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article imageThe shadow fighters: inside the world of counter-terrorism

By Shawn Kay     Jul 7, 2011 in World
From carrying out daring raids and rescuing hostages to apprehending or killing terrorists, counter-terrorist teams are saving lives. Since 9/11, these teams have been in even more demand. They are often society's last line of defense against terrorism.
The world of the counter-terrorist is a shadowy one.
The term "shadow" when used in the context of counter-terrorism is interchangeable and can be applied to both terrorists and counter-terrorists. However, in counter-terrorism parlance the phrase shadow is typically a title that is used in referring to someone who is a terrorist.
Recently a significant "shadow" was felled this past Spring when the elite counter-terrorism team US Navy Seal Team 6 stormed a Pakistani villa and killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida.
Though the operation took place nearly two months ago, it is still widely talked about as the Seals who took part in that operation are hailed as national heroes and have even received praise globally.
There is even talk of a new phenomenon sweeping the US known as "Seal-mania".
Needless to say, the success of the high-profile raid on has placed an ultra bright glare on the otherwise ultra-secretive outfit.
Though the operation against bin Laden is sure to go down as one of the most high-profile and successful operations in the annals of counter-terrorism history, Seal Team 6 is only one of many in the overall realm of counter-terrorism tactical teams.
There are at least 188 recognized nations and most have at least one counter-terrorist team. Some nations may have two or more while both Israel and the US have several.
This translates to well over 100 such teams in existence.
The large numbers of such teams in nations throughout the world is a testament of terrorism's enduring threat to humanity as a whole.
They are occasionally seen on the evening news pulling off a daring rescue of some sort and confronting global concerns that are gripped from major news headlines.
Whereas terrorists seek to use fear to paralyze a society into submission or overthrow it's government through force, counter-terrorist teams are the opposite.
They seek to preserve and ensure the continuance of a government and society as a whole by countering the violence of terrorism with violence of their own. In short, they are akin to being the attack dogs for a government.
These teams are a phenomenal and even critical asset to a nation's security as well as preserving overall global order.
Since their inception just a few decades ago, counter-terrorist teams or "shadow fighters" as they are sometimes called, have saved thousands of lives globally from death at the hands of a terrorist and thwarted countless attacks.
The personnel who staff these teams may come across as superhuman in terms of their abilities and feats of heroism, but this is all an illusion that they readily admit. In reality it is the quality of their equipment as well as their level of training, commitment and motivation to improve that makes them so capable.
These teams have been around since the 70's and their origins can be traced back to a single event and place: Munich.
The 1972 Munich Olympic Games
The 1972 Summer Olympic games were held in Munich, West Germany. An event that was supposed to celebrate peaceful competition among nations and international peace and unity would come to be remembered as one of the darkest events in history.
During the early morning hours of September 5, a group of eight heavily armed Palestinians belonging to the Black September organization broke into the Olympic Village and stormed apartments in a residential building holding the Israeli Olympic team.
Armed with machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles and grenades, the terrorists seized eleven Israeli athletes and coaches from their dorms as prisoners.
That number was soon reduced to nine when two of the prisoner athletes fought back against the terrorists and were gunned down for their defiant stand.
The remaining nine hostages endured a nearly 18 hour standoff as the terrorists held German authorities at bay.
Late in the evening of September 5, the terrorists struck a deal with authorities to be transferred along with their hostages by helicopter to the military airport of Fürstenfeldbruck.
The terrorists believed the authorities had capitulated to their demands and that they were to board a plane from the airport, bound for an undetermined Arab country (most likely Egypt) where they would be free.
In reality, German authorities planned to ambush the terrorists at the airport.
The planned ambush by authorities would go tragically wrong and officials would later admit that they under-estimated the number of armed terrorists.
In a horribly botched rescue attempt by a poorly trained team of police marksmen, the remaining nine hostages were killed at the hands of their captors who used a hail of bullets and grenades to do the dark deed.
The final death toll was 11 athletes from the Israeli Olympic team dead.
Also slain in the botched rescue attempt were five of the eight terrorists and one of the police marksmen.
The remaining terrorists were captured alive and taken into custody.
This horrific incident quickly became an international tragedy that was universally known as The Munich Massacre.
The Munich tragedy became one of those “where were you when” moments in history much like that of the 1963 assassination of US President John F. Kennedy that preceded it and the 9/11 attacks that would follow nearly three decades later.
The Munich Massacre was further immortalized in the critically acclaimed major motion film, Munich. Released in 2005, over three decades after the original atrocity, the film depicts the attack on Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists (as well as the aftermath) in vivid detail.
The killings in Munich would also be remembered as Black September’s most infamous terrorist operation.
The botched rescue attempt was nothing short of a disaster that humiliated German on a global stage. While Israel was livid at not just the Black September group but also the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from which the hard-core terrorist group was believed to have splintered from and took very aggressive actions against both.
Meanwhile, the global community shook their collective heads in disbelief at the Munich tragedy.
It was clear that something had to be done about the global terrorist problem.
Dawn of the Counter-Terrorism Team
The immediate result of the Munich massacre was that of counter-terrorism teams.
