Part 5 of 5
Team of Teams or Tribe of Tribes?
As with the British SAS, there is a huge degree of mutual respect shared between the operators of Delta Force and their Naval counterparts at SEAL Team Six. However, their rivalry is even more pronounced, as they are in direct competition not only for bragging rights but very real things such as resources, budgets, and assignments.i
While the operation to kill Osama bin Laden was in some ways like any of the thousands of raids that preceded it, in others it was also absolutely unique.
It was not merely the type of mission an operator trained for and dreamed of on a daily basis — it was that mission. And it’s an opportunity that will never come again.
Viewed as a singular operation on paper — forgetting for a moment contextual issues such as area of operations and interservice politics — the bin Laden raid would appear to be the prototypical Delta Force mission.
The Unit is “traditionally considered the pre-eminent special mission unit for direct action operations on land” and has historically been given the call for the most coveted assignments unless there was a compelling (read: maritime) reason to send SEAL Team Six instead.ii
ST6 was originally formed to fill the maritime CT void and supplement Delta’s capabilities rather than directly compete with it for missions. However, the two units have a long history of battling for turf, particularly back when the sorts of missions that required their very specialized skill sets came along less frequently.iii
In the opening months of the Afghanistan war, two Delta squadrons rotated into the country before a ST6 squadron was given a shot. Even then Unit operators were in disbelief that they’d been forced to share the stage with the SEALs at all, let alone before all three of Delta’s squadrons had taken a turn (note: a fourth squadron has since been added).
Some operators were irritated that ST6 had encroached on ‘their territory’ — something the Unit wouldn’t do in reverse in the event of a high-priority maritime operation. Indeed, Delta operators were skeptical of the sailors’ ability to operate effectively in the unforgiving landlocked nation.iv A handful of early missteps by (and attitude issues among) a few of the SEALs seemed to justify those concerns to some degree.v
Delta was again made the first choice when the war in Iraq became the priority. As the Unit largely shifted its focus to the hunt for Saddam Hussein and his cronies, and the subsequent relentless dismantling of AQI (both described in prior installments of this series), DEVGRU continued to ‘slog it out’ in Afghanistan, where its primary focus remained, even when the pickings were comparatively slim.
Fast-forward ten years and ST6’s occasionally rocky start in Afghanistan was a thing of the past; the SEALs had become masters of the terrainvi (if anything, the concern was retaining their maritime skillsvii) and conducted multiple raids over the Pakistan border.viii
As the fighting picked up and the OPTEMPO in Afghanistan began to resemble what it once had been in Iraqix (where things started to slow by the summer of 2008), SEAL Team Six further sharpened its already impressive capabilities. A strong run of leaders had firmly established the unit, which had its reputation sullied during its early history, as a highly professional outfit.x
Considering that the plum Iraq assignment had (largely) been the domain of Delta, and SEAL Team Six had (largely) been stuck with option #2, in a way it seems only prudent that the Naval unit got the call when bin Laden was located in Pakistan.xi
However — even if it’s difficult to argue with the results — some inside the Unit were described as ‘livid’ about the decision. They were convinced that their bosses had played favorites to their detriment. The man tasked with selecting the unit to conduct the operation, JSOC commander Adm. William McRaven, was a former ST6 squadron commander. And the man in charge at SOCOM (whose place McRaven was destined to soon take) was Adm. Eric T. Olson, a former commander of SEAL Team Six.xii
All things being equal (and for such a tasking they essentially are, both units far more than qualified to take down the target) it’s only natural to assume that one making such a decision might side with the unit closest to his heart and whose capabilities he understands completely. It’s also easy to imagine that going the other way, especially considering the units’ split AO responsibilities, could have been viewed as something of a betrayal by those inside the SEAL community.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former JSOC commander who has since retired, recently spoke of the overlapping skills and intense competition inside the special operations community, admitting, “It’s supposed to be a team of teams but sometimes it’s a tribe of tribes.”xiii
In fact, when McChrystal first took command of JSOC he originally sought to make Delta and ST6 resemble one another to an even greater degree.
