun­ships were hunt­ing ter­ror­ists in Ye­men, the Horn of Africa, North Africa, Iraq and the Pak­istan bor­der. To­day, the hunt has been ex­panded to Syria in mis­sions to kill lead­ers of the Is­lamic State.

Delta Force and SEAL Team Six had prac­ticed res­cu­ing hostages over and over again, but had not paid as much at­ten­tion to di­rect sur­gi­cal strikes on a mud hut or walled com­pound. That has all changed.

The cam­paign to take down al Qaeda in Iraq cen­tered on Joint Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand (JSOC) and its Delta Force, SEAL Team Six and in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives, led by a hard-charg­ing com­man­der, Army Gen. Stan­ley M. McChrys­tal.

The melded agen­cies pin­pointed the where­abouts of hun­dreds of high-value tar­gets, in­clud­ing Jor­da­nian Abu Musab Zar­qawi, the al Qaeda in Iraq leader. Mr. McChrys­tal stood over his body in 2006 af­ter his men had tracked him to a hide­out and bombs from a U.S. war­plane had killed him.

“We are uniquely able to op­er­ate in a va­ri­ety of en­vi­ron­ments to sup­port strate­gic progress in achiev­ing na­tional se­cu­rity ob­jec­tives,” Army Gen. Joseph Vo­tel, SO­COM com­man­der, told Congress last spring in his an­nual re­port on the state of spe­cial oper­a­tions. “We are con­tin­u­ing to dis­rupt the vi­o­lent ac­tions of ex­trem­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions.”

One statis­tic that il­lus­trates the high tempo: The av­er­age spe­cial oper­a­tions war­rior has de­ployed over­seas be­tween four and 10 times since 9/11.

“What we’re see­ing is, spe­cial oper­a­tions are be­ing used more and more and more, partly be­cause we are un­will­ing to ac­cept risk so you use your best as­set more,” Mr. Zinke said. “But us­ing spe­cial oper­a­tions for the amount of ‘ops’ that we are see­ing has a cost.”

One cost is in blood. Nearly 400 com­man­dos have died in com­bat and another 74 died from non-com­bat causes. There are 7,500 spe­cial oper­a­tions per­son­nel in the com­mu­nity’s wounded war­riors pro­gram, many of them suf­fer­ing from trau­matic stress.

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