Sunday, February 12, 2006

The SAS Men Setting Up Targets For Rummy's Killers

Donald Rumsfeld has built a secret US force to 'take out' Al-Qaeda – but Britain's best are doing the spadework
Michael Smith
London Sunday Times
February 12, 2006

Donald Rumsfeld was never a man for diplomatic language. On July 1, 2002 in the early months of the global war on terror, the American defence secretary sent a two-line memo to Doug Feith, his under-secretary for policy, asking: “How do we organise the department for manhunts? We are obviously not well organised at the present time.”

Rumsfeld was sick of being told that US forces could not go after terrorists because of a lack of “actionable intelligence”. His fury was fuelled by a secret inquiry that he had commissioned into America’s failure to “take out” Al-Qaeda before the attacks of September 11, 2001.

It had found that the US joint chiefs of staff were so opposed to special operations missions, such as seizing Osama Bin Laden, that they insisted on fail-safe requirements — principally that nobody should be killed.

Rumsfeld now gave his special operations teams new orders. They were “to capture terrorists for interrogation or, if necessary, to kill them, not arrest them”. He also persuaded President Bush to sign a presidential finding authorising the military “to find and finish” terrorist targets.

Rumsfeld had created a killer elite that has been compared favourably by one its key US architects, Lieutenant-General Jerry Boykin, with America’s highly controversial Phoenix programme, which secretly eradicated about 20,000 people without judicial process during the Vietnam war.

This new Phoenix programme is now fully operational and a key element of it is British. A UK squadron of SAS and its navy equivalent SBS, supported by teams from the new special forces intelligence regiments, is operating on both sides of the Afghan- Pakistani border helping the Americans to pursue Bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. A reservist squadron from 23 SAS Regiment is also there and another SBS squadron is on the way.

At the heart of this killer elite is a covert American unit set up after the disastrous attempted rescue of American hostages held by the Islamic regime in Tehran in 1980. Like the British special forces, the new unit had a much more subtle role than the “direct action” favoured by Delta, the assault force deployed for the hostage rescue.

The Intelligence Support Activity — known to insiders as the Activity — was trained not just to attack but to infiltrate, watch and wait, gathering information for future operations. It was hidden from view, covering its existence with a series of regularly changing codenames such as Centra Spike, Royal Cape and Gray Fox.

Orthodox military commanders did not like it. In fact, the death of 18 US forces in Somalia in 1993 — in the Black Hawk Down incident — so traumatised US military chiefs that a virtual block was put on special operations missions despite the emergence of Bin Laden as an implacable foe.

Even after the September 11 attacks, the American high command tried to use special operations forces for conventional warfare, operating in large numbers instead of the usual small teams. Task Force Sword, comprising more than 2,000 men from Delta, DevGru (the US navy’s former counter-terror unit Seal Team Six) and the Activity, augmented by two SAS squadrons, was ordered to cut off Al-Qaeda troops attempting to flee into Pakistan.

Bin Laden was located by British signals intelligence experts in a series of caves at Tora Bora in the White Mountains, 25 miles southwest of Jalalabad; but the assault on the caves was badly botched and risk aversion mentality won the day. A combined force of SAS and SBS commandos was just 20 minutes behind Bin Laden, but they were pulled off to allow US troops to go in for the kill. It took several hours for the Americans to get there, by which time he had escaped.

Out of this mess, however, grew both Rumsfeld’s angry frustration at the lack of “manhunt” capability and the sudden transformation of the frustrated Anglo-American special forces brotherhood into the defence secretary’s killer elite. Once the shackles were off there was no holding back.

The first sign that Rumsfeld’s team had been ordered to strike in countries with which America had no direct quarrel came on November 2, 2002 in Yemen, Bin Laden’s ancestral home.

There was little doubt that a Toyota Land Cruiser that could be seen bumping along a rocky desert road on the screens at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, contained Ali Qaed Sunian al-Harthi, Bin Laden’s personal representative in Yemen and one of the top dozen members of Al-Qaeda. He was suspected of masterminding the attack on the USS Cole in which 17 American sailors died in October 2000.

Al-Harthi’s mobile phone was being tracked by the Activity’s traffic analysts. They had been waiting for the moment when they could program it remotely to switch itself on so as to provide a target for an attack. Bush’s authorisation of assassination meant that the CIA and special operations commanders could kill al-Harthi the moment they saw him.

A pilotless Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles moved into position above him and the Land Cruiser and its occupants were reduced to little more than mangled metal and a scorch mark on the desert road.

After the Iraq war, the SAS and SBS combined with Delta, DevGru, the Activity and the CIA to form Task Force 121, whose sole purpose was to capture or kill America’s main enemies. In Afghanistan that meant Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. In Iraq, a British special forces officer said, Force 121 had one role alone “pure and simple to find Number One” — Saddam Hussein.

The British then blotted their copybook with poor security. A Foreign Office official attended a meeting in Iraq in December 2003 at which it was disclosed on a “Secret Close Hold” basis just how near the taskforce was to Saddam. That information should not have left the room, but the Foreign Office official telephoned London, setting off a series of phone calls that compromised the operation. A decree came down from on high: the capture of Saddam had to be 100% “made in the US of A”.

An SAS team was on standby to provide backup but was unable to share the glory when the Americans found Saddam down his hole like a rat in a trap.

Following this success, the bulk of Task Force 121 moved to Afghanistan to search for Bin Laden once more. Finding and finishing the Al-Qaeda leader remains the most important mission for US special operations forces, who have received an 81% boost in funding since 9/11.

For its part, the UK’s Directorate of Special Forces set up its own human intelligence and signals intelligence special forces units, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment and 18th (UKSF) Signal Regiment, which now have teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they are engaged in Rumsfeld-generated special ops with Delta and the Activity, British special forces are under American command. They are also in contact with their director at special forces headquarters in Regent’s Park, London, and the Permanent Joint HQ, which oversees all UK military operations abroad, so they would be stopped from doing anything against British policy.

The CIA runs the Predator and presses the button on the Hellfire missiles. But if British special forces help to find the terrorists, how culpable are they when those terrorists are “finished” by the CIA, to use Rumsfeld’s chilling term? Amnesty International and a United Nations Special Rapporteur have denounced these attacks as “extrajudicial execution”. It is one thing for SAS or SBS forces to shoot a terrorist in a firefight where they are under threat, it is quite another for them to line up targets for the Americans to execute without trial, knowing this is what will happen. The moral dilemmas are not getting easier.

The Pentagon has just announced that US special operations forces are to get their own squadron of killer drones and four submarines, each equipped with 150 cruise missiles, to help them to “find, fix and finish” the terrorists. Rumsfeld is said to have complained that not enough “finishing” is taking place.

Where next for his killer elite? Revelations about the countries that the Activity has targeted may give a clue. Despite the setback of the 1980 failure in Tehran, US special operations forces seem to be forever drawn back to Iran. One of the key languages used by the Activity remains Farsi.

The boys from the Activity went into Iran in 1987 in a clandestine mission to locate possible targets for an attack, and Seymour Hersh, the American investigative journalist, revealed last year that they were back yet again, collecting intelligence on several dozen targets that might need to be attacked, including nuclear facilities — a revelation made all the more pertinent today by the Iranian nuclear programme crisis.

Extracted from Killer Elite by Michael Smith published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £18.99.

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