Special Operations Forces and the Raid Against Bin Ladin: Policymaker Considerations in Combating Terrorism

May 01, 2011

Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) have experienced their most extensive use and greatest transformation of the modern era.[1] From conducting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to combating terrorism across the globe, these forces have played leading roles in addressing the nation’s most pressing security threats and challenges. Yet policymakers have not always employed SOF—the nation’s most strategic counterterrorism (CT) military assets—to maximum effect.[2]

On May 1, 2011, however, a team of Special Operators crossed into Pakistan, infiltrated a residential compound in the city of Abbottabad, and killed Usama bin Ladin. The daring raid to bring to justice the man ultimately responsible for the murder of nearly 3,000 people on 9/11 is a brilliant illustration of painstaking intelligence work and interagency collaboration. It also exemplifies the optimal use of SOF.

In deciding to authorize the raid against Bin Ladin—arguably the most significant CT success in U.S. history—President Barack Obama and his national security team took into account multiple political and operational considerations. Four issues that likely weighed heavily on their minds are discussed herein.[3] These issues are tied to the broader challenge of using force in general, and SOF in particular, in countries with which the United States is not at war—a challenge that will continue to define U.S. CT efforts for years to come. The article concludes by highlighting three recommendations policymakers should consider when using SOF to combat terrorism in the future.

Issue #1: Sovereignty
Terrorist threats to U.S. interests will continue to emanate from beyond traditional warzones. Often the first consideration policymakers will weigh when deciding whether to authorize a Special Operation in these situations is the issue of sovereignty. Respect for sovereignty, the associated norm of non-intervention, and the formal equality of states remain the basis of today’s international order. Not all states, however, are treated equally in practice. One factor affecting the decision to violate another country’s sovereignty is whether the country in question is a failed, functioning, or quasi-functioning state. CT officials tend to be more inclined to approve an operation inside a failed state such as Somalia, for example, than they are inside a functioning one that is based on the rule of law, has the ability to extend its writ, and shares a common approach with the United States in combating terrorism. In the case of such functioning states, U.S. officials often will rely on that state, likely a partner nation, to take the lead in addressing terrorism within its own borders.[4] In contrast, the United States often lacks a reliable partner, or any partner at all, in combating terrorism inside failed states. The United States also risks drawing little international condemnation for conducting CT operations in a place like Somalia, a country that has virtually no functioning state institutions and is assessed to be the most vulnerable to collapse or conflict in the world.[5]

Yet the more problematic states for the U.S. CT community are not truly failed ones but rather those states that have undergoverned territories that are being exploited by terrorists and yet are functioning “just enough” to help the United States combat common threats. These include Pakistan and Yemen, and should another international terrorist attack occur on U.S. soil, it most likely will have its origins in one of these two countries, if not both. Through the years, the United States has worked with these and similarly affected countries, often conducting joint CT operations with them. Yet even the direct involvement of a host nation in a given CT operation does not entirely mitigate the potential downsides of operating on the sovereign territory of another state. Many CT operations demand secrecy or low visibility. Yet if an operation becomes public—as operations often do—the involvement of U.S. forces could embarrass that host nation’s leader (especially if that leader had not previously disclosed to his population, or even to others within his own government, that U.S. forces were operating inside their country). This could empower that leader’s opposition, unleash or increase internal unrest, and lead to a backlash against U.S. strategic interests.

These consequences are often magnified if a country is unwitting of the U.S. action, as was the case with the Bin Ladin assault. There are two categories of unwitting states. The first is a state that has been cooperating on CT to some degree, but whose actions are ineffective or insufficient. In some instances, the CT relationship begins to sour entirely, with that putative partner no longer sharing a common view of the terrorist enemy, the urgency of the threat, or how to address it. Accordingly, U.S. officials might decide to move beyond those CT activities already approved by or acquiesced to by the host nation. In the example of the operation against Bin Ladin, U.S. officials also certainly feared that any indication of the impending mission to the government of Pakistan could have alerted the al-Qa`ida leader, negating the chances of success and placing the lives of the commandos at further risk. A second category of unwitting states involves hostile countries, including state sponsors of terrorism. The unilateral conduct of CT operations within the territory of either type of unwitting state—a putative partner or a hostile nation—could prove detrimental by strengthening the narrative of the terrorists, inciting international censure against the United States, and impeding America’s ability to act in the future. In the case of a hostile state, that country could very well perceive U.S. violations of its territory, particularly SOF “boots on the ground,” to be a grave provocation, even an act of war. In the case of an unreliable or unresponsive partner, the United States risks hampering future CT cooperation with that country. The Bin Ladin operation will be instructive in this regard. The U.S. partnership with Pakistan on CT has been less than optimal, if not broken, for quite some time. Cooperation with Pakistan on CT and other strategic geopolitical issues remains important for U.S. national security interests, but the relationship will be severely tested going forward.

