Secret war of the SAS


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice
Britain’s elite force is fighting its bloodiest conflict since the second world war in Iraq and has killed thousands of insurgents.

Three suicide bombers, three cafes - many dead. That was the warning given by an informant to his MI6 handler in Baghdad in the summer of 2005 as a group of insurgents planned devastating attacks.

The bombers, swaddled in explosives under loose shirts, were preparing to hit the cafes with simultaneous explosions to cause maximum panic. Scores of people might die.

In the bloody chaos of Iraq, sifting hard fact from rumour and traps is never easy. But this intelligence seemed detailed and well sourced: the informant identified the targets, the date and the safe house from which the bombers would make their attack.

It sparked swift activity among the SAS, which in Iraq is facing its most severe challenge since it was set up during the second world war.

Senior officers from the SAS, MI6 and the intelligence gathering Special Reconnaissance Regiment gathered in an inconspicuous warehouse in the green zone, the heavily fortified coalition base in Baghdad. The Station House, as it is known, is the nerve centre of Britain’s special forces and MI6 operations in Iraq.

Three large computer screens on the wall are linked to the US military’s secure internet. One shows what is happening with the wider coalition forces across Iraq; another provides details of all current special operations; and a third displays as text everything that is being said on the special missions’ radio networks on the ground.

A plan to neutralise the suicide bombers was swiftly formulated. First, an observation team equipped with monitoring equipment slipped into position around the safe house. The SAS wanted to be sure the intelligence was correct. It soon became clear that the bombers’ plans were all too real.

A 16-man assault team moved in, including four SAS snipers whose usual weapon is an AWS rifle with telescopic sights. Smaller than a standard sniper rifle and with a range of only 300 yards, its shot sounds like an air gun.

Three snipers would each target one bomber; the fourth was to take out any bomber who did not go down immediately. Behind the SAS a quick reaction force of paratroopers and bomb disposal experts waited.

In the rising heat of a July morning, the team lay hidden around the safe house. An Arabic-speaking intelligence officer, monitoring the voices inside, warned: “Targets preparing to exit.” The snipers readied themselves. When all three bombers were in clear sight, the commander gave the order to fire. The sniper rifles were barely heard as the bombers jerked and hit the ground.

Clad in explosive vests, the bombers had represented an immediate threat to all around them; it meant that the SAS had legal authority to open fire.

They had shot to kill with justification. But the operation reveals how brutal the war in Iraq is and how fine are the lines of engagement - especially for special forces. Iraq, one special forces officer said, is proving the most intense fighting that the SAS has experienced since the second world war. British special forces are sometimes conducting five or six operations a day.

“It is warfare where the enemy is prepared to die to achieve his objective,” he said. “That is hard to counter and the insurgent approach has forced us to think not just out of the box, but around the corner. We were involved in the hunt for some of the HVTs [high-value targets, including Sad-dam Hussein’s former hench-men and leaders of Al-Qaeda in Iraq] and that often resulted in firefights of a kind we had not seen before.

“The sheer velocity of the insurgents’ determination to kill us had to be gripped quickly. There was no room for error. It was kill or be killed.”

A senior SAS officer told a recent mess dinner that operations alongside the Americans in Baghdad are probably “the most challenging task” the regiment has ever carried out and that the environment “is perhaps the most hostile of current operations across the world”.

One source said: “Don’t be under any illusions: Baghdad is full-on, a daily diet of extreme insurgent violence combined with poverty and propaganda. We slotted [killed] a lot of insurgents, but I have to admit that we took a lot of casualties and we continue to take them.” Another source put it bluntly: “They’ve killed several thousand people.”

The vast majority were killed in airstrikes called in support of SAS operations, but a substantial number were shot dead by UK special forces on the ground. It is their standard practice not to keep a “score card” of deaths on such missions, but a source estimates that the total number killed by shooting is in the hundreds.

British generals are uneasy about what happens next. As UK troops wind down in the south of Iraq, the special forces remaining in Baghdad may find themselves drawn deeper into US operations. And the US approach to special ops - particularly when to shoot to kill - is very different from that of the British.

THE usual number of UK special forces in Baghdad is close to 400 men: a single 60-man SAS “sabre” squadron; a company of paratroopers, Royal Marine commandos and RAF Regiment personnel from the Special Forces Support Group; a squadron from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment; and a squadron of radio monitoring experts from 18 (UKSF) Signal Regiment. They also have specialist signallers from 264 (SAS) Signal Squadron, specially fitted-out RAF Chinook helicopters from 7 Squadron and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft from 47 Squadron.

The US has about 47,000 “special forces”; but only about 1,200, including Delta Force and Seal Team Six, are comparable to British special forces units.

