In September 2008, U.S. military officials made a controversial call: Navy SEALs would launch a raid over the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan in an attempt to find al-Qaeda leaders. The trail of intelligence to find Osama bin Laden, the organization’s leader, had gone cold, and then-Vice Adm. William McRaven wanted to jump-start the effort.
The raid, carried out by Seal Team 6’s Blue Squadron, targeted a minor al-Qaeda facilitator, according to “Relentless Strike,” a new book detailing the history of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). CH-47 Chinook helicopters dropped off about two dozen elite combat troops along the border near Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal area, and they moved on foot over the border to a village known as Angoor Adda, according to the book.
The mission quickly went awry: After the SEALs scaled the walls of a compound, a resident opened fire on them with a shotgun and women inside began throwing themselves on the Americans.
“Nobody shot any women,” a SEAL Team 6 source recalled in the book, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They shot a few guys. But all these women started coming at them… Guys were getting away, guys were fleeing.”
The raid was disclosed in the media at the time, as Pakistani officials expressed outrage over the U.S. military launching a secret operation in their country. But the book provides new details, alleging that the operation was “basically for a nobody,” and launched to desensitize the Pakistanis to future strikes and how well JSOC could launch them. McRaven, who retired last year as the four-star commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, ordered it despite concerns raised by Team 6 officers, the book alleged.
Authored by veteran military journalist Sean Naylor, “Relentless Strike,” which was released Tuesday, traces the history of JSOC from its establishment in 1980 as an elite counter-terrorism organization and describes a variety of secret missions carried out by its most elite units.
The book, the first full-length history of JSOC, has drawn the attention of senior U.S. military officials, and prompted U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to issue a reminder to its members that they are bound by non-disclosure agreements, said Army Lt. Col. Robert Bockholt, a command spokesman. Naylor said Monday that he sought assistance from SOCOM for the work, and it was declined.
“They can’t claim to be surprised by anything in this book,” he said in a meeting this week with a small number of journalists. “They’ve known this is coming for years.”
Here are five other little-known stories in “Relentless Strike”:
JSOC considered killing Saddam Hussein…in 1990.
The Special Operations organization played a leading role in the manhunt that captured Iraq’s former president in December 2003, following the U.S. military invasion that march. But it had considered targeting him long before then.
JSOC did “a lot of planning” for sending undercover troops into Baghdad to kill Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, a Pentagon special operations source told Naylor.
“There was an effort to just solve the problem by taking out Saddam Hussein,” the source said.
The plan was tabled because of a lack of actionable intelligence, the source added.
Elite U.S. soldiers worked in Syria covertly
Previous media reports have noted that the U.S. war in Iraq spilled into Syria on occasion, including during an October 2008 raid that killed Abu Ghadiyah, an Iraqi militant who helped smuggle weapons, foreign fighters and money into Iraq. But it appears it was a regular fact of life for JSOC.
“Relentless Strike” states that the raid “became the only public evidence of a highly successful covert campaign waged inside Syria” by the organization and a secretive Army intelligence unit frequently referred to as Task Force Orange.
As detailed in an excerpt of the book published by Foreign Policy magazine, JSOC was active in both Syria and Lebanon, and infiltrated Syria under cover to look for evidence that Hussein’s regime had moved weapons of mass destruction there and information about foreign fighter networks establishing roots there.
Manhunt to get Hussein crossed Syrian border
In another example of JSOC fighting in Syria, elite soldiers used helicopters to chase a vehicle convoy of Iraqis over the border on June 18, 2003, believing that Hussein himself might be in it. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld confirmed a week later that the attack occurred, but said that it occurred “near the Syrian border.”
In actuality, the unit involved — Task Force 20, comprising Delta operators and Army Rangers flying from the city of Mosul in helicopters — ran out of time before the convoy fled over the border, and Rumsfeld himself cleared them to continue in pursuit, according to the book. A Delta ground commander in the helicopter raised concerns when he realized where they were being sent.
“Hey, these grids are in Syria,” the Delta ground commander in pursuit, identified only by the nickname “Bricktop,” said over the radio, according to the book. His commanding officer, Lt. Col. John Christian reportedly responded clearly with Rumsfeld on the line: “Bricktop, you’re authorized to pursue.”
Hussein was not in the convoy, but several of his cousins were, the book adds.
The failed rescue of Linda Norgrove
Less than two weeks after British aid worker Linda Norgrove was kidnapped in Afghanistan in September 2010, the U.S.-led military coalition there caught a break. Intelligence sources traced Norgrove’s location to a mountainside compound in the country’s infamous Korengal Valley, a six-mile long crevasse in which U.S. soldiers and insurgents engaged in fierce combat regularly.
SEAL Team 6’s Silver Squadron received orders for a daring rescue attempt Oct. 8, 2010, the book said. The elite combat troops fast-roped from CH-47 Chinook helicopters, and exchanged gunfire with insurgents holding Norgrove captive. But tragedy struck: One of the Navy SEALs threw a grenade without knowing that Norgrove was nearby, mortally wounding her, according to several accounts of the rescue attempt.
The botched rescue attempt has been detailed in the media previously, and was a source of scandal because the U.S. military initially reported that Norgrove died when an insurgent detonated a suicide vest. The official story was only changed after the SEAL who threw the grenade notified his team leader, who in turn weighed what to do for the next 40 hours, the book said.
“To this day, the guy that threw the grenade, he’s a wreck,” a senior Team 6 operator said, according to the book. “This is a big failure for the command.”
Secret Black Hawk helicopters were forced on SEAL Team 6
The May 2, 2011, raid in which Navy SEALs killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is well documented, but a little-known wrinkle is explored in the book: The insistence of senior military and intelligence officials on using new radar-resistant Black Hawk helicopters.
The aircraft used were two of a kind at a time, but unstable when used in training, one SEAL Team 6 member said, according to the book. But McRaven, and perhaps the CIA, insisted on using them, the book said. They were to be flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the unit that regularly transports elite combat troops into dangerous environments.
In one of the final meetings prior to the raid at Jalalabad Airfield in Afghanistan, Col. John Thompson, then the commander of the 160ths, made a final appeal to McRaven to use CH-47 Chinooks rather than the new Black Hawks, according to the book, citing a source who was in the room.
“McRaven went off on him,” the source said. “Embarrassed him, belittled him… I felt bad for the guy.”
McRaven disputed that version of events, the book said. One of the helicopters crashed during the raid, but they have since been incorporated more fully into the military. The book said that the program has expanded to include more of the specialized aircraft at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.