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After Sept. 11, Special Ops Were 'Injected With Steroids'


This time last week an alleged terrorist known as Abu Anas al-Libi was on a Navy ship being interrogated after being snatched from his home in Libya by U.S. Special Forces. Yesterday, al-Libi was arraigned in a federal court in New York accused in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa that left 224 dead.


Now, on the same day that Special Forces were seizing al-Libi in Libya, Navy SEALs in Somalia met heavy resistance in a failed attempt to storm a terrorist stronghold. Those two operations offer vivid examples of how Special Ops are being deployed around the world to go after terrorists.

MONTAGNE: Many military experts, in fact, believe that Special Forces, highly trained and mostly invisible, are the future of American warfare. Jeremy Scahill wrote the bestselling "Blackwater" and he's now out with "Dirty Wars," which documents the rise of America's Special Ops forces. Thank you for joining us.

JEREMY SCAHILL: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Now, from what you know about these two recent raids in Somalia and Libya, just simply how do they fit into the increasing reach and use of American Special Forces?

SCAHILL: Well, you know, since 9/11 the role of Special Operations forces, particularly the most elite units that comprise the Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC, have been given a very wide mandate to strike in countries across the world where the president of the United States determines there are plots against America or there are terror leaders that the United States has intelligence on, particularly with their whereabouts.

And they can go in and snatch someone or kill them. President Obama has been very willing to give them the authorization to do that and these operations are called F-cubed operations - find, fix, finish. You find the target, you fix their location, and then you finish them off. And that could come in the form of a night raid, a missile strike, a drone strike, or in the case of Libya, actually sending Delta Force in to snatch someone off the streets of another nation.

MONTAGNE: The fact is, though, Special Operations, they date back. They go as far back as the Green Berets of Vietnam. But where do you date the rise of Special Forces to become such a dominant part of military operations?

SCAHILL: Well, you know, I think there's very little new in warfare, except technology, and you know, a lot of the strategies that we see being employed by President Obama and President Bush before him have been tested before on the battlefields of Korea or Vietnam. But really, after 9/11 the Special Operations world was injected with steroids of sorts and a lot of money was poured into the operations.

And I think because of technology, because of the ability of the U.S. to monitor communications around the world, there are just more operations.

MONTAGNE: Name a few of the countries that would seem to have the most concentration or the most important operations of Special Operations forces.

SCAHILL: Well, there's no doubt that right now, the center of activity is based out of Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. You have a growing presence of U.S. Special Operations forces in East Africa and the Horn of Africa targeting Somalia, as we saw recently, certainly on the Arabian Peninsula targeting Yemen. But also it's not just kinetic operations that they're doing, in other words kill or capture.

In many cases, JSOC forces, they embed with militaries of other nations to either fight terrorists or to train their military. So for instance, we have Special Operations forces in the Philippines right now working with Philippine Special Forces to go after Islamic militant organizations. You have U.S. Special Operations forces in Mexico and Columbia working alongside the counter-narcotics units of those governments.

They really do have a global mandate, and in some cases it's to train other militaries. In other cases it's to conduct lethal operations against terrorists.

MONTAGNE: And of course, we're there to help train and in many countries we're there to target terrorists. They are there with the permission and even welcomed by host countries, but Libya, for instance, came out after this recent raid and said that they had not been invited into Libya. How much of it is in the shadows in the sense that the countries do not even know what's going on?

SCAHILL: Well, I think you have sort of dueling realities here. In the case of Yemen, the Yemeni regime, under Ali Abdullah Saleh, at times used the United States by feeding it bad intelligence to kill domestic political opponents of the dictatorship. Also there have been incidents where U.S. forces are deployed as trainers and then have sort of gone off the ranch and done unilateral activities that have angered the host government.

But, you know, in the case of Libya and Yemen in particular, those governments really don't have much of a leg to stand on in confronting the United States because they're too dependent on U.S. aid and, quite frankly, U.S. military support.

MONTAGNE: Couldn't it be said that they need this?

SCAHILL: Well, I mean, that gets into a very complicated area or arena. In the case of Yemen, the drone program that the U.S. has been engaged in has caused very serious political problems for the Yemeni government because there's a perception that Yemen is allowing another nation to come in and drop bombs in tribal areas throughout the South.

And you know, I think a reasonable argument could be made that in some areas of both Yemen and Pakistan, U.S. operations have contributed to the propaganda efforts of Islamist movements or, quite frankly, al-Qaida in some cases. I heard in several language in different countries the same basic sentiment, which is that the United States says al-Qaida is terrorism, but we view your operations against us as terrorism.

MONTAGNE: Okay. But in this recent raid in Libya, the aim was to capture a militant alleged to have been connected to the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The idea is to bring him to trial. So is that a good thing?

SCAHILL: Well, I mean I've long advocated that we back away from this idea that we're in a war against terrorism and go back to viewing it as the crime that it is and trying to bring these people to justice, not by simply saying, well, we're going to zap them from the sky with drones or we're going to do a night raid and put a bullet in their head, but actually try to take custody of them so that they can stand trial for the crimes that they've been involved with.

I still have problems with the way that these operations are conducted, where people are flown out to ships in the Indian Ocean or elsewhere and are held at times for weeks incommunicado without access to lawyers. But I think it's a step in the right direction to actually say we're going to prosecute them in civilian courts and not just simply assassinate them.

MONTAGNE: You've characterized Special Operations as conducting a perpetual war - that is, a worldwide battlefield going on and on and on. What exactly do you mean by that?

SCAHILL: Well, the phrase the world is a battlefield is not my own. It's a play on something that Donald Rumsfeld said very early on after 9/11, and that was that he believed that the U.S. military should be able to go into any country where the U.S. perceived that there could be future hostilities and that mentality has sort of endured over the years and from one administration to the next.

President Obama, in his second inaugural address, said that he didn't want the United States to exist in a state of perpetual war, and that in fact it couldn't exist in a state of perpetual war. And yet my sense from investigating this story is that his administration has systematized the very program implemented by Bush and Cheney early on after 9/11 and has virtually insured that whoever is president after Obama is going to continue to use these forces in a way that guarantees we're going to be in a perpetual state of war.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.

SCAHILL: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Jeremy Scahill is out with a book and documentary about the rise of Special Forces called "Dirty Wars." This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.