The differences between the way US and British special forces operate became clear early in the war on terror. In Afghanistan in December 2001 a four-man Special Boat Service (SBS) team was 20 minutes behind the fleeing Osama Bin Laden when it was ordered to let the Americans take over. By the time the US special operations troops arrived several hours later, Bin Laden had escaped.

Similar tensions arose in Mosul in northern Iraq in July 2003. Coalition forces were tipped off that Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay were hiding in a villa. A 12-man SAS team went in to recce the building. The commander of the 32-man SAS detachment in the city believed his men could quickly capture the brothers so they could be brought to trial.

US commanders disagreed. Not only did they doubt such a small unit could capture Uday and Qusay, they were also reluctant to cede a high-profile operation to nonUS forces. The result was mayhem: helicopters attacked with antitank missiles while a Delta unit stormed the building and support troops looked on. It was not the British idea of special operations.

The SAS and SBS - who often fight on land despite their naval connections - have been involved in America’s secret worldwide special forces activities since the start of the war on terror, operating alongside Delta, Seal Team Six and an ultra-secret US unit known as Task Force Orange. But Iraq has brought the differences between the two military cultures into sharp focus.

“The problem from the start was that operational training and procedures for the top UK and US special operations forces are vastly different,” one British source said.

In Iraq, British special forces aim to merge into the background, driving battered local cars and wearing cheap clothes bought in markets. They looked on aghast at their US colleagues who initially drove around in new Dodge pickups.

“We used to laugh when we saw the Americans around the green zone,” one source said. “They would be wearing designer jeans, heavy boots and T-shirts - that was their idea of local dress. To a man they would all have pistols strapped to each leg with black plastic holster and webbing, and of course they would be wearing the latest shades. We called it ‘living the dream’.”

But it was far from a joke. If the Americans were spotted for what they were, then any British forces operating alongside them would be at risk as well. Even more seriously, if US forces applied their doctrine of shooting first and asking questions later, the British risked being dragged into the same dangerous territory.

When seizing an insurgent - a “hard arrest” - British special forces are not allowed to kill unless they encounter resistance. By contrast, the US special forces call such operations “kill or capture” missions.

Annoyed by their lack of progress in hunting down America’s enemies, Donald Rumsfeld, the then US defence secretary, in 2002 directed them to “find, fix and finish” terrorists. This order was secretly backed up by President George W Bush. Lethal force was declared legal, with or without resistance – although in some eyes this contravenes international law.

The more nuanced British approach to special operations does have its own risks. In the early hours of September 5, special forces surrounded a house in Baghdad where intelligence had located a senior Al-Qaeda leader. The SAS deployed 30 men, a bigger force than normal.

Teams targeted the front and rear. Sergeant Eddie Collins, described by the commanding officer of 22 SAS as “a champion soldier, a proud and loving family man and a great friend”, was among those tackling the front. The order came to storm the house.

“You go in with people at the front and at the rear, and the ones who are at the front are the first to get in,” said a source. “[Collins] was at the front and he was shot in the head.” He died instantly.

Collins was the seventh member of UK special forces to die in Iraq. The high tempo of operations has also inflicted a heavy toll of injuries. Four SAS squadrons, rotating on six-month tours, have suffered 47 seriously wounded. More than 30 men have suffered critical head injuries or damage to limbs sometimes necessitating amputation. The toll of killed or seriously wounded is more than a fifth of the regiment’s fighting strength.

Many of the injured have been been forced to leave the regiment or take desk jobs, either at the SAS base at Credenhill, near Hereford, or at the Directorate of Special Forces in Regent’s Park, central London.

“Baghdad has seen the regiment at its best, doing what we are trained for, but the cost has been high,” said one officer. “We are suffering from a manning shortage as a result of our casualties and it will be some time before we can get back to full strength.”

To fill the gap, members of the SAS and SBS who have finished their 22 years’ service and would normally have to retire are being offered short-term contracts to stay on.

“They’re mainly senior NCOs and warrant officers whose experience is frankly invaluable,” said the source.

Questions are being asked as to how long the SAS can continue operating at such a high tempo. “There is concern in the regiment that it is only a matter of time before they suffer a big loss,” one source said. So far there has been little but praise for special forces in Iraq. Barry McCaffrey, a retired US general who went to Iraq last year to compile a report for the West Point military academy, described special forces operations as “simply magic”.

Referring to Delta and Seal Team Six, and by extension the SAS, he said: “They are deadly in getting their target with minimal friendly losses or injuries. Some of these assault elements have done 200-300 takedown operations at platoon level.”

There is now concern among senior British officers that the SAS has become so tied into US special operations in central Iraq that it will continue to fight an American war long after British troops are gone from the south.

“In the early days they were happy to join the fight and felt comfortable acting as the tip of the spear for the UK,” one source said. “But the thought now is that they have just become an extension of Delta.”

Some serving and former members of the British special forces worry that under US control the rules of engagement could become even more blurred. Among them is Ben Griffin, who left the army in 2005 with a good recommendation from his commanding officer.

