Sean Naylor is the intelligence and counterterrorism reporter for Foreign Policy magazine. From 1990 to 2013, he was a reporter for the Army Times. Named one of the 22 “unsung” influential print reporters in Washington by American Journalism Review in May 2002, he earned the White House Correspondents’ Association’s prestigious Edgar A. Poe Award for his coverage of Operation Anaconda. His book, “Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command,” can be pre-ordered at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
SOFREP: Why was JSOC’s mission set so limited during the 1980s?
SN: Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the U.S. military was preoccupied with preparing for large-scale war with the Warsaw Pact, a conflict in which JSOC would play, at best, a peripheral role. JSOC was conceived as a counterterrorist organization, and the terrorist groups it expected to confront were those using terrorism to make a political point rather than establish a caliphate or kill thousands of Americans in one attack. The classic mission for which the special mission units trained was to counter a terrorist hijacking—of an airliner, in the case of Delta, or a cruise liner, in the case of Team 6. It is one of the ironies of JSOC that although the command has far outgrown its original vision, it has never conducted either of these missions in the real world.
SOFREP: How did the War on Terror transform JSOC and how do you see the command evolving in years to come?
SN: JSOC experienced a massive expansion of missions, budgets, force structure and, as we have discussed above, public profile during the post-9/11 era. For a wide variety of missions, it has become the go-to force for the president. Crucially, under the leadership of then-Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal, it morphed from an organization designed to conduct short, sharp missions on a very infrequent basis to a war-fighting machine capable of running a dozen or more missions a night, every single night, across multiple countries.
In the years ahead, I expect JSOC to develop even more of a global footprint, with operations continuing in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and North Africa, and perhaps in Mexico, depending on the course that the drug wars there take. The command is also developing a greater cyber capability. In addition, JSOC is already engaged in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. How the next president decides to use the command against that enemy will do much to determine JSOC’s immediate future.
SOFREP: JSOC is constantly under the microscope by journalists, and often alluded to by the same as being some sort of sinister organization. Why do you think journalists are so interested in JSOC when there are dozens of other classified units and many other classified programs and projects out there?
SN: I’m not sure that I’d agree that journalists “often” allude to JSOC as a “sinister organization,” but there’s no doubt that the command has attracted much more media attention since 9/11. This has happened for a number of reasons:
- Whereas before 9/11 JSOC had a niche counterterrorism mission, and operated on the fringes of conventional wars, after 9/11 the counterterrorism mission has been at the very center of the wars the U.S. military has fought, so JSOC essentially became the main effort in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few reporters eventually figured this out.
- JSOC has conducted several of the most high-profile missions since 9/11, including the rescues of Jessica Lynch, Captain Phillips, and Jessica Buchanan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the killing of Zarqawi, and, of course, the killing of Osama bin Laden. Each of these was front-page news. The bottom line is the National Command Authority relies on JSOC to do many of its missions in which failure is not an option. It’s not called “the National Mission Force” for nothing. But being the National Mission Force inevitably attracts attention.
- The information age has caught up with JSOC, so it can no longer hide in plain sight. Stories that used to be read by the readers of, say, one print newspaper or magazine, are now available to anyone with Internet access. Nonetheless, the command still clings to the same faith in its classified status now, in the age of email, Facebook, and Twitter, that it had in the early 1980s, when high-tech communications meant pagers and fax machines.
- Special operations appears to be the weapon of choice for policymakers, but after 14 years of war, do you think that JSOC operators are being burned out at a frequent rate or are they rotated on and off operational duties often enough to mitigate it?
I think there is certainly enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that across the special operations community, the force is “fraying,” as General Joe Votel, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, has put it. There’s no reason to believe that JSOC operators are any more immune to this than other special ops personnel. The combined effects of years spent being buffeted by waves in high-speed assault craft; being exposed to repeated explosions for breaching in training and combat, not to mention the improvised explosive devices that are ubiquitous on the Afghan and Iraqi battlefields; countless parachute jumps; and the rest of the daily grind of combat have certainly worn operators down and contributed to a high rate of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury among operators.
