The Industrial (Counter-Terrorism) Revolution
The early days following the invasion of Iraq saw joyous celebrations of Saddam Hussein’s ouster spill out into the streets. However, those streets soon took on a very different feel. The nation devolved into chaos and bloodshed, and as much as the Coalition attempted to ignore or deny it, an ugly sectarian conflict cascaded into civil war. Several tens of thousands were killed as Sunni and Shi’a Muslims battled it out in an ever-escalating series of attacks, typified by Sunni suicide bombings and Shi’a death squad hits.i
The violence was not exacerbated so much as driven by the calculated campaigns of foreigners who pulled strings on either side of the equation, fanning the flames of civil war.
The United States had cited questionable al-Qaeda connections to Saddam’s Iraq as a motivating factor in support of the invasion. If anything, America’s presence as a result of the decision to invade made those fears real; a significant al-Qaeda threat arose in Iraq in order to wage jihad on the ‘infidels.’
Led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was arguably even more bloodthirsty than its parent organization. Zarqawi’s brutal tactics, actively targeting Shi’ites and Westerners alike, were initially discouraged by Osama bin Laden and his #2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. However, they ultimately decided it best to just get on board and ride the wave of the Jordanian’s rising popularity (and death toll).ii
In some ways, the United States helped fuel Zarqawi’s notoriety, placing a $25 million bounty on his head. That matched the largest ever offered by the nation, equaling the bounties placed on Hussein, bin Laden, and Zawahiri. And by 2006 Zarqawi was viewed as the nation’s top target, prioritized by JSOC ahead of even bin Laden.iii
The Americans weren’t just caught in the middle, they were the primary target of all involved. IED attacks and ambushes by any number of parties who could simply slip back into the population became the on-ground reality.
The United States and its allies were not without means to combat the situation, however, thanks in large part to the fast-evolving JSOC. And Delta Force was JSOC’s centerpiece weapon with which to fight.v
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had been frustrated both by interagency squabbles with the CIA and the inability to reliably provide JSOC’s SMUs with actionable intelligence in the early stages of the Iraq War (and prior to that). To rectify the situation, he took full advantage of loosened restrictions and an open-ended mandate following 9/11 to rebuild the Command, empowering JSOC to take shape as a proactive, self-contained terror-fighting powerhouse on a scale never previously imagined.vi
At the same time, Rumsfeld selected a new ‘Pope’: General Stanley McChrystal. (‘The Pope’ is the nickname traditionally given to JSOC’s commander in reference to a comment Attorney General Janet Reno once made in regards to the Command’s legendary secrecy.)vii
McChrystal turned out to be exactly the unstoppable force needed to guide such an ambitious transformation. However, rather than isolate this newly-augmented ‘National Missions Force’ as may have been Rumsfeld’s original intent, the one-time 75th Ranger Regiment commander went the other way entirely, emphasizing open communication in order to cut through layers of inter and intra-agency bureaucracy. Those efforts would dramatically improve JSOC’s ability to collect, analyze, and act on intelligence.viii
JSOC’s budget, capabilities, and collection of units exploded in the years following 9/11.ix In addition to Delta, ST6, the Air Force’s 24th STS, and the Command’s usual attachments ‘borrowed’ from SOCOM proper — the 160th SOAR and the 75th Ranger Regiment — JSOC also absorbed the mysterious Mission Support Activity (MSA or simply ‘the Activity’) in 2003. The Command also took control of a number of other low visibility units, among them the Joint Communications Unit, Aviation Tactics and Evaluation Group, Technical Applications Program Office, Ground Applications Program Office, and the 66th Air Operations Squadron. It also significantly pumped up its fleet of MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reaper drones. Combined, the expansion elevated JSOC’s intelligence, logistical, technological, and operational capabilities. (For further detail on its current composition see Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady’s highly informative ebook, The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army.)x
McChrystal’s efforts to play nicely with others saw JSOC further bolstered by increased cooperation and integration with the CIA, NSA, MI6, FBI, non-JSOC military intelligence units, other special operators, conventional forces, and civilian contractors… just about anyone the General could get his hands on who could make JSOC a more effective machine.xi
Constant UAV surveillance (complete with DVR-like functionality for complex movement analysis which allowed, for example, car bombs to be traced back to their point of origin and likely areas of future insurgent activity to be predictedxii) and near-complete control of Iraq’s newly established cellular network (including wearable cell phone homing sensors for assaulters) added to the remarkable intelligence fusion. Combined it became known as “the unblinking eye.”xiii
While the end goal may be to finish terrorists and/or save hostages, units like Delta are intelligence driven.xiv No matter how proficient Delta’s operators may be as gunfighters and hostage rescuers (and they have long been considered among the world’s best — if not the preeminent unit — for that particular sort of work), it means precious little if their HK416s can’t be pointed in precisely the right direction at precisely the right time. Nor does it matter if they aren’t given permission to take action even when they can.
