- - Monday, April 11, 2016


By Sean Naylor

St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 540 pages

Forget the high-level Washington blather about troop levels and anti-terrorist strategy in the Middle East. Oblivious to such nonproductive chatter, a fighting force unique to the American military experience is waging a war that relies heavily upon deadly deception.

Unlike Vietnam, no public body counts are made. There are occasional headlines, to be sure — for instance, the killing of the Islamic State’s No. 2 man in late March by covert operatives, and the elimination of Osama bin Laden. But as should be true in shadow warfare, the least said the better. In essence, lethal operations with a small or nonexistent U.S. footprint.

Such is the message delivered by military writer Sean Naylor in a must-read book about the overseer of this secret army, formally the Joint Special Operations Command (jay-sock, in military-speak). The command brings together elements of the Army, Navy and Air Force, augmented by CIA operatives — men and women of exceptional skills who are bold enough to make decisions on their own, and execute them with deadly force.

Mr. Naylor’s section on origins and organization of JSOC is a jumble of names the recitation of which will be of scant interest to most readers. To obscure JSOC’s role in the shadow war, operational units change names frequently. For instance, a Navy unit named Task Force Sword in due course becomes Task Force 11. One outfit was dubbed “Army of Northern Virginia,” with a nod to Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The meat of the book consists of examples of the ingenuity JSOC fighters employ against the enemy. What is striking is that many of the tricks were developed by field operatives who devised new innovate ways to dispose of enemies.

A prime example: A JSOC unit recruited Iraqis — code-named Mohawks — to conduct intelligence operations which required the ability to blend in with the population. In one operation, a Mohawk would enter an Internet cafe known to be popular with suspect terrorists and upload software on the computer. That employed a keystroke recognition system that enabled monitors to read messages. Some softwear “would covertly activate a webcam if the computer had one, allowing the task force to positively identify a target.”

Once a target was identified, the message would go out: The subject was “at cafe 6 at computer 4, go get him.” Other operatives would “track the insurgent far enough away from the cafe to minimize the chance of enemies figuring out how the Americans had located the target,” who would be snatched off the street.

Psychological tricks varied. Planes flying near Kandahar, Afghanistan, dropped parachutes carrying blocks of ice. Once the ice melted, the chutes would blow around until someone found and reported them, “sowing seeds of paranoia in Taliban minds as they wondered where the paratroopers might be.” The drops “terrorized” the enemy.

According to what Mr. Naylor was told, JSOC teams in a “small number” of instances found a way to circumvent political restrictions against killing, rather than capturing, enemy fighters. Their weapon was termed the Xbox, “a bomb designed to look and behave exactly like the one made by Iraqi insurgents, using materials typically found in locally made explosive devices.” Even if remnants of Xbox bombs were analyzed in FBI labs, “experts would mistakenly trace the bomb back to a particular terrorist group bomb maker because of certain supposedly telltale signature elements .”

Indeed, overhead surveillance was so thorough in and around Baghdad “that when a car bomb went off, analysts could pull the video feeds from aircraft overhead and watch them in reverse, to trace the car’s route back to its start point.”

One operation tinged with controversy was the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and Islamic cleric who became a major player in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and hence a high-priority target. Given his citizenship, there was debate in the Obama administration about the legality of targeting him. But, as Mr. Naylor writes, “Obama had few qualms.”

Relying on human intelligence and signal intercepts, a task force traced Awlaki and saw him leave a small mud hut. The CIA somehow acquired access to his car and installed a video camera that was transmitting live images to a drone.”So the CIA’s watchers actually saw Awlaki getting into the back seat.” The drone did the rest. End of Awlaki.

Formerly a correspondent for Army Times, Mr. Naylor obviously gained the confidence of JSOC operatives, who felt comfortable speaking freely with him. Several specials ops veterans with whom I spoke quibbled with him on a few details but gave his book an overall “A rating.” Two criticized “blabbermouths” who were his sources. Whatever, a splendid — and real — adventure read.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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