Part 4 of 5
“JSOC is Awesome”
In 2004, Delta Force took part in both the First and Second Battles of Fallujah. While its activities in the later November assault remain almost completely unreported, tales of heroism highlight the Unit’s role in the earlier April operation.
The combined Delta/Marine force of less than 40 men (approx. 30 Marines and seven operators) found itself heavily engaged by an estimated 300 insurgents. Medic Briggs exposed himself to enemy fire on multiple occasions, sprinting back and forth between two buildings in order to treat wounded Marines.
Hollenbaugh, meanwhile, held off the attack from one of the roofs — and continued to do so single-handedly for an extended period after his fellow operators and the Marines had been evacuated.
During the battle Hollenbaugh intentionally skipped bullets off walls and floors to get at otherwise unreachable enemy fighters, ducked under a rocket-propelled grenade, rolled into a stairway to avoid being hit by the shrapnel of a grenade tossed onto the roof, and rapidly switched positions in an attempt to appear to be more than just a one-man defensive element.ii
His Distinguished Service Cross citation states, “Master Sergeant Hollenbaugh demonstrated the highest degree of courage and excellent leadership through his distinguished performance as Team Leader while engaged in Urban Combat Operations. His heroic actions throughout one of the most intensive firefights of the Operation Iraqi Freedom campaign were directly responsible for preventing enemy insurgent forces from overrunning the United States Force. Master Sergeant Hollenbaugh personally eliminated multiple enemy-controlled weapon positions, essential in turning the tide of the enemy’s ground-force assault upon a United States Marine Corps Platoon.”iii
Briggs’, in part, reads, “Staff Sergeant Briggs repeatedly subjected himself to intense and unrelenting enemy fire in order to provide critical medical attention to severely injured Marines and organized defensive operations. He set the highest example of personal bravery through his demonstrated valor and calmness under fire.”iv
Delta also got back into the business of hostage rescue while in Iraq. On June 8, 2004, assaulters from A Squadron descended on a house near Ramadi aboard 160th SOAR Black Hawk MH60K helicopters and hit the target building with the Unit’s trademark surprise, speed, and violence of action.v The abductors were stunned by the assault and offered no resistance as they were in turn captured while Delta successfully rescued Polish businessman Jerzy Kos and Italians Umberto Cupertino, Maurizio Agliana, and Salvatore Stefio.vi
A little over a year later in June of 2005, the Unit assaulted a farmhouse south of Baghdad in similar fashion. This time the kidnappers were nowhere to be found, but American contractor Roy Hallums was located in a cell under the floor and freed.vii
The captors of American journalist Jill Carroll voluntarily released her on March 30 of 2006. They did so sensing their end was near as a series of ever-closing Delta, SAS, and ST6 raids dismantled their network in search of the Christian Science Monitor reporter.viii
While hostages received special priority whenever intelligence made it possible to do so, the overriding goal of the JSOC CT machine during this time was to hunt down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The AQI leader had proven remarkably elusive, narrowly avoiding capture on multiple occasions.ix He was even thought to have been apprehended and released at one point by Iraqi forces apparently unaware of exactly who they had gotten their hands on.x
The multi-year search was fully underway in 2005. By May of that year the Delta-directed campaign had killed seven and captured 13 of Zarqawi’s top 21 lieutenants, leaving just one at large. And by August it was reported that they had killed 200 of AQI’s leaders.xi
Delta’s B Squadron spearheaded a re-intensified effort to eliminate al-Zarqawi in 2006. Known as Operation Arcadia, it kicked off in mid-April. More than 100 al-Qaeda terrorists were finished over the next six weeks.xii The operation was fueled by precise intelligence, collected on the ground following raids, through cellular intercepts, and from the sky via constant aerial surveillance (662 hours of full-motion video were filmed and analyzed over a 17-day period according to Priest and Arkin’s Top Secret Americaxiii).
