While by convention most operations involving special operations forces (SOF) are conducted under a veil of secrecy, 2011 saw a series of engagements that inevitably attracted considerable attention.
Some were impressive successes, hard to conceal, such as the gallantry of 32-year-old Cpl. Benjamin Roberts-Smith of the Australian Special Air Service regiment, who, in January, was awarded the Victoria Cross in a ceremony at Campbell Barracks, Perth, for bravery displayed when the patrol he had led in Helmand province the previous June had come under heavy fire from the Taliban. Undeterred by the intensity and accuracy of the opposition, Roberts-Smith charged uphill through a fig orchard to engage two enemy machine gun squads and draw fire away from wounded soldiers of his platoon. Having previously won a gallantry medal in 2006, Roberts-Smith silenced both Taliban positions and became only the fourth recipient of the Victoria Cross during a decade of conflict in Afghanistan.
In early March, as the Arab Spring swept through Libya, less welcome attention was focused on Special Forces as seven members of the British Special Air Services (SAS) Increment, the unit attached to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), landed in a pair of Chinook helicopters on a flight from Malta to protect a negotiator sent to open a back-channel for the British government to the breakaway National Transitional Council’s leadership in Benghazi. Their local contact, waiting at the rendezvous near al-Khadra, 20 miles outside the city, was “Tom Smith,” a Welshman who had been operating in the area as an irrigation engineer on a 37,000-acre wheat farm for the past six months. As the nine men conferred, about to climb into Smith’s Toyota pickup, they found themselves surrounded and outgunned by a local militia. In compliance with their rules of engagement, the SAS soldiers laid down their weapons and were handcuffed so they could be taken into custody at a local military base. Following the very public, televised intervention of the British ambassador, the group was released and evacuated to Malta on HMS Cumberland, a Type 22 frigate.
Libya would prove to be an unexpected theater of operations for SOF units, with the British 22nd SAS, deployed initially in support of NATO air strikes, acting covertly as target designators on the ground, and then in a more overt role in support of the anti-Moammar Ghaddafi resistance fighters. As well as coordinating the NATO aircraft, operating from bases in Spain and Italy, the SAS trained and equipped the chaotic rag-tag groups of ill-disciplined volunteers who had marched on the regime’s strongholds in Tripoli and Sirte, where they were confronted by a combination of African mercenaries and remnants of Ghaddafi’s elite Revolutionary Guard.
More special operations forces headlines were to be made in May as the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) Navy SEAL Special Mission Unit (SMU) raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The operation had been planned for the previous eight weeks by Adm. William H. McRaven’s JSOC and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Surveillance on a Kuwaiti suspected of being one of the terrorist leader’s aides, a courier using the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, had led the CIA in August 2010 to a three-story building inside a 1-acre compound surrounded by an 18-foot-high wall and located just off Kakul Road in Bilal, a suburb of Abbottabad. Although the interior of the structure was unknown, aerial reconnaissance imagery was used to construct a replica site at Fort Bragg, N.C. The SMU personnel began practicing an assault in March 2011 and in April, moved to Nevada to rehearse the tactics at a similar altitude and night temperature. Finally, at the end of April, the SEALs were flown on a C-17 Globemaster to Bagram.
The operation was delayed 24 hours by cloud cover over the target area, but on May 1, the unit moved to Jalalabad to embark on two modified MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for the 90-minute flight to Abbottabad, 120 miles beyond Pakistan’s border. The SEALs were accompanied by a Pashtu interpreter and a dog, and supported by more troops in four MH-47 Chinooks, who were to act as a rapid response unit in the event a rescue was required. Two of the Chinooks waited just inside the Afghan border while the other pair landed in a secluded valley within reach of Abbottabad, available for instant intervention if the raiders, intent on neutralizing the target, codenamed Crankshaft, encountered problems with the Pakistanis.
In addition, a stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel drone, packed with sensors and a high-resolution video camera, would circle silently overhead at an altitude of 15,000 feet, recording the events on the ground. Launched from Kandahar, the stealth jet could loiter for a long duration over the target area, monitoring events in real time and relaying high-quality pictures to command posts in Washington, D.C., and other locations.
The original plan called for the two modified helicopters to land inside the compound as well as deliver six men onto the roof, but one of the aircraft encountered problems as it came in to hover, and so the pilot, wearing night-vision goggles, crash-landed it close to the high wall. Despite this mishap, the SEALs approached the guesthouse in a corner of the yard, where they fatally engaged an armed al-Kuwaiti. They then entered the building and used C-4 charges to blow open two sets of steel cage doors that blocked their access to the higher stories, where they encountered al-Kuwaiti’s brother, Abrar, and Abrar’s wife, Bashrar, who were shot dead. So was bin Laden’s 23-year-old son, Khalid, who was firing an AK-47 down the well of the stairs at the intruders. Bin Laden’s fifth wife, Amal al-Fatah, appeared, screaming but apparently unarmed. She deliberately placed herself in front of bin Laden to protect him from the lead SEAL, who shot her in the calf before embracing her to stop the detonation of any suicide vest. Moments later, two 5.56 mm rounds killed bin Laden himself as he moved toward a weapon.
For the rest of the raid, while the Pashtun interpreter questioned the two women survivors and their five children, the SEALs recovered hundreds of computer thumb drives, DVDs, and CDs, a veritable intelligence treasure trove, before destroying the downed helicopter with explosives and climbing aboard a Chinook, with bin Laden in a body bag, for the perilous flight back to Jalalabad. The operation was acknowledged almost universally as a decisive event and a potential knockout blow to al Qaeda. A few days later, President Barack Obama said as much when he flew into Fort Campbell, Ky., to thank the SEALs and their helicopter crews. Meanwhile, CIA analysts studied the haul seized in bin Laden’s sanctuary and concluded the fugitive had been hiding in Abbottabad for the past five years, probably with Pakistani collusion, and evidently had been much more active in directing his organization and planning new atrocities than had been anticipated.