Relentless Strike : The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command (9781466876224)

BOOK: Relentless Strike : The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command (9781466876224)
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For Duncan and Hannah Naylor



I began this project sure in the knowledge that researching and writing a book about a secret organization that controlled other secret organizations was going to be a challenge, and so it proved.

U.S. Special Operations Command—Joint Special Operations Command's administrative higher headquarters—declined to assist in the project, other than to answer the occasional question. Several people who figure prominently in the events described in this book declined requests to be interviewed.
Relentless Strike,
the first full-length history of JSOC, is therefore built on two foundations.

The first of these consists of interviews I did arrange with scores of sources, most of whom spoke “on background,” meaning I could only identify them in a generic way, as in “a senior SEAL Team 6 source,” rather than by name. The fact that many of my sources held several different positions during the period covered by the book complicated matters further when it came to attribution. In most cases, I used an attribution (for instance, “Delta operator”) that applied to the position the source held during the events being discussed. This meant that sometimes the same individual might be referred to by different attributions in different chapters. However, a small number of individuals insisted that I refer to them by the same phrase (for instance, “retired special operations officer”) throughout the book.

The second foundation upon which the book rests consists of published works by other writers. No book about JSOC could or should be written in a literary vacuum. As the endnotes indicate, this book stands on the shoulders of scores of others that have touched on the command in whole or in part. Several deserve specific mention. The first of these is Steven Emerson's
Secret Warriors,
which I found to be the most useful single volume about the covert operations of the 1980s. (At the outset I intended for my book to concentrate on JSOC's post–September 11 history, but I soon realized that an extensive discussion of the first two decades of the command's existence would be necessary in order to provide readers with the context necessary to frame the events that occurred later.) For the chapters dealing with the creation of JSOC's fearsome industrial-scale killing machine in Iraq, I relied heavily on three books:
Task Force Black,
by Mark Urban, which, while focusing on British special operations forces, contained a wealth of information about the overall JSOC campaign;
The Endgame,
by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, a masterful narrative of America's war in Iraq, laced with telling details about the role played by JSOC; and
My Share of the Task,
by retired General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded JSOC during those critical years. The latter was one of several first-person accounts upon which I leaned for particular chapters. Others include
Kill bin Laden,
by Dalton Fury (the nom de plume of Delta officer Tom Greer), about the failure to get Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, and
No Easy Day,
by Mark Owen (the pen name of SEAL Team 6 operator Matt Bissonnette) with Kevin Maurer, about the May 2011 mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

To the individuals at the heart of each of these foundations—the sources who agreed to be interviewed by me, and the authors whose work preceded mine—I am profoundly grateful.



As Marwan al-Shehhi turned United Airlines Flight 175 northeast above Trenton, New Jersey,
and pointed the hijacked Boeing 767 toward Manhattan and the already burning World Trade Center, the commander of the United States' premier counterterrorist force was concluding a visit to the U.S. embassy in Budapest.

It was mid-afternoon in the Hungarian capital on September 11, 2001, and Army Major General Dell Dailey, head of Joint Special Operations Command, had just briefed senior embassy officials on a major—but highly classified
training exercise code-named Jackal Cave his organization was running across Europe.

Jackal Cave was a “joint readiness exercise,” or JRX, one of several that JSOC (“jay-sock”) conducted each year. Like most JRXs, it was nested in an even larger “Ellipse” exercise run by one of the U.S. military's four-star regional commands, in this case European Command.
Some JSOC personnel viewed the JRXs as essential opportunities to rehearse critical capabilities. Others thought they were counterproductive wastes of time designed mainly to support JSOC's budget, which had been steadily growing for two decades.

Born from the wreckage of 1980's Operation Eagle Claw, the United States' failed attempt to rescue its hostages in Iran, JSOC was created that same year to give the United States a standing headquarters that could run similar operations in the future. But although its power, size, and influence had increased significantly since then, on September 11, 2001, the command remained a fringe presence on the U.S. military scene, with a narrowly circumscribed set of responsibilities that included short-term counterterrorist missions, operations to secure weapons of mass destruction, and very little else.

