Blacker Than Black

 

Along with the previously detailed assault squadrons (Blue, Gold, Red, and Silver) and the training section (Green), the Naval Special Warfare Development Group is also rumored to maintain a special boat unit (Gray).

In addition, there is a large framework of NSWDG support staff (military and civilian) for “administration, supply, medical, logistics, communications, intelligence, operations, and weapons training.” It’s said there are two to three support staff personnel for every operator, all ranking among the best in their respective fields.i

And finally, there are the strategic reconnaissance specialists/snipers of Black Squadron,ii who perform high-risk, low-visibility operations such as penetrating behind enemy lines and cross-border HVT hits.iii

DEVGRU operators are typically expected to prove themselves as assaulters for a minimum of three years before being considered for Black Squadron. After receiving additional training, they remain integral components of their original colored assault squadrons while also serving as detachable elements for more specialized, highly-sensitive operations.iv

In 1993, a four-man DEVGRU Black element from Red Squadron was sent to complement the Delta Force/Ranger-led Task Force Ranger in Operation Gothic Serpent in Mogadishu, Somalia.v

Initially, the ST6 snipers worked closely with the CIA. They operated out of a safe house well removed from the safety of the hanger occupied by the bulk of the JSOC forces to conduct vehicular reconnaissance of the volatile city. The team also served as sniper support during Delta raids, at one point registering a kill of nearly 850 yards, and conducted “eyes over Mogadishu” sniper flights aboard QRF helicopters.vi

The Black Squadron SEALs also took part in the chaotic Battle of Mogadishu as popularized by the book and feature film Black Hawk Down, entering the fight as part of the ground-extraction convoy.vii

And of the three Advanced Force Operations (AFO) teams that made such a massive positive contribution to Operation Anaconda, one (Mako 31) was a five-man RECCE team from Black Squadron.

Originally one of two DEVGRU recon teams belonging to Task Force Blue at Bagram, the ST6 snipers were sent to the AFO safe house in Gardez at Delta officer Pete Blaber’s request.viii

Mako 31 completed an arduous multi-day, seven-mile climb through the mountains, approaching the assigned observation point unseen. Once on site, they discovered their intended destination had already been claimed by a crew of al-Qaeda fighters. Armed with a Soviet-built DShK heavy machine gun, the terrorists were perfectly positioned to tear apart the air assault that the Coalition conventional forces planned to conduct the following day.ix

Waiting until an hour before the official start of the Anaconda offensive, the DEVGRU RECCE team executed a surprise raid on the al-Qaeda camp, quickly killing two of the militants and seriously wounding another. An AC-130H then engaged and cleaned up the remainder of the group.x

After securing the infantry’s heliborne invasion of the Shah-i-Kot Valley, the ST6 recon and surveillance snipers moved down the slope to link up with the conventional force’s TAC (tactical command center), which had entered the battlefield aboard a pair of MH-60H Black Hawk helicopters.

The skilled marksman then proved invaluable to the nine-man TAC element, which had come under heavy fire. After dissuading an attacking enemy force throughout the day and creating safe conditions for the conventional troops to extract that night, the DEVGRU operators made their exit (one commenting, “I’ve killed enough for today,”); they climbed back up to their observation post and resumed calling in air strikes.xi

More recently, Black Squadron SEALs have reportedly been the centerpiece trigger-pullers of ‘Vigilant Harvest,’ a hunter-killer operation targeting “courier networks, trainers, and facilitators” on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.xii

However, it was on April 12, 2009, that ST6’s snipers demonstrated their lethal capabilities to the world.

In the fallout of a frenetic April 9 hijacking of American cargo vessel MV Maersk Alabama, the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, found himself held hostage by four Somali pirates in one of the ship’s lifeboats.

The U.S. Navy took up the pursuit approximately 300 miles off the coast of Somalia, shepherding the cramped boat with an armada headed by the destroyer USS Bainbridge.

After five days of FBI-led negotiations, overhead P-3 Orion surveillance, pirate interviews with the world’s press corps, and a number of tense moments — including an attempted escape — SEAL Team Six was given the green light should Capt. Phillips’ life be determined to be in imminent danger.xiii

DEVGRU’s Red Squadron parachuted into the Indian Ocean unnoticed; an advance team from an operational base in nearby Manda Bay, Kenya, arrived first,xiv followed by the bulk of the squadron which had been on call in the States.xv The squadron’s RECCE snipers subsequently positioned themselves on the back deck of the Bainbridgexvi while the assault element prepared to launch a rescue mission from the USS Boxer.xvii

With one of the pirates already aboard the destroyer (he was injured during Phillips’ attempted escape and required medical attention), the ST6 shooters trained their SR-25 semi-automatic sniper rifles on the three remaining pirates aboard the lifeboat.xviii

As one of the captors pointed an AK-47 at Phillips’ back and threatened to execute the American,xix the DEVGRU snipers fired three simultaneous shots in the dark from a distance of 75-100 feet.xx

Despite rough waters presenting fleeting windows of opportunity as the targets bobbed in and out of the sight, a trio of precise headshots instantaneously left the pirates dead and the captain rescued.xxi

 

More Than Just ‘One Perfect Op’

 

The dramatic rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips resulted in a rush of attention from the global media and public at large, providing a small preview of what was to come with the completion of Operation Neptune Spear.

However, it stands as but one of four successful hostage rescues conducted by DEVGRU in recent years that must be regarded as among the slickest in the history of special operations.

In January 2012, SEAL Team Six provided Somali pirates with a stark reminder of the mortal dangers associated with holding an American civilian captive.

Three months earlier, pirates had taken American aid worker Jessica Buchanan and her Danish colleague, Poul Hagen Thisted, hostage. Intelligence was subsequently obtained suggesting that Buchanan was suffering from a life-threatening condition and in deteriorating health. As a result, Operation Octave Fusion commenced.

On a dark and cloudy night, a team of approximately two dozen DEVGRU operators parachuted from an Air Force Special Operations airplane and navigated to a location approximately two miles from the captors’ campsite.xxii

Silently advancing to the target site near Adabo in north-central Somalia, the ST6 assault force caught the pirates hopelessly off guard. In a daze after an evening of chewing khat (a local leaf popular for its stimulant effect),xxiii only a single member of the heavily-armed kidnapping clan so much as got off a shot before all nine had been neutralized.xxiv The Americans suffered no casualties in the rapid and surgical rescue.xxv

Locals asserted that the assault team took prisoners during the execution of the raid, a claim U.S. officials denied.xxvi

Buchanan and Thisted were safely whisked along with their rescuers to Camp Lemonnier, a United States Naval Expeditionary Base in Djibouti, via helicopter.xxvii

A “senior defense official speaking on the condition of anonymity” told the Washington Post, “I don’t know that there is (another) nation that could pull this thing off with the speed, precision, and stealth that these forces did. It is a reflection of the kinds of counterterrorism skills that we have nearly perfected over the last decade of war.”xxviii

That trademark speed, precision, and stealth was also demonstrated in a pair of successful hostage rescues that took place in Afghanistan.

In August 2008, an American Army Corps of Engineers worker was taken hostage by members of infamous warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s militant group, Hezb-i-Ilsami.

Held in the mountains of Wardak Province some 30 miles west of Kabal, the captors were confident that the treacherous terrain would prove a sufficient deterrent to discourage a rescue attempt.xxix

They were wrong.

Having long since overcome any early difficulties dealing with the environment after operating non-stop in the region in the years following 9/11, DEVGRU was well prepared to mount a rescue when the American’s location was finally pinpointed in October of that year.

The operation, detailed by Army Times journalist Sean Naylor, involved some 60 troops (ST6 with, most likely, Rangers in support), loaded in three MH-47E Chinook helicopters.

Approximately two dozen DEVGRU operators were set down a few miles from the camp where they took maximum advantage of their experience traversing the mountains of Afghanistan, quietly approaching the hut at 3:00am following a hike of more than four hours.

A seven-man assault force stealthily crept forward and infiltrated the building. Using suppressed weapons, the SEALs killed both guards (one posted outside, the other inside) before either could react.

The freed American was then exfiltrated to the rescue force’s headquarters by helicopter before being taken to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.xxx

Most recently, SEAL Team Six carried out a successful hostage rescue in Afghanistan in a joint operation with the fabled British Special Air Service.

In June of 2012, four female aid workers — Briton Helen Johnston, Kenyan Moragwa Oirere, and two Afghani women — were taken captive in Badakhshan Province, near the Tajikistan border.

Within a week, their location had been fixed by a U.S. Predator drone. The stakes were raised when the kidnappers, who had been demanding a multi-million dollar ransom, were discovered to also be holding discussions with the Taliban. Communication intercepts increased concerns that the hostages may be facing imminent execution.xxxi

As detailed by Sean Rayment, Defense Correspondent for The Telegraph, a joint rescue operation was mounted in response, teaming some two dozen SAS troops with a similarly-sized force of DEVGRU operators.xxxii

Intelligence suggested that the women had been split into two separate groups — Johnston and Oirere in one cave, the local women in another. The SAS were tasked with rescuing the British woman and the Kenyan while ST6 assumed responsibility for the Afghanis.

In a similar pattern to other recent rescues, the commandos were dropped off by 160th SOAR MH-60L Black Hawks some two miles from the hostages’ location where they subsequently hiked to the caves through the region’s forested mountains.

Once in position, simultaneous nighttime raids were executed. Again aided by advanced night vision systems and suppressed weapons, the SEAL Team Six operators rapidly eliminated seven kidnappers, although the hostages were nowhere to be found.

The SAS troopers, however, reported in that all four women had been secured at their location, where they had successfully taken out four guards.xxxiii

The rescued aid workers were safely transported back to ISAF Headquarters in Kabul.

 

No Go

 

Despite the dizzying pace of the last decade and the resultant tally of operational victories, a number of would-be high-profile missions have also been aborted during that span.

As al-Qaeda’s leadership scattered following the swift post-9/11 fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a number of them — including future AQI emir Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — were thought to be gathering in Chalus, Iran, a small coastal city situated on the Caspian Sea.xxxiv

A SEAL Team Six hunter-killer operation was rehearsed in the Gulf Coast region of the United States but ultimately called off. The proposed mission plan called for a team of DEVGRU operators to parachute into the sea and make their way over the beach to the suspected safe house a couple miles inland. Once the meeting had been confirmed, a precision air strike would be directed to the location.xxxv

However, the concerns of Gen. Richard Myers, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led the operation to be nixed; Myers deemed the intelligence — which had yet to solidly identify the time of the al-Qaeda summit — too sketchy to recommend going forward with the bold assault.xxxvi

In 2005, the United States was just moments away from pulling the trigger on a unilateral raid targeting core AQ figures in Pakistan before shutting it down.

Intelligence obtained by tracking Abu Faraj al-Libi (who had by then assumed the most dangerous job in the world — the position of al-Qaeda #3 — following the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) led the CIA to believe the terrorist organization was planning an AQ leadership meeting near the Afghanistan border.

Besides al-Libi, Ayman al-Zawahri — ‘HVT-2’ — was expected to attend, along with a number of other prime targets.xxxvii

JSOC’s initial design was to insert a couple dozen SEAL Team Six operators and CIA paramilitary officers for a shock raid featuring a very small footprint. However, nervousness at the Pentagon led the operational plan to balloon to upwards of 150 troops, including a large contingent of Army Rangers.xxxviii

Porter Goss and Stanley McChrystal, the respective heads of the CIA and JSOC at the time, backed the plan. Some at the CIA even urged to go forward without first consulting Ryan C. Crocker, then-American ambassador to Pakistan.

However, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called it off. The red light came at such a late stage that DEVGRU assaulters had already donned their gear, loaded up into C-130s, and begun their mental preparations to parachute into North Waziristan.

