The fatal shooting of Osama bin Laden with two bullets, the first to the chest and the second to the head, was the climax in a risky, secret Navy SEAL mission of the kind the U.S. is turning to more frequently for its national security.
In a post-Cold War era of “irregular warfare” against antagonists such as insurgents and drug traffickers, the U.S. leans increasingly on covert skills and operations. The U.S. military’s Special Operations Command, which includes the SEALs, has more than tripled its budget and quadrupled the number of operatives deployed overseas since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, SEAL teams have engaged in intense combat during raids on al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds. During the early moments of March 2003 invasion of Iraq, SEALs working with British and Polish commandos conducted one of the largest special operations raids of the war when they simultaneously took control of two major offshore oil platforms and oil manifolds on the Al Faw Peninsula.
During the first Gulf War to expel Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, 15 SEALs in four speedboats set off explosive devices along the coast to fool Iraqi defenders into thinking that a large Marine force was landing.
Two SEALs have received the Medal of Honor posthumously for their actions in the recent wars -- Petty Officer Michael Monsoor in Iraq and Lieutenant Michael Murphy in Afghanistan. The Navy has named a new DDG-1000 destroyer after Monsoor and a DDG-51 destroyer after Murphy.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates in August paid tribute to the brutal physical conditioning that the Navy’s Sea, Air, Land commandos, or SEALs, endure in their training. He stood on a Coronado, California, beach to witness 67 sand-covered sailors crawl out of the water as they completed the standard ritual of “Hell Week.”
“Knowing that they’ll be going into the fight and the fact that they’re all volunteers is very moving,” Gates told reporters afterwards.
President Barack Obama, in the weeks before the raid, consulted closely with Vice Admiral William McRaven, head of the Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina-based Joint Special Operations Command, a White House official told reporters yesterday.
‘Special Mission Units’
The JSOC, a highly classified sub-command of Special Operations Command, is in charge of operations involving so- called “special mission units.” The units execute counterterror missions to kill high-level Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders and train to interdict weapons of mass destruction that terrorists might possess.
This command includes the Army First Operational Detachment-Delta, or Delta Force; the 75th Ranger Regiment; the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment; and the Navy’s counterterror SEAL force, the Special Warfare Development Group. Previously known as SEAL Team Six, it conducted the bin Laden raid.
Mike Thornton, a Navy SEAL who received the Medal of Honor for saving the life of a fellow commando during the Vietnam War, helped establish SEAL Team Six in 1980 and watched special operations forces grow. He said he has been impressed by accounts of the bin Laden mission and knows the dedication and hard work the commandos put into it.
“I was just very proud of them,” Thornton said in a telephone interview from Fort Hood in Texas, where he was addressing troops. Thornton, 62, retired from active duty in 1992 and now works as a public speaker and fundraiser for military-related foundations.
Every Mission Different
He wouldn’t comment on the details of the bin Laden mission, saying every operation is different and it was impossible to know precisely the conditions under which the commandos were operating.
“This is war,” Thornton said. “People have to understand that freedom is not free.”
McRaven told Obama during a March 29 meeting that he wanted his units to conduct dress rehearsals for the raid, said the White House official. Obama asked how quickly the rehearsals could go and what the risks would be to the military personnel - - for example, what would be likely to happen if residents detected the helicopter force a minute from the compound.
Obama had a 12-minute telephone conversation with McRaven the day before the raid, wishing the JSOC force good luck. Obama said he would personally be following the mission closely.
A now-famous photo of the president and his national security team monitoring the operation in the White House Situation Room shows Air Force Brigadier General Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, assistant commanding general of JSOC, sitting at the head of the table.
Obama in April nominated McRaven to head the entire U.S. Special Operation Command, under which JSOC falls. He would succeed the current commander, another SEAL, Admiral Eric Olson.
SEAL commandos are among the most physically fit and ferocious operatives in the Special Operations Command. They specialize in waterborne operations, such as scuba diving, underwater demolition, coastal raids and river combat. They also have developed other capabilities, such as parachuting, helicopter assaults and clandestine attacks on dry land.
The two dozen SEALs who carried out the operation to capture or kill bin Laden flew in by helicopters, one of which they had to blow up when they found that a technical glitch would prevent it from carrying them back out.
The SEALs trace their roots to World War II -- specifically to General William “Wild Bill” Donovan’s commandos in Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA, and to the Navy frogmen who surveyed beaches and cleared obstacles for Allied amphibious landings.
After President John F. Kennedy ordered the armed services to increase their number of counter-insurgency units, the Navy in the early 1960s converted many of its underwater demolition teams into SEALs with the added mission of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla warfare.
During the Vietnam War, the Vietcong nicknamed the unusual American force the “men with green faces,” because the SEALs seemed to spring up from the ground at any time to kill or kidnap guerrillas.
A Navy man -- there are no women among the SEALs -- undergoes more than a year of additional training to qualify for the elite unit. Applicants typically are physically fit sailors or officers in their late teens or early 20s.
The quest to become a SEAL begins with a seven-week swimming and exercise course for conditioning. Next comes 25 weeks of basic underwater demolition training that includes rigorous, almost brutal physical conditioning, dive training, small-boat seamanship and ground combat instruction.
That’s the period that includes Hell Week, when they are allowed only a few hours of sleep amid practically nonstop physical exercise and immersion in chilly water. The training is conducted at the Naval Special Warfare Command headquarters at Coronado, California, near San Diego, and, until the 1970s, also took place at a SEAL base in Norfolk, Virginia.
Hell Week teaches the future commando to turn his mind off the pain and misery and focus on the mission. As many as three- fourths in each class drop out of the 25-week course. Those who remain go on to 26 weeks of qualification training that includes lessons in close combat and guerrilla warfare.
The group commonly referred to as SEAL Team Six is the Navy force’s secret counterterrorism unit. It’s located on one of the many Navy bases in the Norfolk area, housed in a heavily guarded compound with a bland cover name on the sign in front to confuse the curious.
The secrecy of the bin Laden operation, which U.S. officials said they didn’t reveal to any allies, reflects another characteristic of SEAL operations: Officials wanted to ensure that the mission could be carried out successfully and without interruption.
In the end, the SEAL commandos on the scene were able to declare the codename confirmation for mission success against bin Laden -- Geronimo EKIA, or Enemy Killed in Action.
John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security, praised the commandos during a White House briefing yesterday. Respecting the secrecy that surrounds their work, he did so without ever specifically identifying them as SEALs.
“The accomplishment that very brave personnel from the United States government were able to realize yesterday is a defining moment in the war against al-Qaeda,” Brennan said.
--With assistance from Julianna Goldman and Tony Capaccio in Washington. Editors: Steven Komarow, Leslie Hoffecker
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