President Trump has made a living out of eliminating Obama policies such as banking regulations. But he’s kept one strategy wholly intact: the use of Special Ops in the War on Terror.
The Trump exception has paid hefty dividends in recent months when US Special Forces carried out covert operations that resulted in the deaths of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria and al-Qaeda leader Hamza bin Laden in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. Yet most of the missions executed overseas by Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Rangers and other American troops receive no media coverage. The few that do flash by like faint radar-display pulses.
This US strategy, which has deployed 8,000 Special Forces to 80 countries, started after the 1976 Operation Thunderbolt, during which Israeli commandos rescued more than 100 Air France passengers held hostage in Uganda.
Although Operation Thunderbolt cost the lives of four hostages and one commando—commander Yoni Netanyahu, brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—it captured the world’s imagination.
The United States, which celebrated its bicentennial when the news of Operation Thunderbolt hit the airwaves, created the Delta Force. This Special Ops unit failed its first major mission, botching the 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. But American military expressed confidence that they can duplicate the Israelis’ success. They backed it up it in 38 furious minutes in 2011, when US SEAL Team 6 killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
It was Delta Force that recently terminated al-Baghdadi.
It did not take US Special Forces several decades to justify their role in the War on Terror. Many of their victories have simply remained secret. But the bin Laden raid reminded Americans of their Special Forces’ special powers.
Utilizing Special Ops to fight terrorism, however, has proven to be a double-edge sword. Sure, it often accomplishes military objectives in surgical ways, but it can also skew public perception, lulling us into a false sense of security. It has never purported to be a comprehensive solution.
After the Operation Thunderbolt, the West substantially improved its counterterrorism. West Germany, for instance, went from goat to hero in just a few years:
• In 1972, several West German misfires, including ignoring advanced warnings and relying on inexperienced snipers, cost the lives of 11 Israeli athletes and one police officer during a standoff with Black September terrorists at the Munich Olympics.
• In 1977, after they trained in Israel and gained insight from Operation Thunderbolt, West German Special Forces carried out a nearly flawless rescue in Mogadishu, Somalia. They stormed a hijacked Lufthansa Boeing 737, killed two terrorists, immobilized the other two, and rescued all 86 hostages.
Operations such as Feuerzauber (“Fire Magic” in German) and Thunderbolt helped end the Golden Age of Hijacking, during which the world experienced about three skyjackings a month.
Today, if the world averaged even one hijacking a month, we would face a global economic depression.
Terrorists may have, for the most part and until further notice, abandoned hijackings. But they’ve shifted to even more deadly approaches. They hardly ever negotiate; they almost always just kill. Their objectives have changed, too. They’ve gone from secular political activism and secular nationalism to religious fanaticism and white supremacism.
Does that mean the Israelis should have never launched Operations Thunderbolt? Of course not. Had they caved to the hijackers’ demands, they would’ve empowered terrorists around the world for years to come.
What it mean is that we must be fully cognizant of the fact that counterterrorism advancements tend to spur terrorist adjustments.
We must therefore come up with a new strategy to complement our Special Forces, regardless of how successful they have been.
Boaz Dvir is an award-winning filmmaker (“Jessie’s Dad,” “A Wing and a Prayer”). His latest, “Cojot,” tells the story of Operation Entebbe’s unsung hero. The Museum of Tolerance will screen a rough cut of this feature documentary at 7 pm Nov. 14. The event is free and open to the public.