Former Delta officer Dalton Fury explained in a glowing piece about ‘the Pope’ published in Small Wars Journal: “One of the most significant issues was the idea that Delta and SEAL Team Six should and could operate on the same target, at the same level, at the same time. It was a part of the General’s cross-fertilization plan of skill sets and team building. It took a little while, but the General eventually recognized that the two units were apples and oranges and squaring them in that color-coded box resulted in a fruit salad of conflicting skill sets, SOPs, and even mindset.”xiv
Besides the SEAL’s maritime capabilities, one key area of differentiation in the eyes of the operators is their respective approaches when things go kinetic. An ex-Delta operator described the Unit’s CQB style as “free flow, instinctive, and explosive,” as compared to ST6’s “more controlled and rigid” tactics.
In Fury’s account of the Battle of Tora Bora, Kill Bin Laden, he describes Delta’s CQB skills thusly: “Watching Delta operators conduct “free flow” CQB on targets with unknown floor plans is one of the most awesome sights of controlled chaos one can imagine. The sequence is anything but choreographed, but the operators effortlessly sweep through a structure like red ants going through familiar, twisting corridors. Delta’s method and skill in CQB is unmatched by any other force in existence.”xv
If accepted as an accurate assessment by those above at JSOC, that’s the sort of differentiator that seemingly would have given Delta a leg up for the bin Laden assault, particularly considering the unknown nature of the buildings’ interiors.
However, outwardly at least, that sort of careful selection and separation based on relative strengths is not easily deciphered based on the assignments given. At least on the surface, the units appear to be treated as nearly interchangeable for the type of work they’ve been called upon throughout the GWOT. Delta and ST6 squadrons have been rotated with one another and stand as the resident ‘apex predators’ wherever they are sent.
Back in the Shadows
If there was an upside to getting passed over for the UBL raid, it was that as the spotlight shone down brightly on SEAL Team Six, Delta was allowed to once again operate in the shadows.
Former ST6 officer Chuck Pharrer’s memoir, Warrior Soul, contains a “glossary of SEAL terms” that includes a listing for the Unit (a definition later reprinted in his fiercely disputed account of Operation Neptune Spear, SEAL Target Geronimo). It reads:
That’s a joke that has since been turned back on its originators.
In recent years SEAL Team Six has repeatedly been in the headlines for both triumph and tragedy. Meanwhile, only sketchy reports hint at Delta’s undertakings during that same span.
Since 2009, besides the killing of bin Laden, ST6 has been heavily publicized for their alleged participation in the following actions:
- The successful rescue of Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted in Somalia in January 2012.xvii
- The crash of an Immediate Reaction Force National Guard CH-47 Chinook that killed 38, including 15 SEALs from ST6’s Gold Squadron in August 2011.xviii
- The unsuccessful attempt to save Jean and Scott Adam, Phyllis Macay, and Robert Riggle from Somali pirates off the coast of Oman in February 2011.xix
- The unsuccessful attempt to rescue Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan in October 2010.xx
- The killing of Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, considered one of the “big three” al-Qaeda members to have taken refuge in Somalia, near Baraawe in September 2009.xxi
- The successful rescue of Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in April 2009.xxii
Meanwhile, there has been very little beyond the most vague mentions of Delta’s activities from 2009 onward. In the immediate media rush following the confirmation of bin Laden’s death there were passing reports claiming that the Unit had been focused on the Horn of Africa at the time. There were also references to Delta hunting Iranian elements in Afghanistan,xxiii and the most recent reports state that Task Force Green is currently the counter-terrorist force operating in Afghanistan.xxiv
But in terms of actual operations specifically citing Delta Force’s involvement that have been reported in any detail, nothing.
What is known is that JSOC has been actively targeting terrorists and conducting other missions beyond the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. As of mid-2011, combined JSOC/CIA teams had killed more than 20 senior militants outside of those two theaters. In addition to the widely reported operations in Somalia, Syria, and Pakistan (and the bin Laden raid is far from the only onexxv — Delta and ST6 conducted raids in Pakistan as early as 2002xxvi), the teams have also struck in places such as Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, and Madagascar.xxvii
Along with the operations detailed above, a handful of others have been reported in part, although it’s not entirely clear whether they involved Delta, DEVGRU, the CIA’s SAD/SOG, the Activity, another unit (open source DOD documents from 2011 refer to an otherwise unknown ‘Marine Corps Special Mission Unit’xxviii) or some combination thereof.
