Hunting Osama

The author of "Black Hawk Down" and "Killing Pablo" says that American special forces have been training to go after bin Laden for years and are more than ready.


Max Garrone
September 20, 2001 3:30AM (UTC)

As the United States continues to plan its retaliation for last week's terrorist attacks, a consensus has formed among military experts that special forces units will play a key role in any military action. Salon spoke to Mark Bowden, the author of "Black Hawk Down" and "Killing Pablo," to talk about the readiness and character of American special forces and how they may be used in America's military response.

How do the potential special forces missions in Afghanistan compare with what they've done before in places like Somalia and Colombia?

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Of course none of us know what they're going to do, but if Somalia and Colombia were any indication they are going to painstakingly identify the members of Osama bin Laden's organization and the other organizations and systematically take them apart. By painstakingly finding and then either arresting or killing them.

In Somalia they were doing rapid takedowns using Delta Forces, the world's experts at that work, with support from the Rangers. In Colombia raids were conducted by elite members of the Colombian police, in some cases led by Delta Force soldiers.

But it all depends on the terrain, who you're going after and how many of them are out there. If there's a large camp, the raid might be preceded by bombing. It all depends on the specific situation.

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They operate in small units of highly trained soldiers who are capable of working at great precision very rapidly. They train constantly for these types of missions. I know for a fact that they've been training for years for this type of mission, to go after Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Were they targeting Osama bin Laden under the Clinton administration's executive order to track him down and, if possible, capture him?

The Clinton administration's executive order authorized drawing up plans to go after bin Laden, meaning that his administration allowed the planning of an operation, training for it and putting special forces into position in that part of the world waiting for the green light, but it didn't authorize the action to capture him.

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Someone's conscience must weigh heavily that they didn't authorize that mission.

I expect that after the initial shock of our reactions to the Sept. 11 bombing wears off there will be a serious evaluation of who made the decision not to go ahead with this. It doesn't take a genius to know that something bad would come of this. There were people preaching exactly this sort of attack.

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People will be asking a lot about policy failures. It's not like we didn't know that Osama bin Laden was planning to do something awful; he told us that he would do it and started doing it. He bombed our embassies, bombed the USS Cole and our forces in Saudi Arabia.

Looking back we're going to have to ask why we allowed this to happen: Was it that they thought they couldn't have pulled it off or were inept?

What do your sources in the special forces community say?

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The people that I've talked to in the special forces community thought that they could do it. Sandy Berger and others in the administration didn't.

Is there a constant level of tension between special forces members and the bureaucracy that sits above them?

Everything's changed in the past two weeks. There's been a culture of risk avoidance since the Vietnam War, especially in the Clinton administration after Somalia. The default standing was to do nothing, because in the Pentagon someone could always ask another question to be sure and conclude that we don't have enough information to act on this operation. In the absence of a strong leader and a burning mission nothing happens.

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You need to have a president or a secretary of defense or a joint chief in activist mode who says, "I want this son of a bitch to be taken down and if you won't make it happen I want a room full of different guys." But [that leader] has to be willing to take the fallout. Without that level of leadership you have people who want to protect their careers. That whole culture vanished on Sept. 11.

Now I think the exact opposite is happening. There's tremendous pressure to do something even if it's not terribly smart. The idea of the U.S. doing nothing is now unthinkable.

Are special forces members nervous about doing something just because of the pressure to act immediately?

To my knowledge these guys are thrilled because they live for this even though some will die for it. They've been training for years and have been anxiously awaiting this type of mission. This is what they've always wanted. In a broader perspective, whether it's good for the country remains to be seen.

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"Black Hawk Down" is a useful illustration of the dangers inherent in these kinds of missions. These guys are very good at what they do and most of the time will accomplish exactly what they set out to do with a minimum of losses and collateral damage. But somewhere along the line it won't go the way they want it to.

Just imagine if they had launched a mission against Osama bin Laden in 1999 and many soldiers got killed or captured. What a huge publicity coup that would have been for bin Laden. Imagine the soldiers on TV with bin Laden saying that he was putting them on trial or imagine the soldiers' corpses strung up for public display in Kabul. They're nightmarish images, but that's what we saw in Somalia. So you can see the reasons behind the hesitancy in going ahead with this.

I do think that Bush has done a very good job at preparing the American people for the fact that this will not be easy and that Americans will get killed. Clinton didn't and that's the reason for the outcry from the events in Somalia.

What were your sources in the special forces community like? Are they gung-ho people, are they like the guy next door or do they even come close to conforming to a type?