Issue #2: Casualties and Operational Failure
President Obama and his senior advisers likely considered at least three significant operational downsides associated with sending SOF across the border into Pakistan. The first is the possibility that innocent bystanders would be unintentionally killed. In general, such collateral damage is tragic in and of itself, but it also can quickly inflame political ramifications. More important is the potential for American casualties. When asked about the most difficult part of the decision to authorize the commando mission, President Obama answered, in part, “[M]y number one concern was: if I send them in, can I get them out?”[6] In the past, the possibility that an operator could be captured weighed heavily on the minds of senior CT officials when deciding whether to approve a proposed SOF mission, since an enemy could use that individual as public leverage against U.S. interests. Finally, SOF are the country’s most elite and highly trained and equipped military forces. The Bin Ladin assault was an impressive success, made all the more extraordinary that not one single U.S. life was lost during the operation. But had the mission failed—either in operational reality or public perception—it would have, inter alia, empowered Bin Ladin and strengthened the myth of his invincibility; undermined perceptions of U.S. power and credibility on the world stage; and demoralized the American people, who could have lost faith in their government’s ability to avenge the 9/11 terrorist attacks and further protect them from terrorism.[7]

Issue #3: Assessing Effectiveness
Another issue policymakers consider when deciding whether to approve a Special Operation is its likely effectiveness—not only will it tactically succeed and help to produce strategic effects, but also are these worth the potential downsides if something goes wrong? Such assessments are not necessarily objective; rather, policymakers are influenced by their prior experiences, subjective perceptions, and comfort with the operational organization. For example, today’s SOF units are more operationally experienced and combat-capable than at any other time in modern history; in many ways, they have been practicing for the moment to kill Bin Ladin for nearly 10 years. Some policymakers, however, hold a perception that SOF create more problems than they solve when they enter a country with which the United States is not at war. While not altogether accurate or representative of SOF today, a few negative reputational issues have been earned through the years. Some officials thus have developed a “learned vulnerability” that has led them to be cautious when it comes to authorizing Special Operations in politically precarious situations.[8] A second issue is sometimes raised in assessing effectiveness. While SOF have gained unprecedented combat experience on the fields of Iraq and Afghanistan, some might question if SOF have been at risk of growing too accustomed to operating in relatively permissive and highly enabled environments. SOF’s flawless execution of the country’s most important CT operation to date will go a long way in assuaging many operational concerns. It also likely will give policymakers greater comfort when considering the use of SOF in the future. That said, SOF cannot take this for granted. They must continue to demonstrate their value and equip policymakers with ways to employ the spectrum of their capabilities in support of U.S. security objectives.

Issue #4: The Risk Not Taken
The three preceding considerations focus on the potential negative consequences that could occur if policymakers approve an operation. Yet U.S. officials also consider the ramifications of not taking action. Certainly in the decade since 9/11, the United States has transformed the way it combats terrorism. By pressuring the al-Qa`ida network with all instruments of national power, enhancing its CT architecture and interagency processes that are focused on the threat, developing an array of international partnerships, and educating a more active and informed citizenry, the United States has—by design and a little luck—disrupted several plots and attempted attacks, as well as degraded the capabilities of al-Qa`ida. But for nearly a decade the United States had failed to bring to justice the man responsible for the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

In general, capturing and killing terrorists, especially senior terrorist leaders, is difficult to accomplish. They are adept at hiding in politically sensitive and physically challenging environments, avoiding locations where they are susceptible to targeting by foreign forces. Capturing or killing terrorists requires a level of detailed, actionable intelligence that often proves elusive to acquire and highly perishable once in hand. When then-Senator Obama was campaigning for president, he stated, “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”[9] When he announced the death of Usama bin Ladin to the American people, the president stated, “[S]hortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.”[10] The information on the terrorist’s precise whereabouts the moment the raid commenced was not 100%.[11] But if it had publicly leaked that the United States had that level of actionable intelligence and decided against conducting a mission to bring Bin Ladin to justice, it could have had severe political consequences for the president.