During the course of a single weekend in May, Delta’s B Squadron wiped out an entire network in Latifiyah. On Saturday night the Unit raided four houses located in the ‘Triangle of Death’ southwest of Baghdad, resulting in the killing of the network’s leader, Abu Mustafa, and 14 of his men.xiv
Emboldened by rapidly mounting successes, B Squadron attempted a daytime assault in nearby Yusufiyah the following day. The operators came under withering small arms and indirect fire as soon as they departed their helicopters. With the area deemed too hot for extraction, the Black Hawks that brought them in provided close air support, as did a pair of AH-6M Little Birds. One of the Little Birds was shot down and its pilots, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jamie Weeks and Maj. Matthew Worrell,xv both of the 160th SOAR, were killed in the crash.xvi
The Delta assault team still managed to complete its objective, taking down the target, detaining four, and killing more than 25. However, the operation was judged to be a serious miscalculation as a result of overconfidence, and the B Squadron commander was subsequently relieved of his command.
The intense six-week effort succeeded in its overarching goal. Back at Balad Air Base, a cagey mix of civilian and military interrogators played on an AQI captive’s ego and convinced him to provide the task force with instructions on how to decipher when Sheik Abd Al-Rahman, the AQI boss’ spiritual advisor, would meet with al-Zarqawi.xvii
Rahman was successfully tracked and two Delta snipers from B Squadron’s recce troop finally got eyes on al-Zarqawi on June 7th at a safehouse in the village of Hibhib.xviii Waiting for an assault team to be assembled and delivered to the location was judged overly risky, particularly after one group of men left the building. The Delta recce leader therefore recommended an air strike and a USAF F-16C was called on to put a pair of 500lb bombs in the house. Rahman, another man, two women, and a child (perhaps two… or none — there are contradictory reports) were killed immediately in the strike. Al-Zarqawi somehow survived the initial blast, ensuring that — as would also be the case with bin Laden — his final sight would be that of American troops.xix
There was little time to celebrate the conclusion of a three-year manhunt that has since been described as an obsession — an obsession that helped fuel JSOC’s transformation, but also one that shifted manpower away from the hunt for bin Laden and implicated the Command in allegations of prisoner abuse. Spurred on by intelligence gathered from Zarqawi’s hideout, Task Force 145 conducted 17 more raids in the immediate aftermath of his killing.xx 39 more raids were conducted the following night with 25 captured and one targeted individual killed during the course of the combined operations.xxi Within days those numbers had jumped to 140 Coalition raids, 32 insurgents killed, and another 178 captured.xxii
Having proved devastatingly effective against AQI, JSOC turned its attention to the mounting Iranian influence in 2007. US intelligence estimated upwards of 150 members of Quds Force — a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard responsible for ‘extraterritorial operations’ — were operating in Iraq at the time, directing, training, and supplying Shi’a militias that became known as “Special Groups.”xxiii
There was debate concerning exactly what to do about the emerging problem all the way up to the White House; ultimately the operators took it upon themselves to make that decision, opting to assault the Iranian Liaison Office in Irbil in northern Iraq in January of ’07.xxiv
Delta operators skimmed over buildings aboard Black Hawks and Little Birds while making their approach. One element came in on the roofs, another simultaneously hit from the ground floor as they searched for two senior Iranian figures and undeniable proof of Iran’s activities in Iraq. While the targeted individuals were nowhere to be found, the operators caught Iranian operatives attempting to hurriedly destroy documents and alter their appearance. Five were detained and the CII (Counter Iranian Influence) campaign was afoot.xxv
Another watershed moment in the fight against cross-border attacks came on October 26, 2008. Abu Ghadiya, a Sunni militant leader who aided AQI’s effort by directing the flow of foreign fighters, weapons, and money from Syria into Iraq, was tracked by the CIA to a location near Al-Bukamal, Syria, about five miles from the Iraqi border.xxvi
The Syrian government sharply denounced the incursion. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said, “We consider this criminal and terrorist aggression. We put the responsibility on the American government.”ii However, there were a handful of reports that claimed Syria had given the Americans backchannel tacit permission to undertake the mission.iii
JSOC’s Delta-led campaign in Iraq was on a scale likely never previously accomplished (or even attempted) by a relatively small group of supremely trained forces. Estimates place the final tally in the neighborhood of 3000 killed and 9000 captured (with another 400 killed and 3000 captured by UKSF).iv
It was also remarkably effective in drastically curbing the level of violence in Iraq. Other factors are thought to have played important roles as well, among them the troop surge that helped to reclaim and hold the streets with their Iraqi partners, the Anbar Awakening, which saw Sunni communities turn against AQI, and the ceasefire agreement with Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shi’a milita, the Mahdi Army.v
But there is little denying the importance of JSOC’s extraordinary industrial counter-terrorism campaign in turning the tide; Delta effectively broke al-Qaeda in Iraq by killing and capturing its members faster than replacements could be recruited.
