Last night, a joint force from America’s Tier One special operations command conducted a raid on a pirate camp in Somalia, freeing two hostages – an American and a Dane – and killing their captors before exfiltrating north to Djibouti via helicopter.
USA Today‘s lead paragraph captures the mission well, while also serving as the best recruiting pitch for the Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land teams that I’ve seen a newspaper run:
The same U.S. Navy SEAL unit that killed Osama bin Laden parachuted into Somalia under cover of darkness early Wednesday and crept up to an outdoor camp where an American woman and Danish man were being held hostage. Soon, nine kidnappers were dead and both hostages were freed.
The hostages, two aid workers who had been kidnapped three months earlier, were victims of an expanding land-based kidnapping enterprise engaged in by Somali pirates in response to the growing difficulty of hijacking ships in the Gulf of Aden.
“The same U.S. Navy SEAL unit that killed Osama bin Laden,” of course, refers to the Navy’s Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), also known as SEAL Team Six, though as with all JSOC operations there were almost certainly representatives from other services involved as well (possibly Air Force aircraft, and certainly joint terminal attack controllers and pararescuemen from the Air Force special mission unit organic to JSOC).
As with the bin Laden raid, it is worth noting that what sets this mission apart from any other JSOC or DEVGRU operation is not the fact that it took place, but the publicity it is receiving. Hostage rescue is a core component of JSOC’s special mission units’ capabilities, as are counterterrorism, direct action, and strategic reconnaissance. Further, the operational tempo for special operations units as a whole – both “white” and “black” (with JSOC falling in the latter category) – continues to be incredibly high, making this highly publicized mission just another one of hundreds being carried out around the world every month (according to ISAF, for example, 1,879 special operations raids were carried out in Afghanistan alone in the first eight months of 2011).
Aside from results the raid itself – two hostages rescued unharmed, and nine heavily armed “tangoes” dead – part of the reason this mission is being so highly publicized is the high psychological importance of its success, a position which it holds for two main reasons.
THE GHOSTS OF ‘BLACK HAWK DOWN’
Make no mistake: this raid, and its publicization, sends a powerful message about America’s willingness to put boots on the ground in Somalia nearly two decades after the withdrawal of US forces from that country in 1994. Though this mission neither took place in “Mog” (Mogadishu) nor in daylight, the success of JSOC’s effort will go a long way to exorcise the lingering demons of 1993’s ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident that left 18 American Rangers and Delta Force operators dead and many more wounded.
This isn’t America’s first action in Somalia since then. As Bill Roggio notes, at least three direct action missions or campaigns have been carried out in Somalia in the last half-decade:
First, US forces (CIA and special operations forces) are known to have engaged the Islamic Courts Union several times in late 2006 and early 2007 when the Ethiopians invaded Somalia in December 2006.
Second, a US Navy warship and US personnel targeted al Qaeda leader Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in June 2007 off the coast of Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland. After the USS Chafee opened fire on their speedboats, 35 Islamic Courts fighters were killed.
Third, US special operations forces killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in September 2009 during a daring helicopter raid in the southern Somali town of Barawe. Nabhan’s body was recovered during the raid.
Additionally, at least nine drone strikes have been carried out between 2006 and the present month. However, there is no question that this is the highest-profile and most-publicized American mission to have taken place on Somali soil since our 1994 withdrawal, which convinced Osama bin Laden “that the American soldier was just a paper tiger.” As such, it sends a clear, if indirect, message that the lingering demons of the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident won’t prevent our forces from operating on the ground in Somalia if there is a mission there that needs to be done.
BOUNCING BACK FROM THE TANGI TRAGEDY
Though special operations forces conducted upward of 2,000 missions in Afghanistan alone in 2011, two JSOC missions in general – and DEVGRU missions in particular – made more headlines than all of the others combined. The first, both chronologically and in terms of overall attention, was the DEVGRU-led May 1 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan that resulted in the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden.
The second, and more recent, was entirely different. On August 6, when entering an objective area to support a Ranger element on the ground, an Army National Guard CH-47 helicopter carrying JSOC operators, Afghan commandos, and an interpreter was shot down in the Tangi Valley in Wardak Province, eastern Afghanistan. Not only was it was the deadliest incident and deadliest day of the ten year war in Afghanistan, but the primary force on board was a troop from DEVGRU’s Gold Squadron – different operators than those who had carried out the Abbottabad raid, but members of the same SEAL Team.
If the bin Laden raid had reaffirmed the legendary (some might say “mythic”) status of the Navy’s premier special mission unit, the Tangi Valley disaster acted as a chemical stripper to these commandos’ hard-earned and carefully crafted veneer of invincibility. Among the 38 killed in that crash were fifteen DEVGRU SEALs and three Air Force special tactics personnel – eighteen operators from Tier One units.
Until last night, that tragedy had been the last highly publicized event involving JSOC in general, and SEAL Team Six in particular, despite hundreds of missions having been carried out between then and the present. Now, JSOC and DEVGRU are back on Americans’ radars for a positive reason.
On the surface, last night’s successful rescue, which exemplifies the work that special operations forces do on a nightly basis, left nine pirates dead and put two hostages on the road home after a three month ordeal. Taking a wider view, though, this mission and the publicity it is receiving will go a long way toward exorcising the demons of Mogadishu 1993 and Tangi 2011 that have haunted the American psyche, for similar reasons but in differing amounts, ever since.