Sean Naylor Shines Light on the Secret World of Special Operations

Read ‘Relentless Strike'

Sean Naylor Shines Light on the Secret World of Special Operations Sean Naylor Shines Light on the Secret World of Special Operations
Like so many great stories, Relentless Strike opens with a tragedy. Operation Eagle Claw was a U.S. special operations mission gone horribly wrong. Delta Force was... Sean Naylor Shines Light on the Secret World of Special Operations

Like so many great stories, Relentless Strike opens with a tragedy.

Operation Eagle Claw was a U.S. special operations mission gone horribly wrong. Delta Force was supposed to sweep into Tehran and rescue 52 hostages kidnapped from America’s embassy during the Iranian Revolution.

But bad equipment and poor weather delayed the mission. As the commandos gathered in the desert, deep inside Iran, the accident struck. “A helicopter crashed into a plane full of fuel and Delta Force soldiers,” Sean Naylor wrote in Relentless Strike. “Eight servicemen and all hopes of merely postponing the rescue attempt until the next night died in the resulting fireball.”

Millions remember the images of America’s elite brought down in the desert. The incident humiliated the United States, and changed the way the Pentagon thought about special operations forces. The command structure of operations was often ad hoc. Commandos such as Delta Force and SEAL Team Six needed something better.

It needed Joint Special Operations Command.

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Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, is the operational component of America’s special operations command. According to its website, JSOC “is charged to study special operations requirements and techniques, ensure interoperability and equipment standardization, plan and conduct special operations exercises and training, and develop joint special operations tactics.”

That sounds dull, but JSOC is far from boring. It’s a command cloaked in secrecy and myth. It goes out of its way to seem innocuous. But veteran war reporter Sean Naylor wants to change that.

Naylor reported for Army Times for more than two decades, where he specialized in covering America’s special operation forces. Today he is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy where he does the same.

His previous book, Not a Good Day to Die detailed Operation Anaconda — the first large scale battle of America’s war in Afghanistan. His books are clear, entertaining, well reported and dense. Naylor may know more about U.S. commandos than any other reporter on the planet.

His new book is Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. It tells the story of JSOC’s rise to prominence, from its birth out of the ashes of Operation Eagle Claw to its domination of the war against Islamic extremism.

According to Naylor, JSOC and its soldiers are the leaders in America’s war. Yet the command and its commandos still live in the shadows.

“I had become aware,” Naylor tells me, “that by the middle of the first decade of this century, JSOC had become the main efforts in the various campaigns that together were known as the Global War on Terror.”

“I thought, frankly, that the U.S. public was owed the story behind that. I knew it was a fascinating story and I was interested in telling the story of how an organization that started with one very specific mission set — hostage rescue basically … had grown in responsibility and … in size exponentially in the years following Sept. 11. I wanted to tell that story. It was a fascinating story to tell and I thought it was a story that the American people needed to hear.”

It’s a story Naylor meticulously chronicles in Relentless Strike. The book is excellent, full of first-hand operation accounts, interesting anecdotes and big personalities. It is also full of the jargon and acronyms those big personalities use. It tells the story of JSOC, often as told by those who lived it, so Naylor used their language. Thankfully, the back 100 pages of the 500-page book contain a glossary, notes and index.

The Operation Eagle Claw crash site. Public domain photo

The Operation Eagle Claw crash site. Public domain photo

It’s intimidating, but Naylor’s attention to detail enhances Relentless Strike. It’s fascinating to read operational histories of JSOC’s most famous missions in the 1980s and ’90s. Naylor details the invasion of Grenada and Panama, the hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and — in an especially entertaining section — the capture of war criminals in the Balkans.

“Many operations involved intercepting and seizing someone traveling in a moving vehicle,” Naylor wrote. “The task force would surreptitiously attach a tracking beacon to the target’s car … The unit also used a catapult net system that would ensnare car and driver alike. Once the car had been immobilized the operators would smash the windows with a sledgehammer, pull the target through the window, and make off with him …”

The commandos called these operations habeas grab-ass.

But it wasn’t all fun and games for JSOC during the two decades following Operation Eagle Claw. “Even though they did get to do some really big missions,” Naylor tells me. “They never got to do this sort of short, sharp, counter-terrorism type mission that was originally envisioned for them.”

“It was like having a brand new Ferrari in the garage,” special ops veteran Pete Schoomaker told The Weekly Standard back in 2004. “Nobody wants to race it because you dent the fender.”

