Tom Bakkeli is a Norwegian writer and journalist who has written extensively about Norway’s Special Operations units, MJK and FSK. Unfortunately, his books are not available in English, but Tom was gracious enough to spare SOFREP a few minutes of his time to answer some questions about Norway’s allied Special Operations units, which have been helping us fight the War on Terror.
Q: What is the Norwegian approach to special operations? Is it roughly along the same lines as other NATO member nations, or do the Norwegian units feature historical and cultural traits unique to their country?
A: As a country with a five million population, we have a quite small defense force. It has undergone a huge modernization after the cold war. In this process, the special operations forces, Forsvarets Spesialkommando (FSK) and Marinejegerkommandoen (MJK), have been strengthened. The operations in the former Yugoslavia – Bosnia and Kosovo – and especially in Afghanistan, have shown that they are capable. The Norwegian SOF traditions go back to Second World War, when they were established under British command in Special Operations Executive. Company Linge executed several spectacular operations in Nazi-occupied Norway; one of the best known is the heavy water operation in Vemork in 1943.
Q: How has Norway’s history and geography shaped FSK and MJK’s capabilities?
A: The experiences during WWII made it clear how small units of carefully selected and well-trained men could execute operations of strategic importance. The arctic climate of Norway, combined with mountains, sea, and fjords, make our country one of the most challenging areas of operations. This gives Norwegian SOF two big advantages: they have one of the best training grounds at home, and some of the best American and other nation’s SOF units come here for training exercises every year and build a close relationship with the Norwegian SOF.
Q: Please give us an overview of FSK and MJK. What is the task and purpose of these two units, and how do they differ from each other?
A: FSK was partly built as a counter terror unit, partly as a full spectrum SOF unit. It is the Norwegian Delta Force or 22 SAS. MJK is the maritime SOF unit in Norway, and our SEAL Team.
Q: What is the selection and training process like for FSK and MJK soldiers? How do they differ?
A: FSKs selection is similar to British 22 SAS, while MJK is more like SEAL basic training, BUD/S. In FSK, they emphasize the mental edge in each soldier, and the selection reflects that in a way that in Phase One of their training when they are left alone on long marches in a mountainous area. The instructors do very little to encourage or psyche them out. They have to mobilize the physical and mental strength by and from their own will. MJK selection is different. They use a lot more group elements, and the instructors are more active in commenting on what they see. Many good candidates come from both selections.
Q: How and when did NORSOF get involved in the Global War on Terror? I’ve heard that they were doing strategic reconnaissance deep in Afghanistan very early in the war.
A: NORSOF engaged in GWOT in 2001. The first officer from MJK went to Kandahar in December, a combined task force of FSK and MJK operators were deployed in January 2002. They did a lot of SR in the eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan, and they participated in several operations – among them Operation Anaconda in March 2002. NORSOF was part of TF K-Bar. They did some spectacular operations in Helmand under American command in OEF.
Q: Roughly speaking, how many times has NORSOF deployed to Afghanistan and conducted how many operations? I think it is important for Americans back home to know how hard our allies have been fighting alongside us.
A: Apart from a break of 18 months, FSK and/or MJK have been operating in Afghanistan since 2002, and FSK is still in Kabul, where they mentor the Afghan special police unit, Crisis Response Unit TF 24. They have conducted many operations alone, and together with the Afghans, and I write extensively about them in my book.
Q: During the course of researching your books on NORSOF, did you come upon anything that was unique or unexpected? Have Norway’s Special Operations teams conducted other counter-terrorism operations elsewhere in the world?
A: Even if I have researched and written extensively about NORSOF for many years, it was quite different to be on the inside. I discovered a lot of equipment, personnel, and capabilities that I did not have a clue about. At the same time, I know I did not come to see all of it. To cooperate with some of the foremost intelligence agencies in the world takes a lot of operational security, of which I was not involved. I have no information about NORSOF CT operations other than in Kosovo and Afghanistan, but FSK was scrambled during the terror in Oslo and Utøya on 22 July, 2011.
Q: Norway is notoriously tight-lipped about their Special Operations units. Why do you think this is? What are the pros and cons of having a highly secretive unit, and is there a such thing as too much secrecy?
A: My book is proof that they have opened up a little. The big change came in 1999; for the first time did the Norwegian defense forces admit that FSK existed. When NORSOF came in play with their international allies, US and UK, in a global context, it was important for them to keep a low profile and not do something that would exclude them from this position. They have become much more professional, also with the media, during the Afghanistan campaign. This is connected to their grown confidence and experience as a full-blown SOF unit.
Q: How do you view NORSOF’s integration with the wider European community? I would suspect that at least the Scandinavian nations have security concerns which largely overlap with each other. To this end, do MJK and FSK work with closely with Sweden’s SOG, Germany’s KSK, and Denmark’s Jaeger Corps?
A: NORSOF trains and does exercises with all their European counterparts, also the Swedish, Danish and Germans. FSK is also a mentor for some of the new NATO members SOF, and are active in NATO SQH in Mons, Belgium.
Q: How do you view NORSOF’s interface with the ISCC in Tampa, Florida, and how will this relationship change things for the international Special Operations community?
A: NORSOF is very much involved in Tampa, and Norway was the first foreign nation that took part in a war game led by Admiral McRaven. We are very proud of being in this company, and I am absolutely convinced that this relationship will make the whole SOF community stronger and better.
Q: When it comes to internal security matters in Norway, most of us recall the Anders Breivik shootings and bombing. What were the lessons learned from a Special Operations perspective?
A: The terror attacks in Oslo and Utøya in 2011 were a big embarrassment for the police and the government of Norway. FSK was ready to act, but was not given the order. This was a police matter, and they should have succeeded in taking out Breivik a long time before he got a chance to kill so many young people. The lessons learned was that the communications and preparedness must be much better, and the authorities must be quicker to put all the emergency units – SOF included – on alert.
Q: What is the future of MJK and FSK in a post-Afghanistan world? Is there a possibility that these units will merge into one, like Sweden’s SIG and SSG recently did, forming SOG?
A: FSK and MJK will continue as two different units, under a newly established Norwegian Special Operations Command. Recently, MJK got a CT responsibility in the north of Norway. I think more focus will be on the high north in the future, but also on CT operations worldwide.
Q: Please tell us a little about your three books on NORSOF and how they came about.
A: Before Krigere og diplomater, I have written one unauthorized book about NORSOF and one about snipers. It all started when I was a war correspondent for Norway’s leading daily newspaper. I was in Afghanistan the first time in 1995, when we met Taliban leadership in Kandahar, and I have been there several times in the years after, the last time with FSK in 2012.
My visit to US Central Command in Tampa in 2002 triggered my interest for SOF, and NORSOF in particular, and I started researching for books in parallel with my reporting. I am still very interested in SOF, and I cannot guarantee that there will be now more books.
For more information, visit Tom at TomBakkeli.com.