The Blog

Cry Havoc . . .

. . . and let slip the U.S. Special Operations Command.

11:00 PM, Jan 22, 2003 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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FOR MANY, it may seem like the news of the day is "All Iraq All The Time." But don't forget the United States is still waging a fierce war against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups around the globe. President George W. Bush reportedly still keeps a running tally of the 22 Most Wanted terrorists and their dispositions in his desk drawer.

The CIA's top counterterrorism official, Cofer Black, has been given the mandate to track these terrorists down and kill or capture them. Inside accounts claim that Black has a box with dry ice ready to deliver Osama bin Laden's head to Bush once he's found.

To assist in the effort, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently elevated the U.S. Special Operations Command to what the Pentagon calls a "Supported Command." In other words, special forces commandos can now execute strikes around the world based on their own intelligence and operational considerations. Before Rumsfeld's order, these operators worked for a superior commander, such as Central Command's Gen. Tommy Franks, who would send them on missions of his making. Now they work on their own, giving the United States and the CIA a potent instrument with which to prosecute the war on terrorism.

But there's a potential downside, a lesson that a close American ally learned the hard way in its war on terror: While elite special forces can make great strides in the war on terror when they succeed, they could seriously erode America's efforts if they fail.

On September 5, 1972, eight Palestinian terrorists from the Black September Organization stormed the Israeli athletic dorms at the Olympic village in Munich, Germany, killing two and capturing nine athletes. Days later, as the terrorists tried to make their escape in aircraft provided by German authorities, the terrorists blew up a helicopter carrying the hostages. There were no survivors.

Israel vowed revenge and launched a worldwide campaign, dubbed Wrath of God, to assassinate those who had planned the attack--and other key terrorist leaders--in order to send a message that Israel must never be targeted again. Thirty-five terrorists were on the list--eleven of whom were said to have played a role in the Munich strike. Three 12-man commando teams from the Mossad--Israel's version of the CIA--were dispatched in covert locations to identify and kill them.

During the six-year campaign, several people were killed who were wrongly identified as terrorist targets. In one instance, the assassination squad killed Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan-born waiter in Lillehammer, Norway, who they thought was Ali Hassam Salameh, a PLO official and key terrorist commander. Norwegian police caught the Israeli hit squad trying to leave the country and sent five of them to prison for murder. In another instance, hit squads killed a Soviet KGB agent who got in the way of a strike against Zaid Muchassi, the PLO's KGB liaison.

As U.S. commando teams from top-tier outfits such as the Army's Delta Force, the Navy's SEAL Team Six, and CIA paramilitary squads hunt for the 22 men on Bush's desk-drawer list, they will surely encounter many of the same challenges their Israeli counterparts did during their long hunt for the Black September terrorists.

These counterterrorism teams are the finest in the world, able to strike targets with lightning swiftness and deadly accuracy. Operating on their own intelligence, planning and executing their own strikes, U.S. SOCOM is forging new territory.

But as the Israeli experience reminds us, hunting the world's evildoers can be a messy business. The same organization that can produce huge gains in America's war on terrorism with the death or capture of Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri can potentially hobble America's anti-terror efforts with the death of another Moroccan-born waiter in the streets of Lillehammer or Cairo.

Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.