Prior to the advent of counter-terrorist (CT) teams conventional law enforcement officers and agents would run to the police armory and grab a machine gun, rifle, shotgun or some other form of heavy caliber weaponry to engage terrorist when they took hostages or went on public shooting sprees.
Police officials, unfamiliar with such weaponry and poorly trained for these types of confrontations were often out of their league against terrorists who would typically spend weeks or months at a paramilitary training camp and have advanced knowledge of high-powered weaponry as well as little if any regard at all for life.
Back then, police and other law enforcement officials would engage in wild shootouts with terrorists that could last as long as several hours. The shootouts would continue unit the terrorists were either captured, dead or had escaped from the scene.
Such shootouts were counter-productive to the law enforcement mission of public safety as not only would police officials suffer massive casualties during these violent confrontations but also non-combatants or innocent bystanders who happened to be in the area at the time of the shooting.
At that time, law enforcement had no viable and practical alternative to the terrorist opponent.
The military was also unprepared for the threat terrorism posed to public safety and national security and even found it's own facilities and personnel occasionally targeted by these shadowy adversaries.
Terrorism presented an unconventional warfare challenge that many militaries globally were unprepared to meet.
The events at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich would change all of this as governments throughout the world no longer found it acceptable to allow the challenge posed by terrorism to stability and order to go unanswered.
Everyone sought a viable alternative to the terrorist threat which eventually took the form of tactical counter-terrorist(CT) teams.
A very few nations like those of Britain and Israel already had CT teams though they had to be reorganized to meet new terrorist threats after the Munich incident.
In the most basic terms, the role of such teams is to directly engage terrorists and prevent attacks.
The concept of a elite and highly trained squad of soldiers or law enforcement personnel lavishly outfitted with the best weaponry and equipment tax payer dollars can buy was the centerpiece of the counter-terrorism team plan.
At the essence of all tactical CT work is hostage rescue (rescuing/freeing of hostages).
The aftermath of The Munich Massacre saw a massive proliferation of counter-terrorist teams as hundreds of nations began to formulate specialized police or military teams capable of handling heavily armed and trained terrorists.
Counter-terrorist (CT) teams became a must have accessory for any government seeking to maintain the status quo order and protect it's leadership from being assassinated or overthrown by terrorists.
CT teams defend a nation against all forms of terrorism regardless of the nationality, political views or religious orientation of the terrorists in question.
Germany was one of the first nations to form a counter-terrorist team in response to the events at Munich. A several months after the Munich Olympic disaster, Germany had formed GSG-9, a law enforcement counter-terrorism team under the supervision of the Federal Border Police which is a national law enforcement agency akin to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the U.S. or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Over the ensuing years, GSG-9 would be more than just another counter-terrorist team, it would be a leader and a model that dozens of other teams would emulate.
GSG-9 frequently sends operatives from it's team to train or train with other counter-terrorist teams throughout the world. It is highly regarded by CT teams globally - including those in the U.S. and throughout Europe - to be one of the best if not the best law enforcement CT teams in the world.
In the years following The Munich Massacre the number of CT teams would only continue to grow.
Since their implementation following that infamous incident in Munich, CT teams have been the bane of the terrorist's existence. To this very day these teams only continue to increase in number globally while the terrorist group that served as the catalyst for their coming into being, Black September, has been defunct since the early 70's.
CT teams can be found in nations of all sizes. All forms of government from democracies to totalitarian governments utilize them to protect their societies and maintain order. Totalitarian-based states like those of the People's Republic of China or simply China and the Russian Federation have found CT teams to be a necessity as both have been threatened in recent years by Islamic militants.
Even the theocracies of Sunni Islam-governed Saudi Arabia and the Shia Islam-governed Iran both have law enforcement-based CT teams.
Tasks and operations vary among CT teams globally and even nationally, but a general synopsis of their duties and abilities would include (but not limited to): hostage rescue, high-risk raids, sniper operations,
fugitive apprehension, dignitary Protection, prisoner transport, air assault (attacks using helicopters), maritime assault, tubular assaults (storming commercial airliners, passenger trains, buses, cruise and merchant ships and other vehicles to rescue hostages from terrorists), terrorist psychology, counter-terrorism mythology, intelligence gathering, security for national events and advanced first-aid. CT teams also train to perform in virtually all types of environments (rural, mountainous, urban, etc) and in adverse weather conditions.
Other operations may include: Weapons of Mass Destruction or providing protection to Hazardous Materials teams as they worked with such instruments, apprehension of war criminals abroad, apprehension of fugitive military special operations soldiers, fending off invasions from hostile military forces.
Because hijackings were a popular tactic amongst terrorist groups during the 70's, this became a major of focus for most CT teams.
The typical CT team is of either a law enforcement or military nature. Depending on the needs of a particular nation and whether it views terrorism as an act of warfare or a criminal offense will typically determine the nature of the CT team.
If a nation views terrorism as a military action and frequently carries out military operations overseas in defense of it's interests, then it would likely form a military-based CT team and place it under the command of the Army or some other branch of the military. Whereas if a nation's government views terrorism as a crime and doesn't frequently engage in military adventures abroad, then it would likely form a police/law enforcement-based CT team and place it under the direct command of a law enforcement agency, usually one with a national jurisdiction.
