x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Modern warfare: US special ops have a CIA-style training upgrade

Military taught to look behind grisly aftermath at blast sites for evidence and get advice on running spy rings when tracking insurgents.

A student examines the scene of a mock suicide bombing during an exercise at the US Army John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg in October.
A student examines the scene of a mock suicide bombing during an exercise at the US Army John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg in October.

FORT BRAGG, UNITED STATES // A scene of stomach-clenching gore confronted the special operations troops: the shredded remains of a suicide bomber, scattered about the checkpoint.

But the blood and body were fake, like the Hollywood-style explosion that began a classroom exercise designed to teach these students to look past the grisly mess for the evidence that could lead to those who built the bomb.

Fort Bragg's Special Warfare Centre shows how the US has turned hunting terror networks into half-science, half-art form since the September 11 attacks.

Forging lessons painfully learnt in the last decade into a formal curriculum, the training is intended to help elite military units track militants across international boundaries and work alongside sometimes competing US agencies.

The coursework is similar to the CIA's legendary spycraft training centre called The Farm, and is the brainchild of Green Beret Major General Bennet Sacolick, a veteran of elite special operations units, and a long stint on loan to the CIA.

The school is also an illustration of how special operations and intelligence forces have reached an easier coexistence, after early clashes where CIA officers accused the military operators of ineptly trying to run their own spy rings overseas without State Department or CIA knowledge.

"As my guys go to Afghanistan and interface with CIA base and station chiefs, they can do it with more credibility than in the past," Gen Sacolick said.

While many of the public may not be aware that the military is allowed to gather information, and even run its own spy networks, special operations forces have been authorised to do just that since the disastrous Desert One raid meant to rescue the US hostages held in Iran in 1979.

The raid went awry because of a helicopter crash, not an intelligence foul-up.

But before the raid, military planners had been frustrated that CIA employees working inside the country were unable to provide them the tactical intelligence needed to insert a covert force - even basic information like which way the streets ran outside the embassy.

That is why almost a third of every class at the CIA's Farm has been military, said a former senior intelligence official.

The Fort Bragg school means special operators can now get much of that CIA-style training at their home facility.

Gen Sacolick said he was shocked at how piecemeal intelligence gathering and sharing was up until a couple of years ago.

Special operations units would know their area but had no established way to pass it on, he said, nor any means for reaching out to the CIA to fill in information gaps.

"The CIA will satisfy any information requirement we have," Gen Sacolick said. "All we have to do is ask the right person.

"So that's what we are creating" among the special operations teams training at Fort Bragg, Gen Sacolick said, pointing out troops who "have the vocabulary, have the contacts, know the questions to ask, and who to ask".

The CIA also helped Gen Sacolick design the course to teach special operators the spy-related tradecraft they need for the counterterror fight outside known war zones.

They learn skills such as how to evade surveillance by terrorists, or target a country's intelligence service. The White House eventually created an information exchange to allow elite military troops to gather intelligence, while keeping the State Department and the CIA in the loop.

To make sure spy did not stumble over spy, the Pentagon's top intelligence official, Stephen Cambone, and the CIA's then-top clandestine representative, Jose Rodriguez, created a mechanism that exists to this day: to let each network know who was working for whom.

The next step was to find some common ground among those competing tribes of intelligence and military operators - a step embraced by the now-retired General Stanley McChrystal.

Then heading the military's Joint Special Operations Command, Gen McChrystal embraced the "hostage swap" of special operations troops and CIA officers, deploying them to each other's command centres and forcing collaboration through proximity.

But he upgraded the practice, sending his best people, instead of following the unwritten custom of sending one's least-valuable employee to get them out of the home office.

Gen McChrystal used to lecture his people, Gen Sacolick among them, to forge their own networks of one-on-one relationships in other agencies to counter the enemy network. That is how Gen Sacolick ended up at the CIA, and why he patterned his school on lessons the agency helped teach him.

The idea is to pass on the skills learnt in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, where special operators have had more intelligence backup and logistical support from the regular military than they would in the remote places where they usually operate, Gen Sacolick said.

"I need to prepare a 12-man team to go anywhere on this planet," he said. "They need to be every bit as good as they are in Afghanistan, in the middle of Africa somewhere, or wherever the next conflict takes them."