December 15, 2020 | Defending Forward Monograph

Enhancing Special Operations for Sustained Counterterrorism Operations

December 15, 2020 | Defending Forward Monograph

Enhancing Special Operations for Sustained Counterterrorism Operations

Politicians on both sides of the aisle are seeking to reduce or eliminate U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Middle East. Some of them believe the strategic risks associated with such withdrawals can be safely mitigated through sustained counterterrorism operations conducted by U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF). However, without a network of nearby military bases, SOF can sometimes struggle to accomplish such missions safely.

The Islamic State and the Taliban have repeatedly proven themselves to be adaptive enemies. The Islamic State, in particular, has a long track record of regenerating whenever pressure dissipates – as it did after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. The group is currently thought to be moribund, but it retains thousands of active fighters and dozens of networks across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. For their part, the Taliban are stronger, with greater territorial reach and more combat power than any time since 2001. Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan-Pakistan remains robust and continues to expand its footprint. And while Africa’s oldest jihadist insurgencies continue to thrive in the Horn of Africa, the Lake Chad Basin, and the Sahel, new groups are emerging in Mozambique and elsewhere.

The situational awareness and rapid-reaction capability afforded by a persistent forward presence can be critical for keeping pressure on terror groups. This pressure is often best applied by small SOF teams operating alongside indigenous partner forces to reinforce, resupply, evacuate, or rescue teams for both force protection and mission success. Because of the immense distances often involved, this is much more difficult without conventional bases nearby.

Malian special forces soldiers participate in combat drills at Loumbila, Burkina Faso, February 16, 2019, as part of an annual, African-led, integrated military and law enforcement exercise to strengthen key partner nation forces throughout North and West Africa. (U.S. Army photo by Specialist Peter Seidler)

To be effective, intelligence assets that support a counterterrorism mission must know the location of the terrorist target – not now, but at flight time plus preparation time plus approval time for their strike asset. If that asset is a special operations team sitting on the helicopter pad of a forward operating base (FOB) 15 minutes’ flying time away, at five minutes’ notice to move, with a 10-minute lead time for approval, then intelligence collectors need to know where the target is going to be 30 (15 + 5 + 10) minutes from now. The ability to strike terrorist networks or keep guerrilla groups off balance, pioneered by General Stanley McChrystal’s Task Force 714 in Iraq then replicated in Afghanistan, depended to a very large degree on a dense forward posture in those theaters. This allowed strike teams to “lily pad” from one FOB to another, across a network of troop bases and forward outposts, staying within rapid striking distance of likely targets so that they could respond at short notice.1

By contrast, if the strike asset is a Tomahawk missile launched from a submarine 500 nautical miles away in the Arabian Sea, and it takes one hour of flight time for the missile to reach the target, plus two hours to pass targeting information to the submarine and get the boat into firing position, plus five hours to brief the principals’ committee and obtain national command authority approval for the strike, then the intelligence-collection asset needs to know where the target will be eight hours from now. Thus, if collectors are observing a terrorist in the late afternoon, they need to know where he or she will be having breakfast and simultaneously confirm that no non-combatants will be harmed in a strike that is still many hours away. This is a far more daunting proposition. In fact, the lack of bases (and hence lack of strike assets) near the target area was one reason the United States failed to kill Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and why he survived to mastermind the 9/11 attacks.2The same logic applies to defensive and offensive operations. The tragic loss of four American operators and several of their Nigerien counterparts at the hands of the Islamic State during the Tongo Tongo ambush in October 2017 in southwestern Niger occurred, in part, because the team was operating with limited support, at extreme ranges, in a theater with extremely low force density and few forward bases from which a rescue could be mounted.

The village of Tongo Tongo is almost 100 miles by road from the U.S. base at Ouallam, Niger, itself 80 miles from Niamey, the site of Advanced Operations Base (AOB) Niger, where the company headquarters was located. AOB-Niger was controlled by a Special Operations Command and Control Element (SOCCE) at N’Djamena, Chad, another 1,600 miles to the east. The SOCCE reported to headquarters in Baumholder, Germany, a further 2,600 miles away, which in turn reported to Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) outside Stuttgart.3 The incredibly light force density of SOF in a counterterrorism theater such as Northwest Africa is also noteworthy – just two companies’ worth of special operators, out of only about 650 military personnel in the whole of Niger.4

After the ambush, a Pentagon investigation found that miscommunication – of missions, plans, and risk levels – among headquarters separated by enormous distances contributed to the incident.5 Likewise, when ambushed at approximately 11:35 AM on October 4, the team was returning to Ouallam after being out all night to track a leader of the Islamic State-Greater Sahara in the area, but with stale (and therefore faulty) intelligence.6 This illustrates the arithmetic noted earlier: The target had moved before the strike asset, a day’s drive away, could arrive.

As the Americans and Nigeriens came under attack, AOB-Niger and the SOCCE at N’Djamena called urgently for backup. It took 90 minutes for two unarmed U.S. drones to arrive overhead, and another 10 minutes for French Mirage aircraft to arrive and perform a “show of force” that forced the enemy to back off.7 By this time, the team, which had already sustained several injuries and deaths, was hunkered down in a final defensive position, about to be overrun. French helicopters arrived at 4:00 PM and with the assistance of a French and Nigerien ground force. They evacuated the survivors at about 5:30 PM, six hours after they had first called for help. It was another hour before ground forces found the bodies of Staff Sergeants Brian Black, Jeremiah Johnson, and Dustin Wright, and another 36 hours before Nigerien troops, with help from locals, were able to find Sergeant La David Johnson’s remains. 8

The Pentagon investigation – and intensive media reporting – subsequently blamed commanders within SOCAFRICA for the ambush, and several were disciplined or dismissed. However, Tongo Tongo was almost entirely a result of the tyranny of distance. It was a tragedy waiting to happen, the near-inevitable outcome of a basing posture that forced SOCAFRICA to operate with extremely low force density and limited air assets, across an enormous area where knowledge of the community and intelligence on the enemy was extremely limited even for Nigerien security forces, let alone for commanders thousands of miles away.


Azawad Salvation Movement militants fly their flag atop a vehicle that allegedly belonged to American service members killed during an ambush in the Tongo Tongo area in West Niger in October 2017. This image was taken on March 17, 2018, in Menaka, Mali. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

Some might argue that none of this really matters, since the War on Terrorism is winding down. Unfortunately, the terror threat to Americans will not end because Washington says so. But even if the terror threat does fade, bases established for the Global War on Terror – in Africa, but also in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, the Philippines, and elsewhere – offer the ability to compete more effectively against Beijing. China has a naval base in Djibouti, controls an array of commercial and military (or dual-use) sites across Africa, and deploys more than 2,000 troops across the continent in various roles.9 In competing against Beijing or in a potential future crisis, forward bases in the region would be worth their weight in gold. And as the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq showed, after relinquishing a forward presence, recreating it is not simple, cost-free, or uncontroversial.

SOF are often portrayed as super-soldiers, able to achieve the impossible on a shoestring budget, at enormous distances, with minimal support. Likewise, drones, satellites, and long-range communications are assumed to have eclipsed the need for a physical presence. New technologies do offer advantages. But as the arithmetic of counterterrorism shows, and as the tyranny of distance at Tongo Tongo emphasizes, there is no substitute for forward-deployed forces. They make it easier for SOF to operate with an acceptable chance of survival and success. And even in the unlikely event that the War on Terrorism ends, other conflicts loom. Far-flung bases may prove vital assets for American strategists, and sooner than one might expect.



Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy