Thirty years after Iran, the art of the counter-terror assault

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Highly trained, modern counter-terrorism units like the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden grew out of the ashes of a charred RH-53D helicopter that lay resting in the Iranian desert after the disastrous 1980 attempt to free American hostages in Tehran. Navy SEAL Team Six, now called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, is one of a handful elite military units now specifically trained for “kinetic” action against terrorist targets: they hunt and kill.

The 1980 fiasco made painfully clear the need for a full-time, dedicated counter-terrorism capability in the military, resulting in the establishment of SEAL Team Six and the legendary counter-terrorism unit known as Delta Force. SEAL Team Six, with a likely 200 members, has executed secret rescue missions in Grenada in 1983, snagged Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega in 1989, and helped pluck President Jean Bertrand Aristide from Haiti in 1991.

A Navy SEAL team primarily specializes in operations involving the ocean, and has the requisite training and equipment to match that mission. In this case, members of SEAL Team Six were brought in from Afghanistan and dispatched from Ghazi Air Base in Pakistan in a small number of modified MH-60 helicopters to Abbottabad, a verdant tourist destination about 35 miles from Islamabad, where bin Laden was holed up.

Details are sketchy, but the operation likely went down like this:

This was a clandestine infiltration: The Pakistanis did not know the SEAL team was coming and the Americans meant to keep it that way. They flew low and fast, using terrain-following radar to help the choppers hug the folds and valleys of the earth and avoid detection by Pakistani radar systems. The helicopters communicated with each other by call sign; typically picked from the names of U.S. states, sports teams, or founding fathers.

Counter-terrorism assault operations call for a 3-to-1 advantage over the enemy. In this case, it was likely a small force, perhaps as few as 40 people (roughly half from SEAL Team Six, the rest CIA or other operatives) since the SEAL Team would have to overcome the defenses at bin Laden’s compound, but did not anticipate having to contend with any other quick reaction force from al Qaida, the Pakistani military, or anybody else.  (The SEAL team knew from months of U.S. surveillance that bin Laden kept the company of only a small retinue. It was a risk he had to take. More security means more people coming and going, and greater risk of exposure from the larger footprint).

Members of the assault team, who raided the compound and likely killed bin Laden, carried smaller automatic weapons, like the one that fired through bin Laden’s head. Additional personnel buttressed the assault team with larger-caliber, squad automatic weapons at fixed positions outside the main building. A third concentric ring of support personnel focused continually outward, away from the action inside the compound, providing the eyes and ears for any unexpected, external threats.

Some team members handled forensics to identify bin Laden’s remains, while others conducted the so-called “sensitive site exploitation”– in this case, ripping the hard drives out of the computers inside bin Laden’s compound. A later analysis should be able to recover every keystroke ever made on each machine. If the United States can conduct drone strikes or additional raids from that information, they will be carried out within 24 hours, if possible, since intelligence is highly perishable.

This operation took 40 minutes. That’s forever by special operations standards. It should have been no more than 15. The delay may have come, in part, by the need to destroy one chopper rendered inoperable at bin Laden’s compound, for reasons that remain unclear. The loss of a chopper during an assault is a relatively common phenomenon, and SEAL Team Six trains for it. Team members quickly removed fiber optic and thermal imaging equipment from the aircraft. Thermite incendiary grenades, which burn in excess of 4000 degrees, quickly destroyed the cryptologic communications equipment left behind.

Despite the helicopter hiccup, this seems to have been a textbook operation that went down as if SEAL Team Six knew bin Laden’s compound like it was their own. They should, since they have likely been rehearsing the raid in a full-scale model of the facility for weeks, if not months.