President Obama sat tensely in the White House Situation Room monitoring real-time footage from a helmet camera worn by a US commando engaged in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. To the president’s right sat Vice President Biden, rosary beads in hand; to his left was a highly decorated military man almost no one has ever heard of. That’s because Brig. Gen. Marshall “Brad” Webb is the No. 3 man in the most secretive black ops unit of the US military, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). His team was tasked with killing the most wanted man in the world.
The JSOC team that ultimately smoked bin Laden was led by the elite Navy SEAL Team Six. Officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU, SEALs from Team Six are considered the most elite warriors in the national security apparatus. Bin Laden is said to have been killed by a “double tap”—two shots to the head, one above the left eye. Soon after, his body was on a helicopter en route to the USS Carl Vinson. DNA tests and photos were taken before bin Laden was dumped into the sea to sleep with the fishes.
Col. W. Patrick Lang, a retired Special Forces officer with extensive operational experience throughout the Muslim world, described JSOC’s forces as “sort of like Murder Incorporated.” He told The Nation, “Their business is killing Al Qaeda personnel. That’s their business. They’re not in the business of converting anybody to our goals or anything like that.” Shortly after the operation was made public, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey called JSOC’s operators the “most dangerous people on the face of the earth.”
“They’re the ace in the hole. If you were a card player, that’s your ace that you’ve got tucked away,” said Gen. Hugh Shelton, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 9/11, in an interview with The Nation. Shelton, who also headed JSOC during his career, described it as “a surgical type of unit,” adding, “If you need someone that can sky-dive from thirty miles away, and go down the chimney of the castle, and blow it up from the inside—those are the guys you want to call on.”
JSOC, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and nearby Pope Air Force Base, is an all-star team made up of the Army’s Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, Army Rangers and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or Night Stalkers. JSOC conducts highly sensitive strike operations and clandestine intelligence missions, often operating in “denied areas.” More recently JSOC added a Targeting and Analysis Center in Rosslyn, Virginia, to its list of key facilities. During much of the Bush administration, JSOC was headed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Its job was to hunt down and kill high-value targets. McChrystal’s successor at JSOC, Vice Adm. William McRaven, is himself a former SEAL. The current commander of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Adm. Eric Olson, is a former SEAL Team Six commander. McRaven was recently tapped to replace Olson as SOCOM commander. Several Special Operations sources have described for The Nation a very close relationship between Obama and JSOC. Some allege that Obama has directed it to operate more aggressively, or “hit harder,” than President Bush did.
The United States has a lengthy history of Special Operations forces conducting targeted kill or capture ops inside Pakistan. “I would like to point out one sensitivity of Pakistan and its people, and that is it’s a violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan,” former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told NDTV after the killing of bin Laden was announced. “American troops coming across the border and taking action in one of our towns, that is Abbottabad, is not acceptable to the people of Pakistan.” Musharraf’s comments are ironic, given that he personally made a deal with General McChrystal to allow US Special Ops forces to cross into Pakistan from Afghanistan to target bin Laden or other Al Qaeda leaders. The “hot pursuit” agreement was predicated on Pakistan’s ability to deny it had given US forces permission to enter Pakistan.
Like President Bush before him, President Obama has reserved the right for US forces to operate lethally and unilaterally in any country around the globe in pursuit of alleged high-value terrorists. The Obama administration’s expansion of US Special Operations activities globally has been authorized under a classified order dating back to the Bush administration. Originally signed in early 2004 by then–Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, it is known as the AQN ExOrd, or Al Qaeda Network Execute Order. The AQN ExOrd was intended to cut through bureaucratic and legal processes, allowing US Special Forces to move into denied areas or countries beyond the official battle zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Gen. David Petraeus, now poised to become CIA director, expanded and updated that order in late 2009. “JSOC has been empowered more under this administration than any other in recent history,” a Special Ops source told The Nation. “No question.”
SEAL Team Six also carried out the operation that killed the Somali pirates who hijacked the MV Maersk Alabama in April 2009. They flew from a discreet US base in Manda Bay, Kenya. “If it comes down to putting sharpshooters up on the deck of an aircraft and making sure that first shot doesn’t miss, who do you want to do it?” asks General Shelton. Referring to Team Six, he adds, “They’re deadly accurate.”
The vast majority of JSOC’s missions are highly classified and compartmentalized. In some cases, JSOC operators have conducted operations without informing the combatant commanders of their presence. “Only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance,” a senior administration official said shortly after the announcement of bin Laden’s killing.
JSOC—and the Navy SEALs in particular—will become legendary in a much broader circle because of the bin Laden killing, but the secretive unit has had its share of controversy. JSOC forces were responsible for the October 8, 2010, botched rescue that ended up killing British aid worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan. JSOC also carried out a raid in Gardez, Afghanistan, in February 2010, during which five people, including two pregnant women and a US-trained Afghan police commander were killed. In that case, senior Afghan security officials and eyewitnesses claimed that US forces dug the bullets out of the women’s bodies. NATO had initially tried to cover up the incident, suggesting it may have been a Taliban “honor killing”; but eventually Admiral McRaven took responsibility for the botched raid and apologized to the family.
The primacy of JSOC within the administration’s foreign policy—from Yemen and Somalia to Afghanistan and Pakistan—indicates that Obama has doubled down on the Bush-era policy of targeted assassination as a staple of US foreign policy.