At the opening of the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday, the head of U.S. Special Operations said that complex military operations like the one that killed Osama bin Laden this spring are happening thousands of times a year in America’s war zones.
“There were somewhere between three and four thousand operations of this nature conducted in 2010 alone,” Adm. Eric Olson said. “The tactics of this thing were routine, the people who were involved do this every night.”
Olson then specified that these covert, technical and helicopter-based strikes on individuals are occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan. The raid in Pakistan, where a special ops team killed bin Laden, was a unique case in terms of its geography, he said.
“We’re not running missions like that all over the world,” he added.
He said the targets of the missions may be terrorist leaders like bin Laden or small-time people believed to be planning roadside bomb attacks.
Olson was tight-lipped on the actual mission that killed bin Laden, and his personal involvement in overseeing it, during his public interview at the Greenwald Pavilion.
He said the public already knows too much about it.
“I will talk about the bin Laden raid,” he said. “But not much. The Department of Defense has not acknowledged any unit or individual in that particular operation. … It was successful because nobody talked about it before, and if we want to preserve this capability nobody better talk about it after. If I was an al-Qaeda targeteer I would pay very close attention to people that are talking about it.”
Olson was booked to speak at this week’s Aspen Security Conference, the second annual at the Institute, before his men killed bin Laden and suddenly put an international media spotlight on Navy SEALs, special operations and Olson himself. He said the recognition and adoration from the public has been discomfiting for him and all black ops servicemen.
“For the special operations community, the 15 minutes of fame lasted about 14 minutes too long,” he said. “They want to get back in the shadows and do what they came in to do.”
He added that killing bin Laden was a decidedly routine night for the men on the ground and the team supervising them, though the White House and others may have been anxious about it beforehand and celebratory afterward.
“The excitement about that was not at the team level,” he said. “At the moment we knew bin Laden was dead, the thought in my mind was, ‘What’s next on the checklist?’”
He said that the risky operation in Abbottabad worked largely because of the renewed focus on merging military and intelligence in recent years from the American government.
“This raid would not have been as successful if not for the inter-agency collaboration that has occurred over the last few years,” he said, later adding: “When it came to the president for the decision, he saw that the intelligence part was great and that the military operational side was great, and that this was one team — not two parallel operations coming together at the end. I don’t think that would have been possible even a few years ago.”
Beyond that, he said that the success began with the formation of special operations nearly three decades ago, after the military’s failed effort to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980. The U.S. investment in the cutting-edge and classified equipment needed to carry such missions out, which he also wouldn’t discuss in detail, also proved vital.
“The real decisions that were made to have this mission be a success were made 12 to 15 years ago,” he said. “That’s my message to other nations: If they want to have this capability 15 years from now, they better start now.”
Olson, a career SEAL himself who rose up the ranks and is now readying for retirement, said that he believes bin Laden’s al-Qaeda is dissolving and will go away. But, he said, he expects a new transformation of it to rise. What he called “al-Qaeda 2.0,” Olson surmised, would not be made up of men living in caves in the Middle East but by dual-passport holding international terrorists.
“The ‘Arab Spring’ was a roundhouse, it just took the wind out of them,” he said of this year’s peaceful revolutions across the Middle East and their effect on al-Qaeda. “The death of bin Laden was the upper cut to the jaw. … I do believe that al-Qaeda version 1.0 is nearing its end. But I am very concerned about what al-Qaeda 2.0 will be.”
Clark Ervin, who runs the Institute’s homeland security program, echoed that sentiment in his opening remarks for the conference, which runs through Saturday.
“The key question that looms over this year’s forum,” he said, “is whether the killing of Osama bin Laden marks the beginning of the end of the war on terror, or the end of the beginning.”