Special Forces: From Black Hawk Down to al-Shabaab

Ben Barry

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Special forces are in the news again. Reports that U.S. Special Forces successfully abducted a suspected terrorist from Libya and mounted an apparently unsuccessful raid to seize a wanted member of al-Shabaab from Somalia are likely to trigger yet another burst of interest in this most secretive modern military capability.

Two decades have passed since the famous “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu, where elite U.S. Delta Force commandos and Rangers were defeated by a Somali militia. But what are Special Forces and how are they used?

My review essay “Stanley McChrystal, Special Forces and the Wars of 9/11” in the latest issue of Survival explores his memoir My Share of the Task. Most of the book describes McChrystal’s experience with U.S. Special Forces, as the young commander of an “A Team” in the Philippines, his extensive service with the Ranger Regiment and as a SpecialForces staff officer during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. This account is rich in insights, including the lessons to be learned from the failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the attempt by Delta Force to rescue U.S. hostages from Tehran and the reluctance of U.S. Central Command to employ Special Forces in 1991.

The main part of the book describes McChrystal’s leadership of the U.S. Special Forces counter-terrorist operations from 2003 to 2007. Their main effort was in Iraq, and the book reveals that in order to maximize their success, it was necessary to build a broad network, particularly in gathering and fusing intelligence from an extremely wide variety of sources. This is vividly brought to life with the story of how the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was tracked down and killed – a manhunt every bit as suspenseful and exciting as the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

What are Special Forces?

Re-reading my review it strikes me that perhaps I could have taken more trouble to explain what makes “Special” Forces special. A 2008 U.S. definition explains:

Special operations (SO) encompass the use of small units in direct or indirect military actions focused on strategic or operational objectives. These actions require units with combinations of specialized personnel, equipment, and tactics that exceed the routine capabilities of conventional military forces. SO are characterized by certain attributes that cumulatively distinguish them from conventional operations. SO are often politically sensitive missions where only the best-equipped and most proficient forces must be deployed to avoid detection and possible mission failure.

A useful summary of U.S. Special Forces has recently been published by the U.S. Congressional Research Service. This is complemented by the website of U.S. Special Operations Command. It identifies “five truths” about Special Forces that reflect a decade’s hard-won experience: Humans are more important than hardware, quality is better than quantity, special operations forces cannot be mass-produced, competent special operations forces cannot be created after emergencies occur and most special operations require non-special operations forces assistance.

Key to this is the extensive selection and training of Special Forces personnel to enable them to conduct high risk operations in territory, airspace or waters controlled by the enemy. Sadly many countries have units that have not been benchmarked against this demanding standard, but have been given the appellation “Special Forces” because they are more loyal or better resourced than the rest of that county’s troops.

Much of what is written about Special Forces in the mass media contains a great deal of speculation and few hard facts. But among the acres of newsprint, shelves of books and gigabytes of internet storage there are some books about special forces that have enduring value arises from accounts that are rooted in fact and are deliberately unsensational.

An informed, balanced and non-sensational account of the SAS first 40 years can be found in John Strawson’s A History of the SAS Regiment. For the historian and enthusiast, this is complemented by the recent publication of the complete war diaries of the SAS, from its foundation in 1942 until 1945. Tony Jeapes’s SAS: Operation Storm – Secret War in the Middle East is a good account of the role of the SAS in the war in Dhofar in the early 1970s. Few other accounts are as useful. For example, Mark Urban’s account of the SAS in the recent Iraq War, Task Force Black contains much tactical detail of SAS raids and combat in Iraq that usefully complements McChrystal’s higher level account, but it appears that some of the author’s sources were furthering personal agendas, reflecting tensions within the SAS.

The origins of Delta Force and the failed operation to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran are described in Delta Force, an account by its first commander. And Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down is an excellent account of the failed 1993 Delta Force raid in Mogadishu and resulting battle, which by precipitating U.S. withdrawal from Somalia was a strategic defeat for the United States. It is also a useful reminder of the many limitations of Special Forces, including dependence on the accuracy of intelligence and relative lack of firepower and staying power compared with conventional forces.

This article was first published in the IISS blog on Oct. 11, 2013.


In the Defense and Military Analysis Program, Ben Barry is responsible for ensuring the quality of the IISS’s analysis of land warfare and the information on land capabilities presented in the flagship Military Balance publication. He is also responsible for the formulation and execution of research projects in his areas of expertise. With his colleagues in the Program, he contributes to other IISS publications and conference activities, as well as taking a prominent role in the work of other research programs and strengthening the Institute’s networks among defense ministries, armies and defense industries

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