Saturday, June 14, 2014

Can General Linder’s Special Operations Forces Stop the Next Terrorist Threat?


To Linder, the art of special warfare is exactly that: an art. “Nobody is born with the natural skill for this art. It comes from years of study.” At Fort Bragg during the qualification course, operators are thrown into an exercise called Robin Sage. Their “survival” depends on their ability to influence a guerrilla chief who controls when and whether they eat, sleep and succeed at their objective. What makes special operators special, according to Linder, has nothing to do with high-tech gear. Linder tells his men, “You can win buck naked with a butter knife.”

Linder has appeared on every significant battleground of the last 30 years — Central and South America, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines and Africa. His military career parallels America’s deployment of Special Operations forces in the post-World War II era. Like many operators of his generation, Linder served in the jungles of Colombia, where he searched for Pablo Escobar, the cartel leader who walked out of his self-appointed luxury prison in 1992. “All the guard towers faced out,” Linder said with a smile.
In 2005 and 2006, Linder served as the commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force — Philippines. His job was to root out the militant group Abu Sayyaf from the islands in the nation’s south. Linder, then a colonel, set up operations on an Abu Sayyaf-controlled island called Jolo. There was no how-to manual; he fought the enemy however he saw fit. Linder thrived in this jungle environment. He employed the methods he learned and taught at Fort Bragg. The emphasis, as it would later be in Africa, was on building relationships with local people. “This isn’t something that we learned in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “That’s S.O.F. 101.”

Correction: June 13, 2014 
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article paraphrased incorrectly from comments by Edward Price, the assistant press secretary of the National Security Council. Responding to criticism about the lack of oversight of counterterrorism efforts in Africa, Mr. Price said that the White House — not the State Department — planned to put such checks in place.

Can General Linder’s Special Operations Forces Stop the Next Terrorist Threat?

    American Green Berets and Uganda People’s Defense Force soldiers at an airstrip in Obo, Central African Republic. CreditMichael Christopher Brown/Magnum, for The New York Times

    “My job is to look at Africa and see where the threat to the United States is,” Linder said as he unfolded his map and traced circles around the territories where he knew extremist groups were operating. “I see Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Libyan problem set, Al Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, Benghazi and Darna.”On a searing morning this spring, Brig. Gen. James B. Linder leaned against the red-webbing seats of a C-130 as it flew over the Sahara. On his camouflaged knee, he balanced two dog-eared Moleskine notebooks and a map of Africa. Linder, who is in his early 50s, commands the United States Special Operations forces in Africa. He was on his way to visit a detachment of 12 Army Green Berets training with African troops to fight Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Niger. Through the plane’s scratched plexiglass portholes, dunes crested like waves in an ocean of sand, and hot blasts of wind buffeted the fuselage. An hour’s flight to the south, his team of Special Forces was deployed along the Nigerian border, where the militant group Boko Haram was targeting children in its bid to establish an Islamic state.
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