Examining The Special Ops 'Tool Kit'

Oct 8, 2013
Originally published on October 8, 2013 8:26 am
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Two raids by U.S. Special Operations Forces days ago caught the world's attention. In Libya, U.S. operatives captured a man named Abu Anas al-Libi, thought to be the al-Qaida mastermind behind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.


In Somalia, Navy SEALs stormed the villa of a different man wanted by the United States, a Kenyan-born senior leader of the terrorist group al-Shabab. That raid was not successful. Meeting heavy resistance, the Special Forces were forced to withdraw.

MONTAGNE: The timing of the two raids, almost simultaneous, may suggest they were coordinated. Linda Robinson believes that's just a coincidence. Robinson has spent many years tracking U.S. Special Forces, and she's written about them in her new book, "One Hundred Victories." Linda Robinson says while we may be used to be hearing about drones taking out terrorist targets, raids - like those in Libya and Somalia - are a key part of what you might call the special ops toolkit.

LINDA ROBINSON: I think toolkit's a good word, and the Special Operations Forces use three basic modes of operating: the raid, drones, of course, and partner forces. And Africa has been a venue where all of them have been used. But there's a general transition to start focusing on the partner forces. However, in this case, in Somalia, where they feel they have to grab someone, the intelligence is right. And in the case of Libya, you had Abu al-Anas, who was already indicted in New York for the 1998 bombings.

MONTAGNE: When you say partner forces, in fact, in Somalia, officials there welcome this raid against al-Shabab. Libyans, on the other hand, had the opposite reaction, condemning the raid that netted this al-Qaida leader, calling it a violation of their sovereignty. So, it would seem that here was a situation where at least partner forces aren't anything anyone wants to be public about. So, will we see more of this: operations done in countries that at least say they were not part of it?

ROBINSON: I think it is important to separate the two cases. You do note, of course, that the Libyan government has protested, and I think this is something that the U.S. always tries to justify by saying our national interest - and in this case, our court system - allows us to go in this fashion. In the case of Somalia, that was a raid. There were, reportedly, U.S. SEALs involved, but they were also making use of the partner formula. This is a really interesting story. It's involved the African Union mission in Somalia getting together a number of countries in East Africa. The U.S. Special Operations Forces have played a role in training Kenyan and some of the other members of this coalition. You really have a collection of countries coming together to try to secure Somalia and have diminished the threat from Shabab. So we may be seeing now Shabab may be focused more on trying to launch attacks elsewhere.

MONTAGNE: Well, is the reason for an emphasis on special forces because they're more politically and diplomatically palatable? I mean, there may be a stir, but it's not the same as asking or trying to send in boots on the ground, as we saw in Syria. A strike, even, became a big issue.

ROBINSON: Well, what I think no country wants is a full-bore U.S. occupation or heavy footprint, as we've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Special Operations Forces get training in language. They spend a lot of time in these countries. So they're perceived to have the best cultural knowledge and the relationships to go in and work with these countries' forces.

MONTAGNE: Well, effectively, you're saying that this is the future.

ROBINSON: It is absolutely the future. And the special operations forces can't be everywhere, nor, of course, should they be everywhere. But where there are problem areas, they are looked to to provide a quiet solution. And I think that is not only the direction of U.S. policy, but I think that it has - is a formula that can work as long as they pay close attention to what that local government wants and needs, and not go in as the dominant occupying force.

MONTAGNE: Linda Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at Rand. Her new book, out today, is called "One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare." Thank you very much for joining us.

ROBINSON: Renee, thank you so much for having me.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.