By 2005, JSOC had become extremely adept at enabling Delta and other direct action units to do what they do best.xv Never before was the Unit so well supported from above, alongside, and behind. F3EAD (Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, and Disseminate) became the order of the day, and the finishers of this particular equation finally had a supporting cast to match their considerable talents.xvi
As a result, General McChrystal and his chief intelligence officer (or J2), General Michael Flynn, laid the groundwork for JSOC to radically increase its OPTEMPO to levels that became referred to as “industrial scale counter terrorism.”xvii
In contrast to 2004 when JSOC units went out on a raid every few days in Iraq, soon the Command would be conducting a relentless campaign of non-stop assaults. Night after night, they took the fight to the enemy, executing hundreds of raids per month.xviii Thanks to F3EAD, each raid secured new intelligence that could be rapidly processed and initiate a wave of follow-up raids — sometimes launched within hours of the one that produced the intel to spark them.xix
Some assault teams were augmented with embedded FBI case agents who helped to efficiently process sites and instantly interrogate new captives, further streamlining the process. (When McChrystal initially requested FBI agents, the Bureau sent him operators from the FBI’s civilian Delta-equivalent, the Hostage Rescue Team, to which McChrystal responded, “I’ve got shooters… I need Sipowicz.”xx)
As first described by Sean D. Naylor in Army Times, JSOC’s task force in Iraq (then known as ‘Task Force 145′) sectioned off the country for its direct action elements. Included were Task Force West/Blue (SEAL Team Six with Ranger support), Task Force North/Red (Ranger-driven with a Delta element), and Task Force Black/Knight (rotating squadrons from the British SAS and SBS (primarily SAS as the SBS took ownership of Afghanistan)). Task Force Black was renamed Task Force Knight around the same time it was fully integrated into the campaign and effectively deputized as a JSOC SMU.xxi
At some point, a U.S. Army Special Forces CIF (Combatant Commander’s In-Extremis Force) companyxxii and the Iraqi commando unit they were training (perhaps the Iraqi Special Operation Forces 2nd Counter Terrorism Battalion — Iraq’s premier CT unit) were added to the mix to help counter the growing Iranian influence.xxiii
And at the heart of the operation was Task Force Central/Green composed of a Delta squadron with Rangers in support. Additionally, Delta’s commanding officer ran the day-to-day operation of the entire show from Task Force 145′s high-tech Joint Operations Center (JOC) at Balad Air Base.xxiv
In Who’s Image?
Despite executing thousands of raids of near-unfathomable intensity and violence (over half of the Unit’s operators are said to have been wounded in action during the campaign, and, as they say, ‘you should see the other guy’xxv), Delta’s revolutionary campaign against AQI has gone relatively undocumented to date, with just a handful of operations detailed to any significant degree.
Perhaps the most revealing peek into its activities yet was delivered with a distinctly British slant via Mark Urban’s account of the SAS’s involvement in Iraq, Task Force Black.
Task Force Green and Task Force Knight shared common quarters at MSS Fernandez and frequently operated jointly, both officially and informally. As the CT revolution got underway, the SAS troopers enviously took note at what the Unit was up to. Eventually they were allowed to take part in the campaign at a similar level.xxvi
Historically at least, the SAS could best be described as Delta Force’s parent organization. The Unit was founded in the SAS’s image by Delta’s original commanding officer, Colonel Charlie Beckwith. Beckwith had become enamored with the British unit’s capabilities during a stint with the SAS as an exchange officer in the ’60s and fought hard to get permission to build a similar force for the United States.xxvii
A common thread runs throughout Task Force Black that makes it difficult not to come away with the impression that the units’ relationship has since evolved. Today they seem to exist almost like siblings, with Delta — backed by the enormous might and budget of the United States military machine (and JSOC in particular) — playing big brother to the SAS’s little brother.
Besides merely wanting in on some of Delta’s action, the SAS’s commanding officer at the time, Lt. Col. Richard Williams, openly admired General McChrystal and was described as an unabashed Americanophile who “would probably have preferred to have commanded Delta.”xxviii He constantly challenged Task Force Black (mockingly referred to as “Task Force Slack” prior to their JSOC integrationxxix) to match the pace and intensity of the Americans. And when the SAS was at its most lethal, Urban described it as “operating in the style of Delta.”xxx
The units’ assaulters even began to look more and more alike. The SAS is described as transitioning to the practice of wearing their sidearms on the front of their body armor in a similar fashion to the Americans rather than in leg holsters as they typically had previously,xxxi while also adopting the same Crye Precision MultiCam camouflage gear that was popular with Delta operatorsxxxii — some even complete with Stars and Stripes-adorned ‘Fuck al-Qaeda’ patches.xxxiii
Delta showed their solidarity with the SAS when the Unit’s commanding officer offered the services of his operators after two SAS troopers had been taken captive and held in Basra’s Jamiat police station (services that were not required as the SAS ultimately recovered its men).xxxiv
Coming in Part 4: “JSOC is Awesome”
i “Elements of ‘civil war’ in Iraq,” BBC News (February 2, 2007), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6324767.stm.
iv William Branigin, “Iran’s Quds Force was blamed for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq,” The Washington Post (October 11, 2011), http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/irans-quds-force-was-blamed-for-attacks-on-us-troops-in-iraq/2011/10/11/gIQAPqv0dL_story.html.
ix Marc Ambinder, “The Secret Team That Killed Osama bin Laden,” The Atlantic (May 2, 2011), http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/05/the-secret-team-that-killed-osama-bin-laden/238163/.
xii D.B. Grady, “10 Things You Didn’t Know About the President’s Secret Army.” mental_floss (February 20, 2012), http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/117735.
xiii Sean D. Naylor, “Inside the Zarqawi Takedown: Persistent Surveillance Helps End 3-Year Manhunt,” DefenseNews.com (12 June 2006), http://integrator.hanscom.af.mil/2006/June/06152006/06152006-11.htm.
xiv Nick Carbone, “Inside Navy SEAL Team 6,” Time – Battleland (May 10, 2011), http://battleland.blogs.time.com/2011/05/10/inside-seal-team-six/.
xxxv Hugo Daniel, “Hundreds of terrorists killed in Baghdad secret SAS missions aimed at taking out al-Qaeda,” Daily Mail (August 31, 2008) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1050970/Hundreds-terrorists-killed-Baghdad-secret-SAS-missions-aimed-taking-al-Qaeda.html.