Though there are parallels between both law enforcement and military CT teams, there are also inherent differences between the two in regards to culture, philosophy and operational mind-set.
Civilian Law Enforcement-Based Counter-Terrorist Teams
Law enforcement counter-terrorist teams are largely civilian and paramilitary in nature and thus are typically under the command of a law enforcement/police agency, usually one with a national jurisdiction. These teams derive their power and authority from the law and judiciary.
As counter-terrorist operatives on law enforcement teams are not members of the Armed Forces – Army, Navy and Air Force – they are generally considered civilians.
Law enforcement counter-terrorist teams carryout operations that are largely of a domestic nature or within the borders and territories of their respective nations or jurisdictions.
Some law enforcement counter-terrorist teams like those of Germany’s GSG-9, France’s National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN), Italy’s Gruppo di Intervento Speciale (GIS), Israel’s Yamam, and America’s Hostage Rescue Team have the capability to carryout counter-terrorist operations abroad and even in war zones, though with the assistance and protection of military forces.
Law enforcement counter-terrorist teams greatly outnumber their military counterparts globally. This is especially in many parts of Europe and Israel where law enforcement teams are the primary and dominant counter-terrorist tactical force.
The high number of law enforcement counter-terrorist teams corresponds to the near international consensus by governments of viewing terrorism as a criminal act rather than as warfare. This is particularly true in Europe where the phenomenon of law enforcement counter-terrorist teams began in the early 70’s.
The theocracies of Sunni Islam-governed Saudi Arabia and the Shia Islam-governed Iran both have law enforcement CT teams.
In Saudi Arabia, the Emergency Force is charged with protecting the kingdom against terrorism and invasion from a hostile foreign force. The Saudi rulers and the Emergency Force have been on heightened alert for a possible invasion as well as civil unrest domestically in light of the recent pro-democracy protests sweeping the Middle East.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the elite police team Unit 110 is charged with counter-terrorism operations, quelling civil unrest (often through brutal means) and working with the military to fend off possible invasions from hostile Sunni Muslim states as well as quite possibly Israel or the United States and it's allies (Britain). Unit 110 is one of the top counter-terrorist teams in Asia and the Middle Eastern region.
Many would consider it odd that both Saudi Arabia and Iran would need to invest in CT teams considering that both are strongly believed to be major sponsors of international terrorism.
Though the two states are bitter rivals, they share a common threat in the form of al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida has carried out a wave of bombings against government buildings in Saudi Arabia and has repeatedly attempted to assassinate the ruling royal family in Riyadh. Al-Qaida has also made numerous threats against the Iranian regime, while Jundallah, a Sunni Islam terrorist group believed to have links to al-Qaida has carried out a wave of bombings aimed at government structures and officials in recent years.
The fact that the two nations that are considered to be among the world’s biggest sponsors of terrorism have CT teams themselves is proof to the world that no nation could ever lay claim to being the master of terrorism, even if the wield it as an official (or unofficial) tool of their foreign policy.
A state that uses terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy today could find itself on the receiving end of it tomorrow.
Terrorism has no master. Terrorism has no allegiance to any nation or religion.
European teams such as GSG-9 (Germany), GIGN (France), GIS (Italy), RAID (France), Grupo Especial de Operaciones (Spain), Nucleo Operativo Centrale di Sicurezza (Italy), Unidad Especial de Intervención (Spain), and EKAM (Greece) are regarded as models and trendsetters in the global counter-terrorist community.
Another factor that may account for the preference of civilian police teams over military teams could be due to laws in many European and democratic societies globally that are similar to America’s Posse Comitatus Act which largely forbids military intervention on domestic soil except in the most dire of emergencies.
In the U.S., civilian counter-terrorist teams are typically found within federal agencies as well as state and municipal law enforcement agencies.
Municipal law enforcement agencies in major U.S. cities field high-level tactical units that are capable of confronting armed terrorists.
Major U.S. cities that have notable counter-terrorist level tactical units within their municipal police agencies include the four most influential: New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Chicago. Other cities include San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston and several others.
In total there are as many as three or four dozen such counter-terrorist level teams in various cities, states and federal agencies throughout the U.S. Some of the more notable ones at the municipal or local level include: Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s Emergency Response Team (ERT), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Special Enforcement Detail, Atlanta MARTA police (transit police) Special Operations Response Team (SORT), Chicago Police Department Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT), and the New York City Police Department’s Emergency Service Unit (ESU).
Yet another notable team is the Special Operations Group. The Special Operations Group (SOG) of the United States Marshals Service are nicknamed "The Shadow Stalkers." This is primarily because they hunt terrorist fugitives and other violent criminals who they refer to as "shadows" due to their ability to blend into the backgrounds of various communities in the US and disappear into society's shadows.
Law enforcement counter-terrorist teams differ from those of the average police SWAT teams found in many small towns and cities throughout the U.S.