SOFREP: How are the command and component commands dealing with all of the media exposure that JSOC receives these days? Is JSOC becoming a victim of its own success?
SN: Yes, in a way, JSOC is “becoming a victim of its own success,” as I mentioned in my answer to the first question. But the command, and its higher commands, cannot have it both ways: They can’t have an organization they want to keep out of the public eye, and then make it the main effort in the war on terror and assign it the most visible, high-profile missions with any expectation that that combination will not lead to greater public interest in the command.
SOFREP: In the process of writing “Relentless Strike,” what were some things you learned that you found surprising?
I thought I knew a lot about JSOC when I started the project, but there was much I discovered that surprised me. To give just a few examples:
- Delta Force’s use of its own IEDs to kill Shi’ite militants in Iraq.
- The fact that JSOC was infiltrating undercover personnel into Syria to track foreign fighter networks throughout the Iraq war.
- The fact that, for years, SEAL Team 6 kept an assault troop on standby in Afghanistan, trained and ready to conduct a high-altitude, high-opening (HAHO) parachute jump into Pakistan’s tribal areas in case actionable intelligence located Osama bin Laden there. Some Team 6 personnel were still keen to use that method for the eventual raid on the al-Qaeda leader’s compound in May 2011, even though Abbottabad was much farther from the Afghan border than were the tribal areas.
- The degree of friction between the JSOC commander at the time of the bin Laden raid, then-Vice Admiral Bill McRaven, and elements within Team 6, over issues such as how to conduct the rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates, to which squadron got the Abbottabad mission.
- The fact that then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell threatened to disband SEAL Team 6 if the unit screwed up a mission to rescue a family from a Haitian beach in October 1991.
SOFREP: Regarding the campaign in Afghanistan grinding down, do you see the potential for mission creep within JSOC, especially in regards to JSOC operations in Africa?
SN: I don’t know if I’d call it “mission creep,” but certainly, having used the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to build and refine the extraordinary war-fighting machine that JSOC has become, policymakers and senior military leaders will be tempted to use it in other locations. One of the issues I raise in “Relentless Strike” is the question of whether, having built the perfect hammer in JSOC, U.S. policymakers will be tempted to treat too many thorny international challenges as nails.
As for Africa, in “Relentless Strike” I detail JSOC’s intermittent presence in the Horn of Africa, and also discuss its operations in Libya. I expect JSOC activity in the Horn, the Sahel, and North Africa to continue, and perhaps to expand; as long as there is a sizable jihadi presence in those regions, without local governments capable of dealing with that on their own, there will be a need.
SOFREP: What does current-day Iraq say about JSOC operations? While JSOC is very good at find, fix, and finish, it appears that these direct-action capabilities are not aligned well with proper economic and diplomatic actions needed to truly counter an insurgency. In other words, in Iraq, did we achieve tactical victories but experience a strategic defeat?
SN: It is certainly starting to look that way. JSOC is a supremely tactical organization, albeit one for which tactical missions (such as the bin Laden raid) can sometimes achieve strategic results. In Iraq, its grinding campaign succeeded in all but destroying Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq group, buying time and space for Iraqi leaders to achieve a political solution. That they failed to do so, leaving an opportunity for the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq to reemerge as the Islamic State, is a demonstration that there are limits to what even an organization as capable as JSOC can achieve on its own.
SOFREP: What is the future of blended operations such as those conducted by the joint CIA and JSOC program called Omega, and do you think the legal loophole that these operations exploit will become problematic in the coming years?
SN: In the years since 9/11, JSOC has become so deeply intertwined with the intelligence community in general, and with the CIA in particular, that programs like Omega are likely to continue. What I was often told was that while the CIA’s legal authorities for action are broader than those of the military, JSOC’s capabilities are greater. Thus we will continue to see instances of what are basically JSOC missions, such as Operation Neptune’s Spear in Abbottabad, conducted under CIA command.
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