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The Activity   Continued....

Both Beckwith and King put the SAS’s lessons to work in the Vietnam war; but it wasn’t until April 1980, when they were colonels - and rivals - that their SAS legacy was fully tested. Each man had a vital role in Eagle Claw, the covert operation to rescue the eight American hostages held by the new Islamic regime in Tehran. King was chief-of-staff to the general in overall charge. Beckwith, who had created Delta, an elite assault force modelled on the SAS, was leading the operation on the ground. He sent Meadows into Tehran on a fake passport to set up safe houses, guides, transport and escape routes.

After the rescue went spectacularly wrong with the loss of eight men, it was King who was asked to pick up the pieces. His response was to create a unit that like the British special forces, had a much more subtle role than the “direct action” favoured by Delta. The role of King’s new highly secret Intelligence Support Activity - known to insiders simply as the Activity - was not just to attack but to infiltrate, watch and wait, gathering information for future operations. It was completely hidden from view, covering its existence with a series of regularly changing code names like Centra Spike, Royal Cape, and Grey Fox.

For much of the 1980s the American focus of attention was the anti-communist war in Central America, in which Britain took no direct part; but by 1989, the SAS was deeply involved in the undercover American campaign against the cocaine barons in Colombia.

The SAS trained the Bloque de Busqueda, a Colombian paramilitary force of brutal killers whose willingness to indulge in torture and deliberate assassinations using intelligence provided by the Activity went far beyond what the US and British soldiers were then allowed to do under laws made in Washington and London.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 the British special forces found themselves fighting alongside the Americans in war. A daring undercover operation to seize a sample of Iraqi military fibre-optic cable from a communications centre near Baghdad - in which 36 SBS men guarded three Activity specialists - temporarily overcame the Pentagon’s suspicion of special operations.

Once the war was over, however, those suspicions resurfaced, exacerbated by the death of 18 US forces in Somalia in 1993 in the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident, which so traumatized the military chiefs that a virtual block was put on special operations missions for the rest of the century despite the emergence of Bin Laden as an implacable foe.

There was a good deal of intelligence on al-Qaida leader’s whereabouts, largely from signals intelligence provided by the British, who were monitoring his cellphone. But the CIA was no happier than the Pentagon about covert action to capture him.

Even after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the American high command tried to use US special operations forces for conventional warfare. Delta was designed to operate in small teams, based on the SAS model: get in quick, do the job, and get out with as little fuss as possible. Delta commanders were furious when, in one of the first ground raids in Afghanistan, they were ordered to attack a Taliban compound as a large scale force, in what they saw as a photo-opportunity for audiences back home. They demanded that the SAS - who had been kept on the sidelines by General Tommy Franks, the allied commander - should be brought in to help. The vain hope was that British special forces commanders might make Franks see sense.

Both MI6 and Brigadier Graeme Lamb, then Britain’s Director Special Forces, saw SAS operations in Oman during the 1970s - when they organised local tribesmen to crush an insurgency - as the perfect model for Afghanistan. Eventually, this strategy worked. But throughout the operations inside Afghanistan, both Delta and the SAS repeatedly found themselves used in a role for which they were never intended, carrying out large-scale assaults on enemy positions.

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 pursue high value targets and to cut off al-Qaida fighters 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.

Allied commanders on the ground wanted a sizeable number of conventional forces deployed to block any attempt by al-Qaida fighters to flee across the border into Pakistan. But the US generals feared this might produce many more casualties and the risk aversion mentality won the day. Bin Laden himself, who was heard speaking personally to one of his lieutenants in an intercepted message, slipped through the disjointed allied lines into Pakistan in the second week of December. He could have been stopped. A combined force of SAS and SBS commandos tracked him down and was just twenty minutes behind him, 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. He put Tom O’Connell, who had been one of Jerry King’s aides at the Activity, in charge as assistant secretary of defence for special operations. 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 2 November 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 Qa’ed Sunyan al-Harethi, Bin Laden’s personal representative in Yemen and one of the top dozen members of al-Qaida. He was suspected of masterminding the attack on the USS Cole in which 18 American sailors had died in October 2000.

Harethi’s mobile phone was being tracked by the Activity’s traffic analysts. They had been waiting for the moment when they could remotely programme it to switch itself on, to provide a target for an attack. Bush’s authorisation of assassination meant that the CIA and special operations commanders could kill him the moment they got eyeball on him. Now a pilotless Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles moved into position above him. The Landcruiser and its occupants were reduced to little more than a few pieces of mangled metal and a dark brown scorch mark on the desert road.

