Did U.S. Use Lessons From Israel's Entebbe Raid to Prep for Bin Laden Killing?

U.S. Vice Adm. William McRaven wrote a book in the mid 90's about commando operations, including a discussion of Israeli intelligence gathering and decision making for the rescue operation in Uganda in 1976.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

In the mid-1990s, William McRaven, then a U.S. Navy SEAL, wrote a book about commando operations. Entitled "Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice" (Presidio Press), the book featured six case studies. One chapter was devoted to Entebbe, beginning with the lessons learned in the Israel Defense Forces as a whole, and in the Sayeret Matkal special operations unit in particular, after the failure to save the lives of 25 hostages in Ma'alot two years earlier. It included a discussion of Israeli intelligence gathering, decision-making processes, creation of the command and control system, personnel conflicts and the actual rescue operation in Entebbe Airport in Uganda, on July 4, 1976.

One of the slides McRaven subsequently used in lectures was a drawing of the old terminal building there, a sort of elderly relative of the intricate mock-up that McRaven - who is now relinquishing control of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in order to be promoted - used for preparing for last week's targeted raid on Osama bin Laden.

Air France passengers after they were released in the Entebbe operation in 1976. Credit: Getty Images

The earliest document in Osama bin Laden's FBI file, connected to Interpol case 1998/20232, contains an international arrest warrant issued, surprisingly, by the government of Libya. Muammar Gadhafi's Justice Ministry declared that bin Laden and four of his associates were wanted for the murder of two German citizens in the Libyan city of Sirte in 1994, and for "illegal possession of firearms." At the bottom of the page, Interpol has prominently added, whether at its own initiative or at Libya's request, a declaration: The request for extradition of the suspects is relevant to all countries - excluding Israel. The FBI file notes that Theodore Katz, a federal judge in New York, signed an American arrest warrant, should bin Laden show his face (described in the document as having full beard and mustache, olive skin and no scars) in Manhattan. Back in 2000 the bounty offered for him was $5 million. Only after September 11, 2001, was the reward upped to $25 million, with another $2 million thrown into the pot by the American Airline Pilots Association.

The systematic tracking of bin Laden's courier to the terrorist's lair is reminiscent of the way the hiding place of IDF soldier Nachshon Waxman's captors was discovered in October 1994 - by means of trailing the man who served as a liaison between them and the outside world. For his part, McRaven's book ends with Entebbe and does not deal with the rescue in the Waxman affair.

In recent years there has hardly been an Israeli chief of staff, branch commander or senior officer who has visited the Special Forces bases in North Carolina and Florida who has not engaged with McRaven and his brothers-in-arms. American officials have come here as well, among them CIA chief Leon Panetta, who visited Israel about three months ago, was hosted by Mossad head Tamir Pardo, and participated in a farewell meeting with outgoing Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

A few weeks ago McRaven was about to complete his tour of duty and prepare for his promotion to four-star head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, where he will preside over JSOC, the army, navy, Marines, air force and Special Forces. McRaven will be the second consecutive naval commando man in this position, following the current SOCOM chief, Adm. Eric Olson. From the reports on McRaven's involvement in the final stages of the bin Laden operation, it appears that the changeover was delayed until the mission was accomplished.

Olson, McRaven and the fighters who pulled the trigger at Abbottabad are all Navy SEALs, even though the only "naval" part of the operation was at the end: the burial at sea.

It is not at all self-evident that officers in the SEALs, the fourth and smallest of the navy's primary areas of responsibility (along with aircraft carriers, the service ships and submarines ) will reach the most senior ranks, nor is it obvious that a special operation will combine forces from all branches of the U.S. military in an effective way.

Historically, the U.S. Army, which first included only the ground forces and later the air force, used to conduct itself separately from the navy, which includes the Marines. Each organization gathered intelligence to serve its own needs. Unification of the different commands was once considered a great threat to democracy in the United States. Indeed, it was only in 1947, after the shock of Pearl Harbor and the encounter with the British wartime system of combined chiefs of staff, and a series of other hitches and disasters that Congress agreed that the newly formed Department of Defense would wield overall responsibility over all branches of the military. At that time the independent U.S. Air Force (in addition to the air forces of the navy and ground forces ), the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council were established.

It took another four decades of blunders and wastefulness before Congress forced the administration in Washington to give more power to the head of the joint chiefs of staffs and to found SOCOM - a command that enjoys services of the special forces that have been built up over the years in the various branches. The advantage here lies in the short chain of command and the attention of the chief decision makers: The defense secretary and sometimes the president take an interest in the special operations and especially those of the Joint Operations Special Command - an operational organization that in our own terms brings together what would be comparable to the Sayeret Matkal, Shayetet 13 and specialized transport and helicopter squadrons.

At the same time, America's intelligence community underwent an incomplete process of coordination. The most problematic area, under the purview of the attorney general, was the separation between the CIA, responsible for foreign intelligence, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation - the agency in charge of domestic security on the federal level, but from a strictly criminal-evidence angle.

It is because of the mutual alienation that exists - between America's 16 intelligence organizations, between criminal and intelligence-related investigatory bodies, and between the operations and research units within the various intelligence forces - that the 19 perpetrators of September 11 were able to evade detection. The postmortem analysis performed by the FBI revealed bin Laden's justified scorn for the American system. The hijackers did not camouflage themselves and they did not sneak into their destinations. They went in the front door, with valid passports; they were careful about wiretaps, but did not hide underground. America was wide open to them, as were the cockpits of passenger planes, four of which were hijacked, with three of them crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

The so-called world jihad is based on decentralization - networks that are far away from each other, separate cells and communications by simple means, preferably face to face. On 9/11, Al-Qaida's decentralization got the upper hand over America's imagined centralization, which was in fact a mishmash of duplication, mutual interference and lack of ability to make proper use of intelligence data.

May 1, 2011, has shown us that after a decade of effort, centralization has finally defeated decentralization. The American system has at long last embodied its motto: E pluribus unum - out of many, one.

From time to time in the IDF there is talk about setting up a joint special ops force. This talk has not yet found a solution to the problem of who is subordinate to whom - whether Sayeret Matkal is subordinate to Military Intelligence, Shaldag to the air force and Shayetet 13 to the navy. However, all these units, and others, are interested in participating in additional missions that go beyond the narrow confines of their ostensible purposes.

One of the Israeli officers most familiar with Olson, McRaven and their colleagues is Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, a "graduate" of Shayetet 13. One Saturday evening in June 2006 Galant was at the home of his friend Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yom-Tov Samia. Along with them and other top brass, including Maj. Gen. (res. ) Giora Eiland, they watched the soccer World Cup game between Mexico and Argentina. Against the backdrop of the match Galant related how, ever since he had become the GOC of the command responsible for the Gaza Strip, all the elite units had been begging him to assign them special operations. "Don't worry," Galant said he told them. "There are enough Arabs for everyone."

The next morning Arabs attacked a military position in Kerem Shalom, killed two soldiers from the Armored Corps and abducted Gilad Shalit. Eiland was appointed investigator of that abduction, an affair that has not yet ended.

Navy SEALS in training, 2005.Credit: Getty Images



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