Policymaker Considerations for the Future
Al-Qa`ida is not yet strategically defeated, and other terrorist threats remain. As the United States continues its CT efforts, it should consider the following:

Recommendation #1: Keep SOF Special
U.S. Special Operations Forces are truly special—only they could have conducted the raid on Bin Ladin. In light of the flawless execution of the mission, the SOF community will likely experience increasing demands from stakeholders who are witnessing great returns on their investment in SOF. In general, demands for greater employment in combating terrorism should be embraced, given SOF’s value to the nation in this regard. But SOF and the policymakers who employ them should be on guard against potential downsides of expanded use beyond those operations that require strategic effect. Simply because SOF can do just about anything does not mean they should do everything. The community should identify and shed any work that is of marginal value or has the potential to divert SOF from maintaining readiness for those missions only they can conduct. For example, arguably the gravest threat to U.S. national security is weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of terrorists. While there is some overlap in their counterterrorism and counterproliferation missions, SOF must remain fully resourced and ready to locate, capture or destroy, or render safe WMD under the unique set of conditions in which they have been trained to operate and complete such tasks.

Recommendation #2: Leverage Comparative Advantages
Since 9/11, SOF have invested heavily in strategic and operational partnerships across departments and agencies in Washington, as well as achieved forward, on-the-ground success through various Joint Interagency Task Forces (JIATFs). These relationships, which helped to establish trust and confidence among those interagency players who ultimately were charged with planning and executing the Bin Ladin operation, paid huge dividends for the nation on May 1, 2011. Policymakers should capture key lessons from this highly successful interagency collaboration.  While all the details are not yet publicly known, it appears that the Intelligence Community and SOF were operating very much within their traditional lanes, with the former collecting, analyzing, and assessing the intelligence and the latter conducting the operational assault. Both institutions have overlapping capabilities in some areas that are important to preserve, but it seems that everyone’s core capabilities carried the day in the mission to get Bin Ladin. Both SOF and the Intelligence Community should embrace their niche roles, and policymakers should continue to leverage these comparative advantages, drawing on what each does best in combating terrorism beyond traditional warzones.

Recommendation #3: Guard Against Complacency—And Remain Willing to Take Risks
President Obama and his national security team took a very large risk in authorizing the assault on Bin Ladin—and it paid off. The death of the 9/11 mastermind helps to bring closure to one chapter in the book on counterterrorism, but the conclusion has yet to be written. The United States still faces terrorist enemies who remain capable and intent on attacking the homeland again. When President Obama informed his fellow Americans of Bin Ladin’s death, he cautioned, “There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must—and we will—remain vigilant at home and abroad.”[12] The U.S. CT community certainly remains focused on the threat. Others, such as some international partners, parts of the American public, and even a few throughout the larger U.S. government, might question either the investments that are still necessary to protect and defend the homeland, or the need to continue risky CT operations abroad given Bin Ladin’s death. Any decision to downshift in the wake of this impressive success would be a mistake. The use of SOF will always be inherently risky.[13] But at the end of the day, their tactical use has helped the United States achieve some of its most strategically significant CT successes: the capture of Saddam Hussein, the death of Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, the rescue of the Maersk Alabama captain off the coast of Somalia and, now, the death of Bin Ladin. The country must guard against any sense of complacency in combating terrorism. Senior CT officials must seize the moment, build on this position of strength, and continue to be forward leaning against the nation’s terrorist enemies, especially by using SOF to maximum effect.

Michele L. Malvesti, who served as Senior Director for Combating Terrorism Strategy on the National Security Council staff, 2005-2007, is a Senior Fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

Frances Fragos Townsend served as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism for President George W. Bush, 2004-2008.

[1] This article dates the modern SOF era to the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 and the Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 1987. For details on SOF’s use and transformation, as well as additional recommendations to optimize SOF for the future, see Michele L. Malvesti, “To Serve the Nation: U.S. Special Operations Forces in an Era of Persistent Conflict,” Center for a New American Security, June 2010. This article is derived, in part, from “To Serve the Nation.”