While many police SWAT teams are trained to confront violent but otherwise conventional criminals, they are generally not trained for counter-terrorist operations and thus not considered ideal for such work. At best, they have the ability to conduct low-level counter-terrorist operations.
Most conventional police SWAT teams would find themselves out of their league against heavily armed and trained terrorists. Even world-class counter-terrorist police teams sometimes have to fight tooth and nail to pull out a victory against terrorists during a gun battle.
CT trained teams at the municipal and state level are not always counted and included among their international counterparts. There is some difference of opinion as to if high-level municipal law enforcement tactical teams actually qualify as CT teams.Many tactical counter-terrorism experts and officials only count national-level teams like that of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team as full-fledged counter-terrorist teams and tend to excluded local-based teams.
Depending on the official or the source, high-level municipal law enforcement tactical teams may be considered actual counter-terrorist teams whereas other sources may only view national-level teams as being worthy of such a designation. It all varies from source to source and is a matter of some contention, but generally only national-level teams are noted and counted.
Many of these teams also tend to have higher academic requirements than their military counterparts. A primary example of this would be Germany’s GSG-9 which requires it’s operatives to sit through legal lessons taught at a law school level. The legal lessons pertain largely to German and international laws on terrorism.
A law enforcement counter-terrorist team in action. Special Actions Unit (UTK) or Pasukan Gerakan Kh...
A law enforcement counter-terrorist team in action. Special Actions Unit (UTK) or Pasukan Gerakan Khas (PGK) operatives armed with a Heckler and Koch 9mm MP5-N sub-machine guns simulates Counter-Terrorism operations at Bukit Aman Main Police Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Law enforcement CT teams function under very strict guidelines during their operations and are fully accountable to the law. The operatives on these teams are frequently reminded of the stringent rules of engagement they must work under.
GSG-9 operatives are repeatedly reminded and warned by their instructors during their legal lessons that they could be prosecuted should they happen to unjustly slay a terrorist (i.e., shooting an unarmed terrorist or a surrendering terrorist).
Many other law enforcement counter-terrorist teams globally go through similar legal training.
The legal lessons are not designed to make the operatives experts on law but rather to give them a rudimentary level of knowledge on the subject.
Academic standards to join many law enforcement teams may also be extensive in some cases, especially with national-level teams. For instance, to join the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, one must become a Special Agent first (all members of the team are Special Agents). However, to become a Special Agent you must graduate from an accredited academic institution with a four year degree (bachelors degree). This is only the minimum academic requirement to join the FBI.
True to the FBI’s reputation of the pursuit of academic excellence, some members of the Hostage Rescue Team have Master’s degrees.
Academic standards are especially valued in all fields and all aspects of law enforcement in the United States, even for those not related to terrorism/counter-terrorism. Officials in law enforcement agencies tend to find that young men and women with a college/university degree are more mature than those with a lesser degree of education.
It’s also a common misconception that many operatives on law enforcement counter-terrorist teams are all former members of the military. While it is true that there are some ex-military persons on these teams, most law enforcement officials acknowledge that the vast number of their operatives have never served a single day in the military and have spent their entire lives as civilians.
Still another prevailing difference between law enforcement and military counter-terrorist teams is the emphasis the former places on apprehension of terror suspects rather than termination.
On a typical tactical operation, a law enforcement counter-terrorist team’s main focus is on the preservation of not just the lives of hostages, bystanders and themselves but also that of the terrorist(s) whenever possible.
The preservation of life principle among law enforcement teams in western societies is so strong that many teams consider an operation to be a failure if anyone is killed. This would include a terrorist gunned down instead of arrested, even if the shooting was in self-defense.
A military counter-terrorist team in comparison would typically view an operation where all the terrorists were killed but with no lives lost among the hostages and team as a textbook operation.
The legal lessons taught during training and refresher training instill or reinforce a sense among operatives that they are law enforcement officials and not military commandos. Thus, the typical military mindset of “kill them all and let God sort them out,” is very inappropriate for civilian law enforcement counter-terrorist teams.
Law enforcement counter-terrorist teams must make every reasonable effort to apprehend terrorists alive so they can stand trial in a civilian court of law for their crimes. They cannot appoint themselves judge, jury and executioner no matter how heinous the crimes of particular terrorist may be.
The little known controversy surrounding the disbanding of the Canadian Royal Mounted Canadian Police's Special Emergency Response Team, provides a very real and vivid example of the stark contrasts between law enforcement's typical orientation of preserving life (even that of criminal/terrorist assailants) versus the military’s predisposition to “terminate” the enemy.
When these law enforcement teams are not conducting actual counter-terrorist operations, they are either training or assisting other law enforcement officials through counter-narcotics, crime suppression efforts and other conventional police duties.
In the U.S., such teams also train conventional police SWAT teams in various cities and other law enforcement officials (investigators from Joint Terrorism Task Forces) in rudimentary counter-terrorism tactics.
Law enforcement counter-terrorist teams typically train with each other as well as with their military counterparts both domestically and abroad on a basis that ranges from irregular to frequent. The two share a very close relationship and a common goal of stopping terrorism. During these training sessions everyone trades information and provides valued input on equipment and tactics. In the end, these encounters go a long way in benefiting everyone.