The tactics, tempo, and technologies pioneered in Iraq were subsequently exported to Afghanistan.vii The effectiveness of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s work in leading JSOC and his growing reputation led to his promotion to oversee that war as the ISAF and USFOR-A commander (a role which, of course, would end prematurely in the wake of the Rolling Stone controversy). McChrystal’s place atop JSOC was taken by Navy Adm. William McRaven, a highly respected leader and former SEAL Team Six squadron commander who not only embraced his predecessor’s methods but pushed them even further.viii
While Afghanistan may in some ways be less ideally suited to the ‘industrial’ approach, JSOC has since executed countless raids there with thousands of insurgents killed or captured as a result.ix The targeting and execution has become such that by 2011 nearly 50% of the raids finished (captured or killed) the principle target, and in 80-90%, finished at least a closely associated individual.x
Coming in Part 5: Team of Teams or Tribe of Tribes? & Back in the Shadows
i Oren Dorell and Gregg Zoroya, “Battle for Fallujah forged many heroes,” USA Today (November 11, 2006), http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-11-09-medals-fallujah_x.htm.
iii “Hall of Valor: Distinguished Service Cross: Donald R. Hollenbaugh,” Military Times, http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=3665.
iv “Hall of Valor: Distinguished Service Cross: Daniel A. Briggs,” Military Times, http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=3660.
v Beata Pasek, “4 civilians freed by U.S. in Iraq recount rescue,” San Diego Union Tribune (June 11, 2004), http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20040611/news_1n11hostage.html.
vi “Hostage Rescue – Iraq,” American Special Ops, http://deltaforce.americanspecialops.com/operations/hostage-rescue-iraq/.
vii “Delta Force Rescue Roy Hallums,” American Special Ops, http://deltaforce.americanspecialops.com/operations/iraq-hostage-rescue/.
ix Sean D. Naylor, “Closing in on Zarqawi,” Army Times (May 8, 2006), http://www.armytimes.com/legacy/new/0-ARMYPAPER-1739369.php.
x “Zarqawi ‘captured and released,” BBC News, (December 16, 2005), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4534564.stm
xvii Mark Bowden, “The Ploy,” The Atlantic (May 2007), http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/05/the-ploy/5773/?single_page=true.
xix Scott Macleod and Bill Powell, “Zarqawi’s Last Dinner Party,” Time (June 11, 2006), http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1202929,00.html.
xxi Julian E. Barnes, Solomon Moore and Greg Miller, “Raids Target Zarqawi Group,” Los Angeles Times (June 10, 2006), http://articles.latimes.com/2006/jun/10/world/fg-iraq10.
xxii John F. Burns, “Zarqawi was killed by bombs, U.S. says,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/12/world/americas/12iht-iraq.1954929.html?_r=1.
xxvi “‘US helicopter raid’ inside Syria,” BBC News (October 27, 2008), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7692153.stm.
i Yochi J. Dreazen, “Rolling Out Global Hit Teams,” National Journal (September 3, 2011).
ii “Syria hits out at ‘terrorist’ US,” BBC News (October 28, 2008), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7693583.stm.
iii Dominic Waghorn, “Syria ‘Gave Green Light For Raid,'” Sky News (October 28, 2008), http://news.sky.com/home/world-news/article/15130766.
vii Sean D. Naylor, “JSOC task force battles Haqqani militants,” Army Times (September 13, 2010), http://www.armytimes.com/news/2010/09/army-haqqani-092010w/.
ix Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, “Official Kill-Capture Claims,” alexstrick.com, http://www.alexstrick.com/killcapture/.
x Sean D. Naylor, “Chinook crash highlights rise in spec ops raids,” Army Times (August 21, 2011), http://www.armytimes.com/news/2011/08/army-chinook-crash-highlights-rise-in-spec-ops-raids-082111w/.