The team of US Special Operations Forces who killed Osama bin Laden in a pre-dawn raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, were led by elite Navy SEALS from the Joint Special Operations Command. Operators from SEAL Team Six, also known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or just DevGru, are widely considered to be the most elite warriors in the US national security apparatus.
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, who was the Chair of the Joint Chiefs on 9/11, in an interview with The Nation. Shelton, who also headed the Special Operations Command during his career, described JSOC 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.” Shelton added, “They are the quiet professionals. They do it, and do it well, but they don’t brag about it. Someone has to toot their horn for them, because they won’t, normally.”
JSOC, which is headquartered at Pope Air Force Base and Fort Bragg in North Carolina, 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, also known as the “Night Stalkers.” JSOC performs strike operations, reconnaissance in denied areas and special intelligence missions. More recently, JSOC added a Targeting and Analysis Center in Rosslyn, Virginia, to its list of key facilities. For much of the Bush administration, JSOC was headed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Its job was to hunt down and kill individuals designated as “High Value Targets.” McChrystal’s successor at JSOC, Vice Admiral William McRaven, is himself a former SEAL. The current commander of SOCOM, Admiral Eric Olson, is a former SEAL Team Six commander. McRaven was recently been tapped to replace Olson as SOCOM commander. Several Special Operations sources have described for The Nation a very close relationship between President Obama and JSOC. Some allege Obama has used them to “hit harder” than President Bush.
Marc Ambinder described the bin Laden raid in his excellent report on National Journal: “From Ghazi Air Base in Pakistan, the modified MH-60 helicopters made their way to the garrison suburb of Abbottabad, about 30 miles from the center of Islamabad. Aboard were Navy SEALs, flown across the border from Afghanistan, along with tactical signals, intelligence collectors, and navigators using highly classified hyperspectral imagers. After bursts of fire over 40 minutes, 22 people were killed or captured. One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap—boom, boom—to the left side of his face. His body was aboard the choppers that made the trip back. One had experienced mechanical failure and was destroyed by US forces.”
It remains unclear what, if any, role Pakistan’s military or intelligence forces played in the operation to kill bin Laden. US officials have said only that Pakistani intel aided the eventual operation. “We shared our intelligence on this bin Laden compound with no other country, including Pakistan,” said an unnamed senior administration official. “That was for one reason and one reason alone: We believed it was essential to the security of the operation and our personnel.” The fact that bin Laden’s compound was a stone’s throw from a Pakistani military installation in an urban area raises disturbing questions about how Pakistan’s military or intelligence services would not be aware of his location. As of this writing, the White House has not commented on this fact.
The United States has a lengthy history of US Special Operations Forces conducting targeted kill or capture operations inside Pakistan. “I would like to point out one sensitivity of Pakistan and its people and that it’s a violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan,” former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told NDTV after bin Laden’s killing was announced. “American troops coming across the border and taking action in one of our towns, that is Abbotabad, 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 so-called “hot pursuit” agreement was predicated on Pakistan’s ability to deny it had given the US forces permission to enter Pakistan.
Both President Bush and President Obama have reserved the right for US forces to operate lethally and unilaterally in any country across 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–Secretary of Defense Donald 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, who is poised to become director of the CIA, expanded and updated that order in late 2009. “JSOC has been more 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 that hijacked the 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 Obama administration official said shortly after bin Laden’s killing was announced.
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, has alleged that then–Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often circumvented the traditional military command structure in how they used JSOC. “What I was seeing was the development of what I would later see in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Special Operations forces would operate in both theaters without the conventional commander even knowing what they were doing,” Colonel Wilkerson told me in late 2009 for a story about JSOC in Pakistan. “That’s dangerous, that’s very dangerous. You have all kinds of mess when you don’t tell the theater commander what you’re doing.”
Wilkerson said that almost immediately after assuming his role at the State Department under Colin Powell, he saw JSOC being politicized and developing a close relationship with the executive branch. He saw this begin, he said, after his first Delta Force briefing at Fort Bragg. “I think Cheney and Rumsfeld went directly into JSOC. I think they went into JSOC at times, perhaps most frequently, without the SOCOM [Special Operations] commander at the time even knowing it. The receptivity in JSOC was quite good,” said Wilkerson. “I think Cheney was actually giving McChrystal instructions, and McChrystal was asking him for instructions.” He said the relationship between JSOC and Cheney and Rumsfeld “built up initially because Rumsfeld didn’t get the responsiveness. He didn’t get the can-do kind of attitude out of the SOCOM commander, and so as Rumsfeld was wont to do, he cut him out and went straight to the horse’s mouth. At that point you had JSOC operating as an extension of the [administration] doing things the executive branch—read: Cheney and Rumsfeld—wanted it to do. This would be more or less carte blanche. You need to do it, do it. It was very alarming for me as a conventional soldier.”
While JSOC—and the Navy SEALs in particular—will become legendary in a much broader circle as a result of the bin Laden killing, the secretive unit has had its share of controversy. JSOC forces were responsible for the botched rescue that ended up killing British aid worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan on October 8, 2010. JSOC also carried out a raid in Gardez, Afghanistan, in February 2010 during which 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 dead women’s bodies. Initially, JSOC’s forces tried to cover up the incident by blaming the killings on a Taliban “honor killing.” Eventually, Admiral McRaven took responsibility for the botched raid and apologized to the family.
Several Special Ops sources say that President Obama has taken concrete steps to once again integrate JSOC more fully into the broader US military strategy globally. The bin Laden operation, which was done in concert with the CIA, seems to be evidence of that. The primacy of JSOC within the Obama administration’s foreign policy—from Yemen and Somalia to Afghanistan and Pakistan—indicates that he has doubled down on the Bush-era policy of targeted assassination as a staple of US foreign policy.
For links to The Nation’s complete coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death, click here.