Military teams are frequently surprised by the skills and abilities of their counterparts in civilian law enforcement, especially in the area of urban combat. There have even been some cases where military teams have learned new tactics and insights on operating in urban areas (though many only admit it grudgingly.)
Military-Based Counter-Terrorist Teams
Military counter-terrorist teams are under the command of a branch of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy or Air Force) or the Department of Defense (or Ministry of Defense depending on the nation in question). Operatives on these teams are soldiers or some other form of military personnel.
Military counter-terrorist teams largely carryout operations abroad. They may also carryout special operations in support of an ongoing war effort.
Operations typically undertaken by these teams include: rescuing hostages being held by terrorists or other hostile force abroad, apprehending or killing terrorist leaders who have carried out attacks or are plotting to do so against mainland targets or against tourists at popular overseas vacation destinations. These teams may also carryout surveillance on terrorists as well as target marking for air-strikes.
Military CT teams generally perform special operations during wartime and CT during peacetime.
Many western nations have laws that prohibit or greatly limit military counter-terrorist teams from carrying out operations against terrorists domestically. This is especially true in much of Europe where terrorism is largely seen as a law enforcement issue rather than a military one.
The military counter-terrorist team is considered an extreme option as well as a nation's very last line of defense.
In the event that armed terrorists carryout an attack on the mainland, the law enforcement counter-terrorist team would respond first and try to put an end to the incident and restore order. However, should the law enforcement team find itself lacking the resources and capabilities to handle the affair or are actually defeated in battle by the terrorists, then the military counter-terrorist team would respond.
For a military counter-terrorist team to respond to a threat posed by a terrorist(s) it would have to be nothing short of an extraordinary event and pose a threat to the security of the state and it's citizens as well as to the continuity of the government. They are typically only used when all else fails and no other options exist.
Military teams generally prefer to operate overseas where they can conduct their missions largely in anonymity. Domestic operations can be a headache because they tend to be become high-profile affairs. The news media coverage and increased public attention that would come with a high-profile terrorist incident on domestic soil could be deeply annoying to a team that prefers anonymity.
Some of the more prominent military counter-terrorist teams in the world today are: Special Air Service (Britain), Navy Seal team six (United States), Delta Force (United States), Joint Task Force 2 (Canada), Sayeret Matkal (Israel), Alpha Group (Russia) and COMSUBIN (Italy).
The Special Air Service (SAS) in particular is worthy of notable mention for it's contributions to the realm of counter-terrorism. The SAS was the world's first such team and is considered the gold standard.
It should also be noted that there is between military counter-terrorist teams and military special operations or special forces teams.
Special operations teams carryout high-value missions against high-profile targets during a war. An example of such a mission would be an attack behind enemy lines targeting an air field or fuel depot. Another good example would be the abduction of a military or political leader from an opposing nation during a war.
Yet another example would be rescuing soldiers captured by enemy forces during a war and held in a prison.
Some special operations teams in the U.S. military are: Rangers (U.S. Army), Green Berets (U.S. Army) and Force Reconnaissance (U.S. Marine Corps).
Special operations teams are not trained for counter-terrorism.
However, many military counter-terrorist teams are capable, and have performed special operation missions during wars.
The training regimen for military counter-terrorist operatives are often far more rigorous than the training of their civilian counterparts.
Training is very intense and dangerous. So much so that injuries and deaths from accidents occasionally occur. Many military branches and governments consider the exact circumstances and details surrounding the death of a counter-terrorist operative to be classified information and thus such information is rarely released to the news media and the public. Not even the family of the deceased always gets the full story behind the death of their loved one.
While the deaths are regrettable, the counter-terrorist unit and the military itself considers them to be an acceptable price that must be paid in order to have high-performance and well-trained commandos that are at the government's beck and call and capable of defending a nation's citizenry and interests.
Military counter-terrorist teams have a seemingly endless budget of countless millions and are lavishly outfitted with the most state-of-the-art tactical gear and weaponry taxpayer dollars can buy.
Much of the weaponry and tactical gear in use today by law enforcement has usually been in use by the military first.
What's more, is unlike their civilian law enforcement counterparts, military teams tend to carry firepower of a heavier caliber and tend to employ techniques and weapons that are more lethal in nature.
The tactical training of military teams are typically superior to that of their civilian counterparts.
Military counter-terrorist teams need to be better equipped and trained than their civilian counterparts as they typically carryout their missions overseas in hostile environments. There are even some occasions where a military team may be tasked with providing cover (protection) to a law enforcement team hunting a fugitive terrorist in a hostile nation or war zone.
Military counter-terrorist teams occasionally train with their civilian police counterparts. During these training sessions tactics and advice are shared as skills are tested.
Even more, military counter-terrorist teams are desirable for the advantages that they have over law enforcement teams in terms of mission capabilities. For instance, military teams can be deployed to carryout missions abroad and even in hostile nations against a terrorist group. Most law enforcement teams don't have that type of capability.
Another use for a military CT team, though highly controversial, could be to carryout "black operations" like those of assassinations against influential terrorists or leaders of rouge states. Perhaps this is what the Canadian government had in mind when it disbanded it's national police counter-terrorist team - Special Emergency Response Team - for JTF2.