The exercise JSOC was running that damp, overcast afternoon in Hungary
typified the command's niche role at the turn of the century. The notional enemy was a hybrid force that combined elements of international organized crime and terrorism and was trafficking in weapons of mass destruction, or “loose nukes.”
JSOC's forward headquarters for the exercise was split between Taszár,
a military airfield 150 kilometers southwest of Budapest, and Tuzla, Bosnia,
the latter a holdover from the command's recent history hunting Balkan war criminals. Bolstering the JSOC force were Hungarian military elements, as well as personnel from the U.S. Army's 10th Special Forces Group, with which JSOC had become close after years of operating together in the Balkans.

One exercise aim was to validate a concept called advance force operations (AFO), which was also the name of a newly established staff cell in JSOC headquarters.
AFO's origins lay in the Operational Support Troop of the Army's Delta Force,
one of several secret “special mission units” JSOC controlled. (Another such unit, the Navy's SEAL Team 6, was reconnoitering the Croatian port of Dubrovnik, from where the “enemy” was trying to ship the nuclear material out on a boat.)
The AFO cell ran the sort of missions highlighted by this JRX: deep reconnaissance, often undercover, to prepare the way for possible “direct action”—kill or capture—missions by larger forces. To conduct these missions, the cell could pull operators from any unit that fell under JSOC.

In Jackal Cave, the AFO undercover work was largely the responsibility of the Operational Support Troop, or OST, which had pioneered this concept in JSOC. The OST operators' role was to find the targeted individuals, allowing a larger—but still “low-vis[ibility]”—force to arrive in civilian vans wielding suppressed weapons and capture or kill them.
The aim in such a raid was to “get in and get out without drawing too much attention [so as to] be able to provide plausible deniability to the local government,” said a Delta source.

“We were tracking ‘terrorists,'” said a JSOC staff officer. “It was really a big tracking exercise, and then [we'd] bring an assault element in to take the target down.”

That assault element was Delta's A Squadron, one of the unit's three ground squadrons. The squadron and a small Delta headquarters element had flown in the previous day from Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, on two massive Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft. The planes were still on the tarmac at Taszár, where JSOC had placed its joint operations center, or JOC (pronounced “jock”).
(JSOC's permanent headquarters was at Pope, adjacent to Delta's home post of Fort Bragg.)
Other exercise participants took different routes to Hungary. The JOC personnel flew over in their own aircraft—two C-141 Starlifters referred to as J1 and J2 or, collectively, as the “J-alert birds”—while the OST operators at the heart of this low-vis exercise had taken commercial flights and used cover identities and false passports to infiltrate Europe. Some had also moved into position using the Air Force's “covered air” unit. That unit, known within JSOC as Task Force Silver, operated a variety of civilian airframes, from small propeller-driven planes to Boeing 727s, always hiding the military nature of its missions.

By the afternoon of September 11, the exercise had barely begun. Like most JRXs, it was designed to meet the training needs of as many JSOC elements as possible. This necessarily required an elaborate scenario with many moving parts. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, another C-17 had just touched down at Taszár, bearing four Little Bird helicopters belonging to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, an Army unit established, like JSOC, in the wake of Eagle Claw. Two of the regiment's MH-47E Chinooks had already arrived on a hulking Air Force C-5 Galaxy transport, which at 75 meters was almost 50 percent longer than even the C-17. The plane with the Little Birds taxied to a remote part of the airfield so those on board could follow Dailey's order to not offload the tiny attack and assault helicopters—there to support the Delta mission—anywhere they could be seen by non-JSOC personnel. The rest of the 160th's contribution to the exercise—principally a force of MH-60K Black Hawks and MH-60L Direct Action Penetrators (Black Hawks configured as attack helicopters, rather than as lift, or “assault,” aircraft) led by Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Mangum, commander of the regiment's 1st Battalion—was staging out of Naval Station Rota in southern Spain. From Rota, the 160th crews were to fly Team 6 to assault a ship in the Mediterranean.

BOOK: Relentless Strike : The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command (9781466876224)
4.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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