British special forces are not thought to have taken part in that operation, but they were well to the fore when it came to cornering the three most wanted men in Iraq: Saddam and his two sons, Uday and Qusay. From an Iraqi agent inside the Sunni triangle north-west of Baghdad, the Activity received a tip-off that Uday and Qusay were hiding out in the town of Mosul. A 30-man SAS detachment was based in Mosul alongside Delta and Activity operators. British special forces had proven adept at merging into the local population. On the evening of 21 July 2003, a small SAS team was sent in to carry out close target reconnaissance of the three-storey villa. The SAS detachment commander was confident that his team could storm the building and kill the occupants swiftly that night. It was the sort of operation they trained for routinely at their close-quarter battle training facility at Pontrilas, ten miles south of Hereford, and they had a track record of success. But US commanders decided that American soldiers had to be involved if there was a major success against Saddam. Word came up from Baghdad that this operation was to be carried out by Delta.

The next morning, with the temperature already well above 100 degrees, “shooters” from the Activity and Delta stormed the ground floor, but they were forced back by gunfire. In a spectacularly over-the-top assault on the villa armour-piercing missiles, 18 anti-tank rockets and thousands of bullets were unleashed on those inside. The US troops even fired a surface-to-air missile through a window.

Only after four hours of intensive fire did the shooting from inside the house tail off, and the special operations shooters were ordered back in, only to be engaged by automatic rifle fire from an AK47 held by Qusay’s son, who was hiding under a bed at the rear of the house. The 14-year-old was shot dead. Army doctors later found that his father’s and uncle’s internal organs had been battered to the point of disintegration by the shock waves from the barrage of missiles.

Soon afterwards, 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 the region. 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”.



When Saddam was cornered, however, the British found themselves excluded once more. Task Force 121 received so many unsubstantiated sightings of the former dictator that they had taken to referring to him as ‘Elvis’. But by early December 2003, they knew they were right on his tail near Tikrit, his home town. “They’ve been so close at times that they have picked up his slippers and they’ve been warm,” one British member of Force 121 said.

The British then blotted their copy book with poor security. A Foreign Office official attended a meeting at which it was disclosed on a “Secret Close Hold” basis just how near the task force 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 back-up but they were unable to share the glory when the Americans found “Elvis” 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. Finding and finishing the al-Qaida leader remains the most important mission for US special operations forces, who have received a massive 81 per cent boost in funding since 9/11 to do just that.

The extent of the Activity’s success in the war on terror was vividly shown by the decision of the UK’s Directorate of Special Forces to reverse the precedents of a shared history and follow the American lead. In April 2005, it 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 both 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 Regents Park and the Permanent Joint HQ, which oversees all UK military operations abroad, so they would be stopped from doing anything against UK policy. The CIA runs the Predator and presses the button on the Hellfire missiles - which makes any killing deniable. 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. Both the Amnesty International and a UN Special Rapporteur have denounced these attacks as “extrajudicial execution”.

It is one thing for the SAS or SBS to shoot a terrorist in a firefight where they themselves 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. Nor are the moral dilemmas going to get easier. Just over a week ago the Pentagon announced that US special operations forces were 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.

So where next for the US Defence Secretary’s killer elite? Revelations about the countries the Activity has targeted may give a clue. Despite the setback of the 1980 failure to rescue the hostages 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 back into Iran in 1987, in a clandestine mission to locate possible targets for an attack, and American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh 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 crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme.

The use of special operations forces to prosecute the war on terror is arguably the only way forward, but it will remain controversial, particularly given the willingness of at least one of its key architects to compare it to the Phoenix programme in Vietnam. Lieutenant-General Jerry Boykin, a veteran of the hostage rescue disaster in Iraq who went on to command the Delta team in Mogadishu during the Black Hawk Down incident, has had a key role in rethinking special operations as Rumsfeld’s deputy under secretary of defence for intelligence. Asked in a congressional inquiry about the similarities between Phoenix and special operations in the global war on terror, he said: “I think we’re running that kind of programme. We’re going after these people. Killing or capturing these people is a legitimate mission for the department. I think we’re doing what the Phoenix programme was designed to do, without all of the secrecy.”  © Michael Smith 2006


Story Archives 2010-2011

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