Special Operators

Review: Sean Naylor, ‘Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command’

Stanley McChrystal
Gen. Stanley McChrystal / AP

Relentless Strike is the history of Joint Special Operations Command—JSOC—the elite commando wing of the U.S. military. Its author, Sean Naylor, is a senior writer for the Army Times, and had packed his book full of details regarding why, how, and where JSOC operates.

Naylor’s account begins with JSOC’s creation following the 1980 Desert One incident, where a U.S. military attempt to rescue hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran ended in disaster. JSOC sees early action with a rescue operation during the 1989 invasion of Panama and with anti-drug operations against brutal Colombian cartels. In the Gulf War, JSOC defines its worth to senior commanders—skeptical of JSOC’s unconventional style and structure—by successfully hunting Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile teams. Naylor explains, however, that the most important thing to happen during JSOC’s early history is the orientation of its three primary special mission units (the Army’s Delta Force, the Navy’s Seal Team Six and the Air Force’s Special Tactics Squadron-24) toward counter-terrorism (CT) operations. We learn of the excruciating detail that a successful counter-terrorism mission such as a hostage rescue requires. Unlike in the movies, real-life CT operations require a unique mix of intelligence, human skill, logistical support, and luck.

In the 1990s JSOC’s operations shifted toward counter-proliferation exercises: securing WMDs from the hands of terrorists and rogue states. Operators became experts at covertly breaking into WMD facilities. Amusingly, the operators sometimes defeated the security of these training exercises by finding unguarded entrances. In Bosnia, JSOC was able to forge highly successful working relationships with the CIA and hunt down Serbian war criminals. Naylor offers the story of one such operation:

[A] Team 6 element posing as Red Cross personnel arrived at the hospital clinic where Kovacevic worked, talked their way past the receptionist, entered his office, and subdued him. The operators placed Kovacevic in a wheelchair, took him out a back entrance and loaded him into the back of a waiting truck.

For JSOC, the War on Terror didn’t get off to a good start. Hamstrung by overly cautious intelligence assessments and political calculations, the command’s first operations in Afghanistan were designed for the cameras and for prestige rather than strategic effect. JSOC was also plagued by pressure from senior commanders to mitigate risk by overloading operations with hundreds of personnel and support elements.

These requirements agitated JSOC leaders who believed that smaller, more agile operations offer the best potential of low visibility and success. When these mid-level commanders start getting their way, JSOC’s ingenuity comes to fruition. Yet Naylor is always keen to remind us that JSOC’s world is necessarily defined by risk. Unlike many other authors, he takes time to outline why a JSOC raid isn’t simple. Every operation had to take into account timing, helicopter fuel supplies, weather conditions, emergency response plans, and a countless array of other variables.

Rumsfeld started to become convinced of JSOC’s ability to achieve tactical and strategic effect outside of the often lethargic conventional military bureaucracy. In Iraq, JSOC found itself deployed against Saddam’s officials and on the hunt for WMDs. As the war continued, JSOC became a world unto itself, adapting and developing its own intelligence networks against the insurgency. In a sign of tension with the CIA, Naylor explains how JSOC’s ability to operate without bureaucratic force protection concerns—like the need to travel in heavily protected convoys of U.S. military vehicles—allowed it to recruit Iraqi sources and more effectively penetrate terrorist groups.

In one operation, Delta operators infiltrated the farm of an al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) senior lieutenant. Disguised as Iraqi farmers, they drove tractors around the farm waiting for the lieutenant to arrive. Unsuspecting of the ruse, the lieutenant and his aides approach the Delta team and were promptly captured. Largely thanks to JSOC operations, between July and December 2005, suicide car bomb attacks in western Iraq declined by 80 percent. According to Naylor, this trend only came to be when JSOC ramped up its operations—but things in Iraq were still moving in the wrong direction overall.

Then General Stan McChrystal stepped into the breach. Significantly escalating JSOC intelligence gathering platforms and raids against AQI, McChrystal revolutionized the fight. His key contribution was a "vision for how to meld all the tools at his disposal together, while flattening his organization and breaking apart the stovepipes that kept information from being fully exploited." Under McChrystal, JSOC infiltrated Internet cafes and hardened jihadist strongholds and, over a bitter few years, rips AQI’s guts out. We read here of how courageous JSOC intelligence officers—including women—and other agents were just as crucial to the command’s success as the "shooters" who conduct the ensuing raids. As McChrystal says on the speaker circuit today, success takes a network.

Naylor also sketches JSOC’s vast range of other actions from Somalia to Lebanon, the Arabian Sea to Ethiopia, and Syria to Iran. This is a serious book, and not for those with only a passing interest in the command. This is a book for students of military affairs and the War on Terror, a detailed account that leaves the reader in awe of what JSOC has achieved, and the sacrifices its members have made.