Just as the lighter strike plan was deemed too risky in terms of the American commandos’ lives, Rumsfeld felt the escalated large-scale raid was too risky in terms of the nation’s shaky but crucial relationship with General Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan government.xxxix

SEAL Team Six reportedly saw another proposed raid in Pakistan scrapped that same year. According to journalist Rowan Scarborough, Taliban leader Ahmad Shah was geo-located just on the other side of the Afghanistan border by the NSA after identifying his voice on a satellite phone.

Shah was the leader of a group of fighters who had killed 19 American servicemen — including a number of SEALs from SEAL Team 10 and SDVT-1 — during the course of Operation Red Wings several months earlier. Unsurprisingly, Shah was considered a target of considerable importance.

In a heated exchange, the CIA station in Kabul strongly recommended sending a team from JSOC across the border to hunt down Shah, but the CIA station in Pakistan preferred to instead use its own men despite not being able to muster them as quickly. In the end, neither action was taken.xl

There are also persistent rumors that DEVGRU was close to spearheading a more proactive response to the increase of pirate activity.

At the time of the Capt. Richard Phillips rescue in 2009, U.S. helicopters flew menacingly over Harardhere — the “capital of Somali piracy”xli — and one reportedly landed for ten minutes.xlii Since then there have been repeated hints that a proposed invasion of the pirates’ home base was considered but never executed.xliii

And in late 2011, the United Stated mulled sending JSOC commandos to covertly infiltrate eastern Iran with the intention of either retrieving or destroying a downed RQ-170 Sentinel in order to prevent Iran from discovering the high-tech stealth drone. The mission was deemed not worth the risk with officials fearing a larger international incident should something go wrong. They also hoped the remote crash site would go undiscovered.xliv

Iran subsequently obtained the craft and paraded it out on state television.

Additionally, numerous undisclosed operational plans to conduct missions outside the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones have been cancelled in recent years.xlv

 

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Notes

i Blehm, Fearless, 167.

ii Sean D. Naylor, “SEALs in bin Laden raid drawn from Red Squadron,” Navy Times (May 5, 2011), http://www.navytimes.com/news/2011/05/army-seals-in-bin-laden-raid-drawn-from-red-squadron-050511/.

iii Ambinder and Grady, “When You See The Word National,” in The Command.

iv Wasdin and Templin, SEAL Team Six, 155.

v Ibid, 191.

vi Ibid, 191, 201, 218.

vii Bowden, Black Hawk Down (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999), 51.

viii Naylor, Not a Good Day to Die, 122.

ix Ibid, 164-174.

x Ibid, 189-190.

xi Ibid, 284.

xii Ambinder and Grady, “Widening the Playing Field” in The Command.

xiii “Pirates Hold American Captain Hostage; Negotiations Continue for Release,” PBS Newshour (April 9, 2009), http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/africa/jan-june09/somalia_04-09.html.

xiv Marc Ambinder, “Obama Gives Commanders Wide Berth for Secret Warfare,” The Atlantic (May 25, 2010), http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/05/obama-gives-commanders-wide-berth-for-secret-warfare/57202/.

xv Owen, No Easy Day.

xvi Ambinder, “Then Came Geronimo.”

xvii Owen, No Easy Day.

xviii Jack Murphy, “A Critical Look at The Command by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady,” SOFREP (July 15, 2012), http://thenewsrep.com/9311/a-critical-look-at-the-command-by-marc-ambinder-and-d-b-grady/.

xix Chris Lawrence, Mike Mount, and Barbera Starr, “3 ‘phenomenal shots’ ended pirate hostage crisis,” CNN (April 13, 2009), http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/africa/04/13/somalia.rescue.breakdown/.

xx Stephanie Gaskell, “Three Navy SEALs free Capt. Phillips from pirates with simultaneous shots from 100 feet away,” NY Daily News (April 14, 2009), http://articles.nydailynews.com/2009-04-14/news/17919819_1_naval-special-warfare-command-training-three-navy-seals.

xxi David Gardner, “‘Flawless’: U.S. Navy snipers killed three Somali pirates with just three shots… in the dark, from the deck of a rolling ship,” Daily Mail (April 13, 2009), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1169712/Flawless-How-U-S-Navy-snipers-killed-Somali-pirates-just-shots–dark-deck-rolling-ship.html.

