Obama's Lean, Mean SEAL Machine

By Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, February 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

Obama's Lean, Mean SEAL Machine


Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Klaidman

The rescue of two aid workers in Somalia and the president's bold, new strategy.

Early last week, dozens of U.S. national-security officials received a set of classified PowerPoint slides. In October, Somali outlaws had taken two humanitarian-relief workers hostage, including an American woman, and now U.S. commandos were preparing to launch a rescue mission. Officials in Washington were scheduled to review the operation by secure video conference on Tuesday morning. But then word came that the secret meeting was being pushed up to late in the day on Monday. Why the urgency? There were growing concerns about the rapidly deteriorating health of Jessica Buchanan, the American aid worker. U.S. intelligence knew, for example, that her captors were not giving her the antibiotics needed to treat a medical condition she had. But military sources tell Newsweek that it was a separate piece of intelligence that made them decide to move quickly: something they could see. Using sophisticated surveillance techniques, possibly a drone, they were able to peer into the compound where the hostages were being held. They saw Buchanan doubled over in pain, according to two military sources briefed on the matter.

There was little time to lose. Late Monday evening, President Obama signed off on the operation, and hours later about two dozen Navy SEALs parachuted into the predawn darkness of the Somali hinterland. Once on the ground, they hiked for nearly two miles, then burst into the Somalis' encampment, killed all nine captors, and freed the hostages. There were no casualties among the SEALs. "They hit all their marks," says one senior administration official. "It was the stuff of Entebbe."

The Somali raid, for all of its Hollywood drama, is only one of hundreds of daring missions conducted by elite U.S. commandos in recent years. Navy SEALs and other special operators, with the encouragement of President Obama, have become a primary weapon in "denied areas" like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Their ability to go after terrorists, pirates, or other criminals with stealth, precision, and lethal force is in line with Obama's basic approach to the shadow wars. From the earliest days of his administration he began pushing his generals to pursue missions that were surgical and narrowly tailored to clearly defined objectives--whether rescuing hostages or protecting well-defined American interests. What he did not want to do was open up new fronts in the war on terror or get drawn into fighting local insurgencies around the world.

Obama was elected, in part, on a promise to wind down the wars of 9/11, to reduce America's global footprint, and to refocus national energies on challenges at home and core interests abroad. But when he took office, he inherited a military molded by President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld that was still very much on the offensive. The generals were itching to take the fight to Somalia, for instance--a desperately poor, chaotic country that was home to an emerging al Qaeda affiliate. They saw Somalia as a time bomb--the next Afghanistan--and wanted to take action before it was too late. …

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