Over the weekend, members of special mission units under the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command carried out raids in Somalia and Libya, capturing a senior al-Qaida operative in the latter country.
While these attacks often come across as lightning strikes in the media, no detail is spared in terms of coordination and preparation. Trend Lines spoke with three experts about the disconnect between how these operations appear versus how they operate.
“The events this weekend were both significant and insignificant,” David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, told Trend Lines. On one hand, he said, the capture in Libya of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi, who has long been sought in connection with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was an important accomplishment on its own terms.
On the other hand, the nature of the operation was not a surprise; special operations forces have routinely carried out complex, coordinated raids like this one, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The U.S. possesses the capability to go where they need to go with military forces to achieve the effects our leadership wants to see achieved,” he said.
This includes the capability to conduct near-simultaneous operations thousands of miles apart from one another, which Maxwell said has become a matter of routine for the U.S. military in the so-called war on terror in terms of planning, rehearsing and execution.
In addition, Maxwell explained that the weekend raids demonstrate the increasing emphasis on interagency trust and coordination among the military, the CIA, the FBI and other organizations that has emerged only over the past decade, and that did not materialize right away even after 9/11.
“We shouldn’t look at any of these operations as purely special operations,” he said, explaining that the U.S. military presence around the world provides troops with “the agility and flexibility to be able to be able to conduct these types of operations.”
Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and director of research for the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, explained in an email interview that the hardest part of preparing for special operations is developing the intelligence.
“One must literally create elaborate charts showing relationships of different people to each other to understand the importance of each, as well as ideas on how to get information on them, and then you must be patient and lucky with all the tools of intelligence at your fingertips,” he said.
Intelligence assets, possibly including people on the ground to provide information while an operation is ongoing, must be in place before an operation like this weekend’s raids can even begin, O’Hanlon said.
Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, noted that other needed assets include surveillance capabilities, whether drones or satellites; as well as a base or ship from which the raid can be launched, reinforcements, rescue teams and equipment; and a place to go after the raid to care for the injured.
It is easiest to conduct these operations from the ocean, she said, explaining that urban environments are more difficult.
She added that the special operations teams go through years of training to prepare physically and mentally for these kinds of missions, including language and weapons training, learning about the target and location and practicing how to work together.
Other prerequisites for success are coordination with U.S. allies and partners, as well as policy guidance and legal clearance.
Over the past 12 years, it has become routine for government actors, such as embassy officials around the world, to assist in coordination, and that provides the military the best opportunities for access, said Maxwell.
“From overflight permission to actually getting agreements to either stage forces or to conduct such operations on sovereign territory, all of those issues must be worked out,” he said.