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Let's start with an elite group like the Rangers. They're young men in their late teens or early 20s. They represent the entry-level soldiers in the Army and they're the cream of the crop. They've volunteered three times, first for the Army, then for airborne and finally for special forces school in order to become Rangers. You don't have to go down those roads to serve in the Army; you can do your four years, get your benefits and do whatever you want.

Some of them enter the Army with this in mind and want to become career soldiers and become the best in the world at what they do. These guys go into the selection process for Delta Force, but only one in 10 is selected.

So the Rangers are young, smarter and more motivated than average.

Delta Force members are selected for specific traits, whether it's language skills, an ability to shoot someone from a half-mile away or extreme physical endurance. But usually they pick them for a lack of showy machismo. They're extremely low-key; some of them look like superheroes, but most of them tend to be laid-back, slow to anger, not show-offy in any way. For one thing, it's difficult to be the best in an occupation and yet be sworn to secrecy. Once you're in that unit you dress as a civilian, wear civilian hair and can grow a beard.

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They live in a private secret world and don't tell anyone what they do. They train constantly. They're ascetics because part of the discipline is being able to dig a hole and live in it for a week or get dropped in the middle of a desert and find your way out.

They like to say that Delta Force is the haven for great soldiers who hate the army. They're older than most soldiers, they like what they do and hate the chain of command. They call each other by nicknames and don't really recognize rank. Some of the most respected people in those units are noncommissioned officers, sergeants.

How did you initially meet members of the special forces?

I met them because I was working on "Black Hawk Down." I knew that the mission was a Delta Force mission so I naively began asking where you could find these guys and was told, "You'll never be able to talk to them because they won't talk to you."

But I found a military physician who gave me a list of soldiers who had served in the unit in the past. They're not under any obligation not to say anything once out of the unit, but out of an informal feeling of camaraderie they usually don't.

I started calling but they'd always say, "Sorry, you got the wrong guy."

But then I found Paul Howe, who was working on his master's degree and still training in ROTC. I called him and there was a long pause on the phone. He said, "I really would like to talk to you but here's what you need to do." I had to fill out a formal interview request and got formal permission from the Army to interview him. According to policy he needed his commanding officer to sit in on the interview, so he brought in this colonel who was just a desk officer who didn't know that this guy in his ROTC unit fought in Somalia. I remember watching the colonel's eyes pop out of his head because Paul never told it to anyone. Paul's cooperation led me to other members in the unit. In the years since, I've gotten to know others because the book was highly regarded within the special forces community.

So we probably don't hear about most special forces missions. Is it a big issue for special forces members that they don't get any credit for their operations?

The reason Paul wanted to talk to me was that he lost good friends in Mogadishu. He weighed the code of silence against getting the true story of what happened out against his friend's memories.

Can you tell me more about the United States' restriction on assassination? If I understand the law correctly, in 1988 George Bush's administration wrote a legal memorandum that said that the president could authorize the assassination of foreign citizens if they were a threat to national security or were American citizens. Does this pose a problem for special forces members when they're on missions?

That sums it up. I don't think that they've ever had their hands particularly tied. The military tried to kill Khadaffi, they launched cruise missiles at Osama bin Laden, and in Mogadishu they pumped some 60 tow missiles into a building where they thought that Mohammed Farah Adid was hiding but ended up killing 60 to 70 of his clan instead.

I don't think that it's been a hindrance to us at all. I think that prior to that order you may have had CIA and special forces members authorizing assassinations and maybe they were nervous about that. The Bush executive order requires that the decision be made at the highest level.

I've read stories about assassinations, so I think people that believe the U.S. hasn't been involved in this sort of activity over the past 20 years need to wake up.

You also have to consider that the assassination protocol has a loophole in it that's so big that you could drive the 3rd Army through it.

It says that you can target infrastructure. Well, if a special forces sniper sees Abu Nidal walking down the road and he's talking on his cellphone, the cellphone becomes his infrastructure. The special forces are very aware of this.

Are there moral arguments within special forces communities over whether it's better to stoop to tactics like assassination or whether they should always try to arrest their targets?

I think that these guys are soldiers and are going to do what they need to do. They'll obey their orders. The morality debate takes place at a higher level. Guys in the field tend to be practical-minded and do what's needed without regard to the moral or ethical issues at stake while people in Washington, D.C., sitting behind their desks tend to look at the bigger picture and weigh ethical issues.

I'm not knocking them, it's always been true of war and is true in every business. It's a necessary function.


Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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