In 2010, a small combined CIA/JSOC team aided local forces in the elimination of approximately half of the top 15 al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaders in Yemen.xxx And more recently “heavily armed American soldiers have begun appearing in large numbers” in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a.xxxi
In 2007, Jamal Khalifa, the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden, who was wanted in the Philippines for allegedly financing Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf and was named an “unindicted co-conspirator” by the United States in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was killed in Madagascar by a JSOC assault team.xxxii Around two dozen men hit his house in the middle of the night, took out their target, and quickly exited with his computer and other intelligence materials in tow.xxxiii
In 2006, JSOC hunter-killer teams based out of Dire Dawa, Ethiopia crossed into Somalia on multiple occasions to strike al-Qaeda leaders linked to the Kenyan and Tanzanian American Embassy bombings.xxxiv
There have also been reports stating that JSOC has played a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Iranian agents in South America while also engaging them in firefights inside Iran, conducted reconnaissance missions in China with the CIA,xxxv and deployed to a long list of additional nations including Bolivia, Ecuador, Georgia, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, and the Ukraine.xxxvi According to journalist Marc Ambinder, JSOC has even rendered safe WMDs “several times in the past ten years.”xxxvii
There is one high-profile operation outside the war zones in which Delta’s involvement (if not the exact specifics) has only recently come to light. Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, Americans Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell, and 11 others were rescued in the rainforests of Colombia in Operation Jaque.
Members of the rescue force, posing as aid workers, guerillas, and television journalists, tricked FARC rebels into handing over the hostages. The local FARC leader and another guerilla were arrested in the course of the rescue.
While Colombia’s Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, claimed that the mission was “100% Colombian,” and that “no foreigners participated in the planning or the execution of the mission,”xxxix Ambinder and Grady state in The Command: “A Delta Force detachment helped rescue… Betancourt and fourteen other hostages… even though full credit was given to the Colombians.”xl
JSOC’s global terrorist hunt skirts back-and-forth in a narrow grey area somewhere between Title 50, which governs covert intelligence actions traditionally associated with the CIA, and Title 10, which applies to the use of military force.xli
Title 50 is subjected to tighter, timelier Congressional oversight.xlii Meanwhile, Title 10 military operations had formerly been restricted to narrowly defined war zones, but the AQN ExOrd (Al Qaeda Network Execute Order) — originally signed by then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and since expanded upon by the Obama administration — re-imagined the obsolete concept of boundaries in a war waged against global terrorist networks.xliii
The document details what actions and under whose approval JSOC can undertake against al-Qaeda in an estimated 15-20 different nations.xliv And should Title 50 prove more advantageous in a specific case, JSOC operators can be placed under temporary control of the CIA (as with the bin Laden raid).xlv
That wide-ranging authority only looks to become even more expansive in the near future. As if al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Abu Sayyaf, AQAP, AQI, AQ, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, LeT (Lashkar-e-Tayiba), IMU, Quds Force, Hezbollah, etc. weren’t enough, a new threat is emerging that could augment the existing one.
Citing a blurring line between terrorist and criminal organizations, the Department of Defense is seeking permission to let JSOC loose on drug cartels in South and Central America. These entities are viewed as particularly problematic as terrorist organizations are increasingly partnering with the cartels in order to take advantage of the their ability to traffic illicit goods and raise funds.xlvi
Colombian cartels, for example, continually innovate and perfect new ways to smuggle cocaine out of the country, such as the use of stealthy narco-submarines. Left unchecked, those same techniques could be leveraged to transport even more nefarious cargo.
Taking down criminals is not altogether unknown territory for Delta. The Unit famously played a pivotal role in the hunting down and killing of Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellín Cartel, in 1993, as described in depth by Mark Bowden in Killing Pablo.
Even a limited, open-source sampling makes it obvious that the gloves have come off over the past decade. This collection almost certainly only barely scratches the surface of the real story of Delta Force post-9/11. And it’s a story that continues to be written in the shadows of the most dangerous places on the planet.
The hunt is far from over.
vi Sean D. Naylor, “Exclusive: Inside a U.S. hostage rescue mission,” Navy Times (November 7, 2008), http://www.navytimes.com/news/2008/11/military_air_rescue_110708w/.
xiii Janet Begley, “McChrystal discusses civilian life, future of Middle East and U.S. military forces at Vero Beach lecture,” TCPalm (January 23, 2012), http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2012/jan/23/mcchrystal-discusses-civilian-life-future-of-and/?partner=RSS.
xiv Dalton Fury, “The Pope,” Small Wars Journal (May 14, 2009), http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/docs-temp/243-fury.pdf.