“Some of them still felt in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that that pattern was going to be maintained,” Naylor explains. “They still felt they weren’t going to be deployed even after a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11.”

But that wasn’t the case. Far from it.

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The bulk of Relentless Strike details JSOC’s operational history in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, operators took on an increasingly important role.

Many of the movies about the conflicts have focused on special operations, and operators have become mythic in the public mind. I asked Naylor if he thought that was true, that the American public has mythologized special operations thanks to films and books such as Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips.

“There’s some truth to that,” Naylor says. “The American public got to see the occasional tip of an iceberg … they might see Uday and Qusay Hussein getting killed, Saddam Hussein getting captured, Pat Tillman getting killed, Captain Phillips getting rescued, Jessica Buchanan getting rescued and of course, the [Osama Bin Laden] raid.”

But those big missions were just a small part of JSOC’s story. Naylor wants the people to know a the whole history and to understand the connection between those missions.

“I didn’t think that many people in the United States realized that was all one organization and that it was doing so much more under the radar,” he tells me. “I wanted to give the American people who had seen perhaps a few tips of the iceberg. I wanted to show them more of the iceberg.”

Navy SEALs during a training exercise. U.S. navy photo

Navy SEALs during a training exercise. U.S. Navy photo

One of the most impressive things about Relentless Strike is Naylor’s sources. He talked to dozens, if not hundreds, of operators on and off the record. Direct accounts and quotes bolster the book’s credibility.

That level of access is a departure from JSOC’s typical modus operandi. Operators are, by nature, a secretive bunch. Many claim their jobs — and their lives — depend on that secrecy.

“Obviously, it’s not up to any individual who is entrusted with national security secrets to disclose them,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Defense One when it asked him about the book. “And especially when it would affect the ability to protect our people and our country, our compromised secrets.”

I ask Naylor how he got so many people who were supposed to keep quiet to talk to him. He says that he’d earned credibility with operators over his 20-year career. He’d spent a lot of time with them “down range.” But many in JSOC are also tired of secrets.

“I also think that there were a lot of people in the JSOC community who really had gotten tired of the cone of silence that the Pentagon tries to keep over the command and its subordinate units,” he explains. “And were frustrated with that. Not because they wanted to tell their own story in a glory seeking way, but just wanted to tell the story of the organization.”

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Many — including the Pentagon — say that the cone of silence keeps operators and their missions safe. It makes them more effective. But Naylor thinks it’s more complicated than that.

It’s a double edged sword, really,” he tells me. “I think … it’s important for the voters and the taxpayers — the American people — to know what they’re actually getting.”

He points to the low point of the war in Iraq — roughly between 2005 and 2007. “I spent some time in Iraq in those years,” he says. “JSOC was the force that was the cutting edge of the U.S. military’s effort going after Al Qaeda in Iraq.”

But back home, Americans didn’t know that. Despite JSOC’s pursuit of the insurgency and its leaders, most of the news from that period was bad news.

“They were getting this drip, drip, drip of negative news,” Naylor explains. “IED after IED after IED. U.S. casualty after U.S. casualty after U.S. casualty. Nothing seemed to be going right. Well, imagine if they’d been able to follow a war chart of Al Qaeda in Iraq at home. And put red Xs through the various figures as JSOC removed them from the battlefield.”

It’s a morbid thought and Naylor knows it.

“I’m not saying that’s the best way to approach a strategic operation,” he says. “But I can’t believe that wouldn’t have engendered a little more support for the war. For the American people to know that … someone is actually achieving a level of tactical and operational success.”

Besides, JSOC’s mission and status within the U.S. military structure has changed dramatically since 9/11. What was once a niche force is now the Pentagon’s premier weapon against terrorists. What was before 9/11 a force of 1,800 soldiers now has more than 25,000. Though precise numbers, understandably, are hard to come by.

“Now that it is the lead element in the campaign against Islamist terrorism, I think it’s unreasonable to ask for the same level of secrecy that special mission units may have enjoyed in the early 1980s. I think it’s unreasonable and impractical given the information age in which we’re now living,” Naylor says.

“You don’t get to have your cake and eat it. You can’t say, ‘we’re going to be the most secret organization in the military but we’re going to be the lead effort in the war.’ Those two things don’t go together.”

“JSOC is waging a war with the American people’s money, with the American people’s sons and daughters, in the American people’s name. I think the American people have a right to know about that.”

He’s right. Relentless Strike chronicles that war. It’s required reading for anyone who wants to understand the changing face of America’s war against Islamist terror.

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