Educational requirements vary amongst military counter-terrorist teams and their host nations. Generally, the successful completion of a high school educational program is necessary for those seeking admission into training.
Post-high school graduate education at a university or college is not typically encouraged but it is not discouraged either.
The Price of Admission: Counter-Terrorism Training
Many CT teams vary depending on the type and nation it hails from, but generally consists of two types of operatives: 1. assaulters and 2. sharpshooters/snipers.
CT assaulters are often the most visible and high-profile aspect of the team. They are the ones who plan and carryout raids on terrorist strongholds and/or facilities illegally held by terrorists (i.e. a commercial office building with hostages). These are the stereotypical commandos that kick down the door or come crashing through the skylight in the ceiling to engage terrorists through violent gun battles.
The CT sniper/sharpshooter is a marksman who is able to shoot targets at long distances, often from concealed positions. Though not as glamorous as the role of assaulter, the sniper/sharpshooter is a very valued asset of the team.
While a daring and dynamic assault on a location where hostages are being held by terrorists may be interesting to watch on the evening news, it is inherently dangerous to the hostages and the CT operatives themselves.
Because of the inherent danger involved, dynamic assaults are typically a last option during hostage incidents.
Sniper/sharpshooter can be called on to bring a swift and sudden end to hostage situations by gunning down a terrorist hostage taker from a distance. They are typically called upon to resolve hostage incidents that have spiraled out of control.
Sniper/sharpshooters can provide cover to a CT team that suddenly finds themselves in a dire situation like that of being ambushed and under heavy gunfire.
Because many of the skills learned by a CT team are perishable, it is imperative to keep those skills sharp through frequent training.
Some teams train relentlessly.
Many CT teams have their own training facilities where they practice shooting skills and hostage rescue tactics. These facilities are typically several acres long, high-tech and have a price tag of that could range well into the millions.
Some of the more storied training facilities in CT lore include: the British SAS's Killing House, Delta Force's House of Horrors, Hostage Rescue Team's Labyrinth aka The Maze, as well as GSG-9's facility which is known as the Schoolhouse.
A trademark tactic utilized by many CT teams globally is a method known as "the double tap." The double tap is a form of surgical or precision shooting in which a CT operative fires two rounds in rapid succession from a handgun or submachine gun into the head or face of a terrorist.
The shots for the double tap are fired at very close range, sometime even at point-blank range, and is particularly effective against suicide bombers and gunmen using a hostage as a human shield during a gun-battle.
The double tap method is a form of marksmanship and can take anywhere from weeks to a few months to master.
Two shots to the head is a certain kill. A person may survive one gunshot wound to the brain, but never two.
The average CT operative fires at least 10,000 rounds each month during training, though some may shoot even more (or less) than that number.
In their efforts to stay a step ahead of the terrorists, most CT teams are outfitted with the most advanced and latest tactical gear and weapons that taxpayer dollars can buy.
The US in particular is a purveyor of counter-terrorist teams. Through the US State Department's Anti-Terrorist Assistance (ATA) program, the US helps to create law enforcement-based CT teams in friendly nations besieged by terrorism.
The program has been in existence since at least the 90's and has helped to create dozens of CT teams in Latin American and Asia.
Since the 9/11 attacks, ATA has been largely focused on creating CT teams in allied Middle Eastern nations.
As many terrorist groups, especially al-Qaida, seek to overthrow governments so that they can impose their beliefs upon on a nation's people as well as turn that nation into a safe haven and global training center for other terrorists, it is vital to have a CT team that can secure a state against being overthrown.
The ATA's latest success story comes in the form of it's development and implementation of a law enforcement/police CT team in Yemen. Of the teams ATA has trained throughout the Middle East region, the Yemeni team is considered one of the star pupils of the program.
However, the newly minted Yemeni CT team is perhaps facing it's most daunting challenge right now.
The team is fighting a potent terrorist threat in the form of al-Qaida's regional arm, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), against the backdrop of civil and social turmoil so severe that it threatens the very existence of the Yemeni government.
Yemen's CT team was formed by the US government to serve as a bulwark against AQAP. They currently find themselves performing their duties in a nation that is in the throes of a crisis as the pro-democracy protests that have set the Arab world ablaze for much of 2011, has now erupted in Yemen.
Thousands of protesters want to see the current regime overthrown in favor of a new democratic government.
Though AQAP are not behind the protests and couldn't possibly care less about democracy, they are actually encouraging the protests. Terrorism analysts fear that AQAP may have an ulterior motive at work that may include it seizing control of the country if protesters are actually successful in overthrowing the Yemeni government. Upon gaining control of the state, AQAP would likely implement strict Sharia (Islamic) law upon the state and allow it to become something of a regional training center and safe haven for Islamic militants.
The irony of all this is that the Yemeni CT team was initially created to keep AQAP from overthrowing the government but in the end it may be the very people of that nation who overthrow it.
The US views Yemen as a close Middle Eastern ally and would view it as a significant blow if AQAP were to seize control of that nation. The only thing that may be standing in the way of AQAP realizing it's ambitions is Yemen's CT team.