“I saw a lot of things in Baghdad that were illegal or just wrong,” he said. “The Americans had a well deserved reputation for being trigger-happy.”

There was also serious concern over the way in which the US special operations forces were prepared to send Iraqis to detention facilities for what subsequently proved to be illegal interrogations.

“I knew, so others must have known, that this was not the way to conduct operations if you wanted to win the hearts and minds of the local population,” Griffin said.

“And if you don’t win the hearts and minds of the people, you can’t win the war.”

Michael Smith is the author of Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America’s Most Secret Special Operations Team

How the SAS operates under US command

The SAS is fully integrated into a US-led “combined joint special operations taskforce” based in Baghdad. It is known as Task Force 88 and is headed by the commander of Delta, the US army’s SAS equivalent.

When operating on the ground, the US and British special operations troops use colours to identify each other. Delta is Task Force Green - because it is the main US army special operations team; Seal Team Six is known as Task Force Blue - for navy - and the SAS as Task Force Black, which stems from its renowned counterterrorist expertise. A US special operations intelligence gathering unit is known as Task Force Orange.

The SAS normally has a single squadron of 60 men in Iraq - based largely in Baghdad with a detachment in Basra - but in recent weeks it has sent a second squadron to prevent Iranian interference in the south.

British concerns over the way in which US special operations teams operate stem in part from a secret memo issued in July 2002 by Donald Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, in which he demanded that commanders work out a plan “to find and deal with” terrorists. The intention was to capture the terrorists for interrogation or kill them, “not simply to arrest them in a law enforcement exercise”, wrote Rumsfeld. The policy was backed by George W Bush in a secret 2004 directive authorising US special operators to “find and finish” terrorists regardless of whether they presented an immediate threat. Many legal experts believe that this amounts to extrajudicial killing and is consequently banned under international, and therefore British, law.

Any British serviceman shooting someone who did not represent an immediate threat would be likely to face a court martial. At least one SAS soldier has already been investigated over allegations that he shot dead an Iraqi civilian. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
The US has about 47,000 “special forces”; but only about 1,200, including Delta Force and Seal Team Six, are comparable to British special forces units.

Yeah right:rolleyes:
Here is an interesting quote from MP:

I have seen my share of foreign special operations forces (I was part of a CJSOTF in A-stan) and they make the same damn mistakes like everyone else. The SAS are top-notch CT operators, but they are not perfect and neither is any other CT unit.

Are we trigger happy in the US SOF? You bet your ass. Does that mean that we disregard civilians or can't win "hearts and minds"? Hell no. Units on direct action missions are going to have times when they drop the hammer on someone, it's called COMBAT. We all wish that we can make the correct decisions in a split second every time, but it is not possible and very unrealistic.

Also, their definition of special forces is ridiculous. We have over 46,000 special forces? Lol, I about fell out of my seat when I read that. Yes, we have a large special operations force, but every soldier has a specific job in order to complete a special operations mission. A SOF unit is not just made of shooters, but you need intel guys, logistical specialists, signal guys, etc. in order to get the mission done. The shooters can't move on a target without having the proper intel or comms to even assault a target and they can't even operate their missions without a strong motivated support element that can handle the pace of missions and operations (I learned that first-hand), period.

I found the article funny because they are going off the assumption that the British SOF are perfect fighters and assaulters, which is laughable. In combat, all that running up mountains and scaling cliffs mean little. It comes down to the best laid plans and execution, which comes from how a fighting unit prepares for battle, no matter if you are SF or in a national guard infantry unit.
The US has about 47,000 “special forces”; but only about 1,200, including Delta Force and Seal Team Six, are comparable to British special forces units.

If he said British SAS, he'd probably be right.

That story is written by a journalist, full of inaccuracies and also with truths.

Personally I think the US has a long way to go in learning 'hearts and minds'.

There are plenty of things the Brits and Kiwis also have a long way to go with.

Each force has it's strengths and weaknesses, listen to the criticism and see if you can learn from it and maybe improve from it.
I would take this guy with a pinch of salt perhaps. Seems he has his own agenda perhaps not so indicative of the majority.

Only last month he wrote another article 'The dangers of working with Delta'.
I read the book a few months ago, and from a strictly outsider's view of the subject matter, the book had a similar tone (regarding those reckless, dangerous American Special Operations Forces as compared to SAS) as the article above. I was disappointed.
So the book glamorises the Brits and demonizes US Special Operations. Not very pro. But I should say we have the same problem.
When "" came out it was so damn popular in the media, where the book it self was not as hype as the author would want it to be. But what dissapointed me the most is the way is portrayed US SOF when compared to Polish:
"The SEALs think about the boat guys only as cab drivers, the Poles always cleaned after the mission". The asshole never even did mention that those were "swicks", plus I've asked about that SEALs statement and it's bull to the max.