xvii Abdi Guled, Katharine Houreld, and Robert Burns, “SEALs free American, Dane in Somalia raid,” Navy Times (January 25, 2012), http://www.navytimes.com/news/2012/01/ap-spec-ops-raid-in-somalia-frees-american-dane-012512/.
xix Scott Gold, “Deaths of Americans at hands of Somali pirates a troubling escalation in violence, experts say,” Los Angeles Times (February 23, 2011) http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/02/killing-of-yachting-couple-marks-troubling-escalation-in-somali-pirate-crisis-experts-say.html.
xx Julian Borger, “Linda Norgrove: US navy Seal faces disciplinary action over grenade death,” The Guardian (October 13, 2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/13/linda-norgrove-us-commando-disciplinary.
xxii Marc Ambinder, “Then Came “Geronimo,'” National Journal (May 7, 2011), http://www.nationaljournal.com/magazine/practicing-with-the-pirates-these-navy-seals-were-ready-for-bin-laden-mission-20110505.
xxvi Mark Mazzetti and David Rohde, “Amid U.S. Policy Disputes, Qaeda Grows in Pakistan,” The New York Times, (June 30, 2008), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/30/washington/30tribal.html?pagewanted=all.
xxviii “Marine Corps Special Mission Unit (SMU) Program,” Department of Defense: Finance and Accounting Enterprise Standard (August 16, 2011), http://www.prim.osd.mil/Documents/FAS Reports/FAS245.pdf.
xxix Jeremy Scahill, “The CIA’s Secret Sites In Somalia,” The Nation (July 12, 2011), http://www.thenation.com/article/161936/cias-secret-sites-somalia?page=full.
xxxi Ken Dilanian and David S. Cloud, “In Yemen, lines blur as U.S. steps up airstrikes,” Chicago Tribune (April 2, 2012), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/la-fg-us-yemen-20120402,0,5318875,full.story.
xxxiii “Bin Laden’s brother-in-law killed in Madagascar break-in, relative says,” USA Today (January 31, 2007), http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-01-31-bin-laden-brotherinlaw_x.htm.
xxxvi Jeremy Scahill, “Obama’s Expanding Covert Wars,” The Nation (June 4, 2010), http://www.thenation.com/blog/obamas-expanding-covert-wars.
xxxvii “Admiral Seeks Greater Authority Over Special Ops Deployment,” The Take Away (February 15, 2012), http://www.thetakeaway.org/2012/feb/15/admiral-seeks-greater-authority-over-special-ops-deployment/.
xxxviii Greg Miller, “Strike on Aulaqi demonstrates collaboration between CIA and military,” The Washington Post (September 30, 2011), http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/strike-on-aulaqi-demonstrates-collaboration-between-cia-and-military/2011/09/30/gIQAD8xHBL_story.html.
xxxix “‘Jacque’ 100% Colombian Mission to Free 15 Hostages,” CNN (Posted to YouTube on July 4, 2008), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoIutiSHYPs&feature=player_embedded.
xli Robert Chesney, “Military-Intelligence Convergence and the Law of the Title 10/Title 50 Debate,” Journal Of National Security Law & Policy (February 9, 2012), http://www.jnslp.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Military-Intelligence-Convergence-and-the-Law-of-the-Title-10Title-50-Debate.pdf.
xlii Greg Miller, “Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing,” The Washington Post (December 27, 2011), http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/national-security/under-obama-an-emerging-global-apparatus-for-drone-killing/2011/12/13/gIQANPdILP_print.html.
xliii Jeremy Scahill, “JSOC: The Blacks Ops Force That Took Down Bin Laden,” The Nation (May 2, 2011), http://www.thenation.com/blog/160332/jsoc-black-ops-force-took-down-bin-laden.
xliv Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, “Secret Order Lets U.S. Raid Al Qaeda,” The New York Times (November 9, 2008), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/10/washington/10military.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1.
xlv Roberts Burns and Kimberly Dozier, “Spy chief, not Pentagon, led raid on bin Laden,” San Diego Union-Tribune (May 4, 2011), http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2011/may/04/spy-chief-not-pentagon-led-raid-on-bin-laden/.
xlvi Carlo Munoz, “Defense Department seeks new authorities for counterterrorism fight,” The Hill (March 3, 2012), http://thehill.com/blogs/defcon-hill/operations/219343-defense-dept-seeks-new-authorities-for-counterterrorism-fight.