Profiles of Some Counter-Terrorist Teams
The following are brief profiles of a few military and law enforcement CT teams from nations throughout the world.
Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) – United States of America
Formed in 1983, the Hostage Rescue Team or HRT was created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the behest of the US government for the expressed purpose of providing a high-level civilian law enforcement-based response to terrorism nationally.
The elite force is comprised of 90 FBI special agents who serve full time and train daily while on the team.
HRT is apart of the Tactical Support Branch of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG). CIRG provides logistical support and oversees the activities of the Tactical Support Branch and HRT.
HRT’s main task is that of domestic CT but the unit can (and has) been used outside of the US. Though CT missions on foreign soil are primarily and continue to be a task of elite military CT units, namely, Delta Force and Seal Team Six.
The unit has also performed disaster relief operations, dignitary protection and duties in support of national and international special events like those of political conventions, presidential inaugurations and the Olympic games, counter-intelligence (arresting foreign intelligence agents and other spies), operations in cold weather environments.
In addition to those duties, HRT also supports other agents by arresting non-terrorist but nonetheless violent criminals wanted by the FBI.
Two members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) undergoing tactical t...
Two members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) undergoing tactical training. HRT is a highly trained and equipped unit and is tasked with the FBI's most complex and urgent operations. The team's primary purpose is to serve as a domestic counter-terrorism unit, offering a tactical resolution option in hostage and high-risk law enforcement situations.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Often referred to as a civilian version of Delta Force, HRT was heavily modeled after that team.
HRT and Delta Force share a very close relationship and occasionally cross-train together. The team also trains with Seal Team Six and a host of law enforcement and military specialized units both inside the US and abroad.
On the US mainland the team has varied relations with it’s municipal counterparts. These include friendly rivalries (Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Weapons And Tactics) and some not so friendly (NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit).
At one point during the 80’s, the team was ranked eighth on a list of the world’s best CT teams. This list included over 100 such teams.
In the past few years, HRT has traveled overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of FBI operations and to provide protection to agents interrogating terror suspects in those nations. The team is also believed to have carried out operations with US Special Operations units against insurgents in those two nations.
HRT frequently travels abroad to protect America citizens and interests as well as FBI agents investigating crimes committed against Americans in dangerous locales globally.
Besides defending the citizenry of the US from Islamic terrorist groups like those of al-Qaida, HRT also combats domestic terrorism in the form of anti-government militias and militant white supremacist groups.
Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of operatives in HRT are not ex-military persons. Many of the operatives on the team have never served a single day in the military and have spent their entire lives as civilians.
When asked about the team during an interview by a government official, an HRT supervisor replied by saying that the men serving on the team were not commandos but first and foremost law enforcement agents.
HRT’s motto is Servare Vitas which when translated from Latin to English literally means “To Save Lives.”
Alpha Group – Russian Federation
Alpha Group (also called Alpha Team or Alfa) is a military CT team in Russia and is tasked with defending that nation from terrorist threats domestically as well as traveling abroad when necessary to halt a threat that may cause harm to the mainland.
Alpha is a special detachment within the Russian special operations community known as Spetsnaz that focuses mainly on combating terrorism against Russian interests both domestically and abroad.
Alpha is also capable of carrying out special operations during war, with a particular specialty in the area of sabotage.
During the Cold War era, the focus of Alpha and all Spetsnaz units was to prepare for war with the US and it’s NATO allies. However, with the fall of the Red Curtain and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation realized that this was a new era and with it came new dangers.
On the night of October 23, 2002, 40 heavily armed Chechen-based Islamic terrorists stormed a theater in the Russian capital of Moscow and took a sold-out audience of 700 people hostage in what would come to be known as The Moscow Theater Siege.
The terrorists wired the building with explosives and threatened to detonate them if authorities raided the theater.
Thousands of police and military troops surrounded the theater and over the course of nearly four days tried to negotiate with the terrorists.
In what is considered to be one of the most controversial and darkest endings to a CT hostage rescue operation, Alpha saved nearly 600 hostages, though 120 died during the rescue attempt.
The team also killed all but one of the terrorists. The lone surviving terrorist was taken into custody and has not been seen or heard from since.
On September 1, 2004, 30 heavily armed Chechen-based Islamic terrorists seized a school and held 1,000 students, parents and teachers hostage in the town of Beslan which is located in the North Caucasus region of Russia.
As in the 2002 theater incident, the terrorists placed explosives throughout the school and threatened to kill everyone by detonating the bombs if authorities stormed the building.
For two days, authorities were kept at bay by the threat of a massacre should they raid the school.
On the third day of the siege, Alpha commandos stormed the school and engaged the terrorists in a multi-hour long hellioucous battle.
When it was all over, two terrorists were taken into custody to be interrogated. Though most of the terrorists were killed during the gunfight, it is believed that several managed to escape during the bedlam and chaos of the raid by blending in with the escaping and frantic hostages and then fleeing the scene once they were outside.
At least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children
The incident became known to the world as the Beslan School Massacre.
