The U.S. military is mum on Special Operations bases around the world, but they’re public knowledge
By JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Thousands of elite U.S. troops operate around in the world and largely in secret. To help manage these soldiers and their missions, the Pentagon has established a network of small command posts around the world.
But despite the existence of these units being public knowledge — which reveal in part how America fights wars in the 21st century — the U.S. military’s top commando headquarters would prefer not to talk about them.
In September 2014, War Is Boring submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for any orders related to so-called “Special Operations Command (Forward)” entities. In February, we finally received an answer.
“It has been determined that the fact of the existence or non-existence of records concerning the matters relating to those set forth in your request is classified,” James Boisselle, the Deputy Chief of Staff for U.S. Special Operations Command, wrote back.
“USSOCOM neither confirms nor denies that such records may or may not exist.”
We appealed this decision, pointing out that the command posts in question are regularly discussed in unclassified news items, and that it would be logical to assume the Pentagon would require formal orders for the creation of any new unit.
In August, Director of Oversight and Compliance Joo Chung sent a second letter saying that she had rejected our arguments and upheld SOCOM’s original opinion.
But these headquarters are out in the open.
Historically and today, one of the main jobs of Special Operations soldiers is training, advising and otherwise working with foreign allies. The United States possesses the largest commando force in the world and makes active use of it.
Nearly 10,000 elite American troops are in more than 80 different countries on “any given day,” U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel told senators in March.
The commandos don’t go alone. Which is why the job of managing them falls to smaller headquarters known as “forward commands.” Depending on the location, these centers handle everything from coordinating secret missions to mundane tasks such as filing paperwork.
We sought the orders creating these entities to help demystify their work, find out which units still exist and otherwise establish a more granular picture of where commandos have “boots on the ground.”
The various headquarters are not permanent, and often change their names and structures. But by 2014, the Pentagon appeared to have settled on “Special Operations Command Forward” as a common naming convention for these groups.
While the Pentagon can be tight-lipped about what these troops do on a day-to-day basis, their existence and basic functions are not a secret. When War Is Boring submitted its FOIA request, we had identified eight of these groups based in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
The Middle East command centers are likely some of the oldest. After the U.S. military drove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait in 1991, it set up one of the command posts there. By 2000, the United States had created two additional headquarters in Bahrain and Qatar.
The Pentagon has since appeared to have consolidated much of this infrastructure in Bahrain.
In January 2012, Wired’s Danger Room highlighted the existence of a special task force in Bahrain. A year earlier at a defense industry symposium, Army Col. Joe Osborne revealed more forward command posts in Lebanon, Pakistan and Yemen.
U.S. commandos moved into Pakistan soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But after a series of spats between Washington and Islamabad in 2011, ending with the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, Pakistan ordered the Americans out … although not for long. The commandos quietly returned the following year.
In Yemen, the United States sent commandos to help local authorities fight Al Qaeda’s local franchise. The elite troops left after the country’s government collapsed in September 2014.
But in an apparent partnership of opportunity, militias loyal to former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi minority group — once fierce enemies — banded together to fight the new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Then in April, U.S. special operators returned as a Saudi Arabia-led coalition battled the rebels from the air and on the ground.
And after fighting broke out in Lebanon between the government and Fatah Al Islam militants in 2007, Washington took a renewed interest in the country. U.S. military aid flowed to Beirut, and the commando headquarters there was a logical extension of this increased support.
As of 2012, the Pentagon had just three individuals assigned to the Lebanon command center, according to the Army’s Special Warfare magazine. To the best of our knowledge, this organization still exists. And in June, a Pentagon contract for garbage trucks in Jordan included a mailing address for the apparently still-active headquarters in Qatar.
The command posts extend beyond the Middle East and South Asia. Since 9/11, at least three elite American task forces popped up in Africa.
One command post in Djibouti is focused on helping countries in East Africa fight the Somali Islamist group Al Shabaab and its splinter factions. The second — initially in Burkina Faso — targeted Al Qaeda-linked groups in the Sahel region that divides North Africa from Sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2011, the Pentagon set up a third command post in Uganda to hunt warlord Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Despite having lost much of its fighting strength over two decades of fighting, the LRA is still a threat to innocent civilians — including children whom Kony’s forces abduct into their ranks.
Sometime in 2013, the Pentagon renamed these units. The U.S. Special Operations Command’s 2014 “fact book” mentions all three by their new names, with their old titles in parentheses.
The U.S. military has created more organizations in less obvious places. By 2007, the Pentagon’s top headquarters for missions in Latin America was pursuing what it called a “regional war on terror.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, as Washington looked to halt the flow of narcotics, the Pentagon formed a particularly close relationship with its counterparts in Colombia. After 9/11, American officials offered evidence to suggest there was some overlap between the illicit drug trade by rebel groups including the FARC and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
“Clearly Hezbollah is taking advantage of the ungoverned space and the lucrative drug and human smuggling trade networks that extend through to the Andean Ridge, Central America, and the Caribbean,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Christian Averett, U.S. Navy Lt. Louis Cervantes and Army Maj. Patrick O’Hara wrote in a shared thesis for the Naval Postgraduate School.
The Pentagon’s response involved two elite forward command posts in South America, the officers explained in their unclassified academic study. One of these headquarters primarily arranged U.S. support for Colombian military operations including “high value target ‘snatch and grab’ operations.”
Another post in Paraguay coordinated aid to countries in the “Southern Cone,” which stretches from Brazil to Chile.
At the same time, the Pentagon was in the process of setting up a third commando headquarters which shared space with the existing American task force at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras.
The Pentagon has continued to create, transform and perhaps even remove elite command posts from hotspots around the world. As of June, there were two new units in Europe, according to a special double edition of Special Warfare. The magazine featured specific information on elite troops working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Georgia, Estonia and Romania.
While details are sparse, one group apparently focused on activities in Southern Europe, while the other worked in Eastern Europe. We were not aware of these units when we filed our FOIA request, and it is entirely possible they did not yet exist.
However, after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the Pentagon stepped up training exercises and other aid to nearby NATO members. Among other activities, the two headquarters coordinate “psychological warfare” missions clearly aimed at countering Kremlin propaganda.
These missions provide “a discreet yet robust, cost-effective, highly adaptable and diverse tool ideally suited to the … environment,” Special Warfare explained. The special troops can further work with allies on “target audience analysis, influence techniques, propaganda analysis and social media exploitation.”
It’s likely that we will continue to learn more about these units and any new forward headquarters as time goes on. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drag on, Washington sees commandos — and drones — as a way to avoid large, long-term and potentially unpopular operations.
Given this trend, we wonder how long the Pentagon will be able to keep the very existence of records related to the creation of these units — or lack thereof — a secret.