In the secretive special operations community, officials are debating whether to tweak tactics for daring and risky missions involving hostage rescue and terrorist targeting that have been compromised by years of detailed news accounts and Hollywood portrayals.
Some believe Islamic extremists have gone to school on special operations forces. The classroom is the U.S. media.
Special operations forces’ three most recent attempts to rescue American hostages failed. Last year, SEALs attempted a beach insertion to capture a terrorist leader in Somalia but were spotted and repelled. There was also the horrific loss of SEALs in a helicopter shoot-down that some family members believe was an ambush.
For years, the basics for rescue and terrorist targeting have remained intact: insertion by silenced helicopter or boat to, or near, a target; and fast-roping or running to the end point. The objective is complete tactical surprise by the best commandos in the world, enhanced by goggles that let them see through the darkness.
But as one veteran of the special operations community said, “We’ve got one way of doing things, and the enemy is on to it because they’ve published these news reports and movies and all the rest of it. It’s time for some new tactics because the old ones are not working anymore.”
Retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, once the Navy’s top SEAL, was asked whether members of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have gone to school on special operations tactics.
“Movies,” he said. “All they need to do is get the movies.”
It was a reference to Hollywood’s realistic depiction of counterterrorism operations, especially the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Kenneth McGraw, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, said, “USSOCOM has a robust lessons learned program and SOF units are constantly reviewing the results of operations to determine if changes need to be made to training, doctrine, or tactics, techniques and procedures.”
The May 2011 SEAL Team 6 raid that killed bin Laden attracted an unprecedented spotlight to how hostage rescues and targeted insertions are conducted.
In the immediate aftermath, the White House leaked copious timelines. The CIA helped Hollywood make a movie. A former SEAL on the raid wrote a detailed book.
Navy SEALs and the Army’s crack hostage rescuers, Delta Force, had conducted scores of similar raids against terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the details remained “black.” No post-operation leaks or readouts surfaced.
The bin Laden mission changed that.
The most recent failure happened Dec. 5 in Yemen’s southern Shabwa region. A mission to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers failed the previous month. When commandos arrived at an al Qaeda cave hideout, Somers had been moved.
The same terrorist modus operandi occurred this summer in Syria. When Delta Force operatives arrived at the Islamic State compound, the hostages had been transferred.
Islamists clearly have learned the abilities of U.S. intelligence and commandos. Perhaps they also have learned the practice of Hezbollah terrorists in Beirut in the 1980s when prisoners did not stay in one place for long.
Last year, SEAL Team 6 raiders were forced to retreat after a lookout for the al Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab spotted them around a compound in Somalia holding its military commander — the mission’s target.
On Dec. 5, nearly 40 SEAL Team 6 members did not attempt an overhead insertion, as was conducted at bin Laden‘s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Instead, they touched down about 6 miles away in two Ospreys, which fly as fixed-wing aircraft and land and take off vertically like a helicopter.
Then, dumb luck, or an alert guard, intervened. As the special operations team approached 100 yards away, the guard picked that time to go outside.
“He was just outside the compound,” the special operations community source said. “When they take a piss, they kneel down. They’re Muslims, and they don’t stand erect like we do. He was down kind of flat-footed, pissing, behind a bush and saw these guys coming and he yelled. He was unarmed, but he yelled to the guys inside and then ran in.”
Fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula quickly shot and killed Somers and a South African hostage, Pierre Korkie. Minutes later, the SEAL team engaged and killed most of those in the compound. The mission failed, but all SEALs returned to base safely.
Said the source, “There’s no good answer to this issue except we’ve kind of relied on one technique. That’s helicopter insertion and then either coming right down on top of target or way off and then walking the last 4 or 5 miles. Millions have been spent on silencing them and keeping them stealthy. And cooling off the exhaust so they don’t give off a thermal signature. You wouldn’t believe the programs they spend money on to try to do those things.”
SEAL Team 6 used specially configured MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to penetrate Pakistani airspace in the bin Laden raid and arrived over the compound undetected.
As for changing tactics, Adm. Worthington said he was “not sure how you go about doing that.”
“You have to get someplace,” he said. “There’s several ways to do it. Sea. Air. Land, if you will. Every operation is a different one. It’s an equal-opportunity battlefield. They get to shoot back. They see the ‘ops’ go bad on them, they figure out how to fix it.”
One person who warned early on that Islamic terrorists would go to school on leaked tactics is former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. He ran the Pentagon the night bin Laden was killed.
In his memoir, “Duty,” Mr. Gates said that on that May 2011 night he warned the White House not to gab about details.
“I reminded everyone that the techniques, tactics, and procedures the SEALs had used in the Bin Laden operation were used every night in Afghanistan and elsewhere in hunting down terrorists and other enemies,” he wrote. “It was therefore essential that we agree not to release any operational details of the raid. That we killed him, I said, is all we needed to say. Everybody in that room agreed to keep mum on details.
“That commitment lasted about five hours. The initial leaks came from the White House and CIA. They just couldn’t wait to brag and to claim credit.”
Mr. Gates became so enraged that he used an expletive to convey to Mr. Obama’s national security director the need to shut up — to no avail.
A tragedy befell SEAL Team 6 later that year. A CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down while on a mission to back up Army Rangers in Afghanistan. All 38 onboard, including 15 SEAL Team 6 members, were killed.
The families of some of the dead believe the mission was compromised by Afghan informants. The Taliban fighter who fired the deadly rocket-propelled grenade was stationed on a dwelling’s turret not far from the landing zone, which the U.S. had not used before.
A Pentagon official told Congress there was no evidence the shooter was tipped off.
Larry Johnson, a former CIA hand and counterterrorism official at the State Department, said hostage rescue headquarters is now the White House and no longer an interagency process.
“We’re more incompetent,” Mr. Johnson said. “The entire national security apparatus for dealing with hostage incidents and kidnapping has basically been dismantled under Obama. It’s all being done over at the White House. And instead of bringing in people who have genuine experience in this area, it’s all being played from the standpoint of domestic politics.”
Mr. Johnson noted that an international aid group said it was close to obtaining Korkie’s release and had discussed the negotiations with unidentified Americans in Yemen. The White House and State Department said they were unaware.
The Pentagon said the Dec. 5 mission was quickly drawn up and approved by President Obama in response to intelligence that al Qaeda planned to kill Somers the next day.
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.