xxii Kimberly Dozier, “Navy SEAL raid in Somalia shows campaign ahead,” Associated Press (January 26, 2012), http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/01/26/navy-seal-raid-in-somalia-shows-campaign-ahead/.

xxiii Karen McVeigh, “US commando team that killed Bin Laden swoop on Somali pirates,” The Guardian (January 25, 2011), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/25/us-commandos-swoop-on-somali-pirates.

xxiv Dozier, “Navy SEAL raid in Somalia shows campaign ahead.”

xxv Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe, “Navy SEALs rescue kidnapped air workers Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted in Somalia,” The Washington Post (January 25, 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-forces-rescue-kidnapped-aid-workers-jessica-buchanan-and-poul-hagen-thisted-in-somalia/2012/01/25/gIQA7WopPQ_story.html.

xxvi Jeffrey Gettleman, Eric Schmitt, and Thom Shanker, “U.S. Swoops In to Free 2 From Pirates in Somali Raid,” The New York Times (January 25, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/world/africa/us-raid-frees-2-hostages-from-somali-pirates.html?_r=1.

xxvii McVeigh, “US command team that killed Bin Laden swoop on Somali pirates.”

xxviii Greg Jaffe, “SEAL Team Six parachuted into Somalia on raid,” The Washington Post (January 25, 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/checkpoint-washington/post/seal-team-six-parachuted-into-somalia-on-rescue-raid/2012/01/25/gIQAVoiyQQ_blog.html.

xxix Jason Straziuso, “American rescue in Afghanistan,” Associated Press (October 23, 2008), http://articles.latimes.com/2008/oct/23/world/fg-rescue23.

xxx Naylor, “Inside a U.S. hostage rescue mission.”

xxxi Ian Drury and David Williams, “SAS rescue girl was ‘hours from death’: Prime Minister gave mission the go-ahead after Taliban threat,” The Daily Mail (June 3, 2012), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2154224/Helen-Johnston-SAS-rescue-girl-hours-death.html.

xxxii Sean Rayment, “How the British hostages were rescued in Afghanistan,” The Telegraph (June 3, 2011), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/9307833/How-the-British-hostages-were-rescued-in-Afghanistan.html.

xxxiii Sean Rayment and Ben Farmer, “High praise for audacious hostage rescue,” The Sydney Morning Herald (June 4, 2012), http://www.smh.com.au/world/high-praise-for-audacious-hostage-rescue-20120603-1zq32.html.

xxxiv Bergen, Manhunt, 160.

xxxv David Crist, “After 9/11: The United States and Iran,” Command Posts (September 11, 2012), http://www.commandposts.com/2012/09/after-911-the-u-s-and-iran/.

xxxvi Bergen, Manhunt, 160.

xxxvii Ibid.

xxxviii Ibid.

xxxix Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. Aborted Raid on Qaeda Chiefs in Pakistan in ’05” The New York Times (July 8, 2007), http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/08/washington/08intel.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all.

xl Scarborough, Sabotage, 190.

xli “Harardhere: The capital of Somali piracy,” AFP, http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentID=2008112022557.

xlii Stephanie McCrummen and Ann Scott Tyson, “Navy Kills 3 Pirates, Rescues Ship Captain Off Somalia’s Coast,” The Washington Post (April 13, 2009), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/12/AR2009041200467.html?sid=ST2009041203047.

xliii Chris Plante, “‘Medal of Honor Warfighter’ multiplayer is more cooperative, morally confusing,” The Verge (June 7, 2012), http://www.theverge.com/2012/6/7/3070699/medal-of-honor-warfighter-multiplayer-is-improved-morally-confusing.

xliv Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Made Covert Plan to Retrieve Iran Drone,” The Wall Street Journal (December 7, 2011), http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204770404577082822643123332.html.

xlv Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, “Secret Order Lets U.S. Raid Al Aqeda,” The New York Times (November 9, 2008), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/10/washington/10military.html?pagewanted=all.