Monday, March 15, 2004

Task Force 121, the secret manhunting unit formed for the war on terrorism, is a blend of warriors, aviators, CIA officers and deep-cover intelligence collectors who nabbed Saddam Hussein and now hope to grab Osama bin Laden.

“This is tightening the sensor-to-shooter loop,” said a senior defense official. “You have your own intelligence right with the guys who do the shooting and grabbing. All the information under one roof.”

The Pentagon refuses to discuss the group’s makeup. Its members in Afghanistan and Iraq avoid reporters. New information was obtained through interviews with knowledgeable defense officials.

Elements of 121 have moved from Iraq to Afghanistan for a U.S. spring offensive, named “Mountain Storm,” against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters now reorganizing in Pakistan. If the flushing action pinpoints bin Laden, who is believed to be moving in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, Task Force 121 would likely infiltrate the country and try to kill or capture the terrorist who orchestrated the September 11 attacks.

Task Force 121’s composition includes four major elements:

• Grey Fox, a deep-cover organization based at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia. Members specialize in spying and intercepting communications. They carry hardware that can tap into electronic-eavesdropping satellites and that can splice fiber-optic cables.

Grey Fox maintains a fleet of aircraft at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. On occasion, members enter countries on “non-official cover” using assumed identities.

Created principally to combat international drug smugglers, Grey Fox has turned out to be the perfect unit for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s demand for “actionable intelligence” to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives and other terrorists.

The Army once maintained Grey Fox, but after September 11 the Pentagon shifted direct control to Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Fort Bragg, N.C. Ultimately, Grey Fox reports to U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla.

Although officials still refer to the intelligence unit as Grey Fox, a defense source said its code name was changed during the war on terrorism. The source asked that the new designation not be reported. Grey Fox has operated under a number of different code words. In the early 1990s, for example, it was called “Capacity Gear.”

• JSOC: This is the headquarters for an elite 800-member group of Army Delta Force and Navy SEALs who specialize in counterterrorism. Left mostly on the shelf pre-September 11, JSOC is today the most active it has ever been.

JSOC was the bulk of Task Force 11 in Afghanistan that hunted bin Laden, Mullah Mohammed Omar and other high-value targets. It then reinvented itself as Task Force 121 in Iraq. Sources say it’s likely the task force will take on a new designating number now that it is back in Afghanistan.

JSOC and Grey Fox make up the “black” world of special operations. The “white” units — which operate more publicly — include Green Berets and civil-affairs officers.

• CIA Special Activities Division: These are CIA paramilitaries who can aid Task Force 121 by setting up networks of sources in Iraq and Afghanistan, and provide intelligence directly to the warriors.

• The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment: This fleet of Black Hawk, Chinook and AH-6 “Little Bird” helicopters ferries the Delta Force and SEALs where they need to go, quickly, at night, at low altitudes. Saddam was loaded onto a “Little Bird” Dec. 13 and taken to Tikrit after Task Force 121 and a 4th Infantry Division unit found him hiding in a hole on a farm.

Task Force 121 would not be the first joint operation between the CIA and armed forces. In the Afghanistan war, the Pentagon transferred scores of special operations troops to the CIA’s Special Activities Division to infiltrate the country and set up links to anti-Taliban forces.

Asked generally about the CIA-military relationship, Mr. Rumsfeld told Reuters news service, “We’ve taken them for cooperative arrangements. They’ve taken some of our people sometimes. They may be doing something where it requires some competence that we have distinctively, so we’ve worked very cooperatively with them.”

Task Force 121 is augmented, as needed, by conventional forces, as it was on Dec. 13, the day Saddam was captured.

Elements of Task Force 121 are moving to the Afghanistan theater because of a planned spring offensive, and because the military and CIA are picking up better intelligence on bin Laden.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in recent months has put thousands of troops into the ungoverned border area with Afghanistan to weed out al Qaeda. More boots on the ground means more contacts with locals, who are providing information.

Meanwhile, the CIA and the U.S.-led coalition task force based at Bagram, north of Kabul, has learned lessons from the hunt for Saddam.

That search showed the value of “link-analysis” — listing the names of every person who has contacts with the target, or contacts with friends or family of the target, and then finding them for questioning. The result is that the United States believes it knows areas where bin Laden has visited and to which he may return, said a defense source.

U.S. military officers in Afghanistan have expressed growing confidence they will catch bin Laden by year’s end. But Mr. Rumsfeld yesterday sought to lower expectations.

“I don’t know if he’ll be caught this year. If he’s alive, I’m sure he’ll be caught eventually. And when, I don’t know,” the defense secretary said yesterday on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

“What’s going on is a normal activity that takes place. And from time to time, there are sweeps made,” Mr. Rumsfeld told CNN. “And I think to hype it or suggest that there’s something major going on is probably a misunderstanding. These things tend to ebb and flow.”

Mr. Rumsfeld said of bin Laden: “You know, he may be alive and he may not be. We don’t know if he’s alive or dead. He may be in Afghanistan. He may be in Pakistan. He may be someplace else.”

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