[2] Counterterrorism is just one of several core activities for SOF. The U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) currently lists 12 core activities as they relate to Special Operations: direct action; special reconnaissance; unconventional warfare; foreign internal defense; civil affairs operations; counterterrorism; military information support operations (once referred to as psychological operations); information operations; counterproliferation of weapons of mass destruction; security force assistance; counterinsurgency operations; and activities specified by the president or secretary of defense. See “2011 Fact Book: United States Special Operations Command,” U.S. Special Operations Command Public Affairs, 2011, p. 7. It is important to note that while the authors of this article do not refer to any specific SOF units or commands, the SOF community comprises many tribes—service components and mission forces—that have niche areas of specialization across these 12 core activities.

[3] At the time of this writing, information is still being released on the decisions and factors that led to the Bin Ladin raid. In discussing these four issues, the authors draw primarily from their own experiences in developing CT policy and strategy, including decisions to use SOF to combat terrorism.

[4] Terrorists and other violent extremists can operate in highly functioning states. For example, they can leverage virtual safe havens that exist in the insufficiently strong or inadequately protected financial, legal, or cyber systems of stable countries and the similar systems of international organizations.

[5] “Failed States Index 2009,” Foreign Policy, June 22, 2009. Somalia also was listed as the preeminent failed state in the 2010 Index, making it the number one failed state three years in a row. It also should be noted that there are other policy reasons why the United States might decide against conducting certain operations inside a failed state, including not wanting to “Americanize” the problem.

[6] “Obama on bin Laden: The Full ‘60 Minutes’ Interview,” CBS News, May 8, 2011. The interview was conducted on May 4, 2011.

[7] If the Bin Ladin raid had failed, it could have produced consequences similar to those that occurred in the wake of the 1980 attempt to rescue more than 50 U.S. citizens held hostage in Iran that was authorized by President Jimmy Carter: after the assault force commander aborted the rescue attempt when mechanical problems reduced the number of helicopters that were available to complete the operation, a helicopter and an aircraft collided during departure preparations, killing eight U.S. servicemen. Commonly referred to as Desert One, the name given to the rendezvous site in Iran where the tragedy took place, the failed operation also produced acute political ramifications. Not only did it inflame international and domestic perceptions of American impotence in resolving a crisis of national embarrassment, it ultimately contributed to Carter’s re-election defeat at the polls later that year. The failure at Desert One also became a watershed moment for SOF; the first two decades of the modern SOF era were primarily dedicated to reforming Special Operations in the wake of the failed raid.

[8] James Q. Wilson wrote about avoiding learned vulnerabilities in order to minimize rivals and constraints on an organization. Although he did not focus his comments on SOF, they are highly applicable here. He stated, in part, “Every organization, like every person, learns from experience what behavior will create big problems; but compared to people, organizations have longer memories and are more risk averse. Once burned, forever shy…When something goes badly wrong at a high political cost the incident enters the agency’s memory as a legendary horror story. A great deal of the time and energy of agency officials is devoted to creating mechanisms designed to insure that the horror never recurs.” See James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It (New York: Basic Books, 1989), pp. 191-192.

[9] Barack Obama, “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: The War We Need to Win,” As Prepared for Delivery, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, August 1, 2007, available at www.wilsoncenter.org/events/docs/obamasp0807.pdf.

[10] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on Osama Bin Laden,” May 1, 2011, available at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/02/remarks-president-osama-bin-laden.

[11] In his interview with Steve Kroft, President Obama noted the lack of certainty regarding Bin Ladin’s whereabouts: “This was a very difficult decision, in part because the evidence that we had was not absolutely conclusive. This was circumstantial evidence that he was gonna be there.” See “Obama on bin Laden: The Full ‘60 Minutes’ Interview.”

[12] Obama, “Remarks by the President on Osama Bin Laden.”

[13] One theory of decision-making under risk, Prospect Theory, predicts that people tend to be cautious and averse to risk when they perceive themselves to be operating in a good situation, or a domain of gains, and accepting of risk when they perceive themselves to be operating in a losing situation, or a domain of losses. A forthcoming CTC report by Michele L. Malvesti examines risk-taking in combating terrorism and argues that the U.S. counterterrorism decision-making domain is currently one of gains; this will affect the nation’s propensity to take CT risks in the future.