Eight members of Alpha were also slain during the final assault on the school. The loss was unprecedented as the team had never before lost so many operatives on a single mission. The Beslan School Massacre will be remembered by the team as it’s deadliest operation.
The high death toll amongst the team at Beslan was a result of some operatives using their bodies as human shields to protect the escaping hostages whom the terrorists were shooting and throwing grenades at.
The terrorist incidents of the Moscow Theater Siege and the Beslan School Hostage Crisis were both a direct result of Russia’s tumultuous relationship with Chechnya, a province within that state which has proven itself time and again to be a major source of discord and instability within the Federation.
Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) – Canada
Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) is a military CT and special operations team within the Canadian military. JTF2 is a part of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command and based at the Dwyer Hill Training Center.
JTF2 was created on April 1, 1993, in response to the need for a CT team to protect Canada by aggressively confronting the threat of terrorism. JTF2 is tasked with carrying out CT operations both on the Canadian mainland and abroad. The team is also capable of performing special operations missions in foreign nations and hostile territories (war zones) during both war and peacetime.
Though much of the information regarding JTF2 is highly classified, it has a recruitment program that is surprisingly very high-profile. Most CT teams are low-key about their recruitment processes.
As of late, JTF2 has been involved in the US-led War on Terror adventure in Afghanistan. It is believed that at least 40 operatives of JTF2 along with hundreds of conventional Canadian military forces working with US and coalition troops to combat the Taliban and al-Qaida and stabilize the country.
JTF2 has worked with Navy Seals and other US Special Operations teams to track down militant leaders and has received high marks from their American counterparts for their work.
Ranking officials in the US military consider JTF2 to be a vital component to strengthening the interim Afghan government as well as a high-value resource in the overall global War on Terror.
JTF2 received a Presidential Unit Citation for it’s work in support of US-led Coalition efforts. It is extremely rare for a non-American entity to receive such an honor.
The unit suffered the loss of one of it’s members when Master Cpl. Anthony Klumpenhouwer, 25, fell from a communications tower in Kandahar, Afghanistan during a combat operation on April 18, 2007.
His death is the first and thus far only fatality in the unit's history.
In the past, JTF2 has traveled to Haiti to train local police SWAT teams and raid weapons smugglers in Port au Prince.
In December 2001, just months after the 9/11 attacks, the Canadian government released a statement in which it said to be planning an expansion that would double JTF2 to 600 operatives as well as expand it’s capabilities.
JTF2’s motto is “Deeds, Not Words.”
Sayeret Matkal – Israel
Sayeret Matkal is a military CT team under the command of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). This elite team is tasked with the responsibility of rescuing Israeli citizens held hostage by terrorists abroad as well as special operations and reconnaissance missions in hostile foreign nations.
The team also specializes in abductions and assassinations.
Though it is well known that the US experienced the worst terrorist attack in the world in the form of 9/11, no nation in the world has more experience with the dark phenomenon of terrorism than that of Israel. Mindful of this, Sayeret Matkal trains frequently to be ready to respond to incidents of terrorism targeting Israelis abroad.
Sayeret Matkal was one of only a handful of CT teams to exist prior to the Olympic tragedy in Munich. During the Munich crisis the Israeli government offered to send a CT team to resolve the incident but the Germans refused, choosing to handle the situation on their own terms. The crisis ended tragically and cast a dark pall over the Olympics that would persist for many long years.
Sayeret Matkal is one of the oldest CT teams having been in existence since 1957.
The unit’s most memorable mission took place in 1976 and was called Operation Thunderbolt, also commonly referred to as Operation Entebbe.
The Acvila Unit (The Eagle Unit) – Romania
Grupul Special de Protectie si Interventie Acvila, also referred to as The Acvila Unit or simply Acvila, is the national law enforcement CT team for Romania. This police unit is the Romanian equivalent of America’s Hostage Rescue Team.
Translated from Romanian to English, the word, “Acvila: means “Eagle.” Thus, the elite unit is sometimes called “The Eagle Unit” (especially by English speakers).
Acvila is one of the newer CT teams in existence today, having come into being in the post-9/11 period.
Acvila has only been around since 2003 and was formed to fulfill a European Union mandate which requires all members of that alliance to have a CT team, preferably one of a civilian law enforcement nature.
The tragedy of the Moscow Theater Siege by Islamic terrorists from Chechnya was also said to have played a role in the Romanian government creating this elite police team. Though Romania was entirely unaffected by that incident, it raised concerns that terrorists could possibly carryout a similar incident within the mainland.
The Romanian government turned to Germany for assistance in creating and training Acvila. The German government responded by sending several members of it’s elite law enforcement CT team, GSG-9 to Romania.
Acvila is heavily modeled after GSG-9 and maintains a close relationship with that team. The two teams occasionally cross-train together on various techniques.
Acvila is tasked with protecting Romania and confronting any terrorist threat within the borders of that nation. However, when not combating or training to fight terrorism, the team assists other police agencies by arresting a wide assortment of conventional but nonetheless violent criminals that range from drug dealers and armed robbers to organized crime figures.
Force F (Zorros) - Mexico
Force F, better known as the Zorros, is a national-level law enforcement CT team that was formed in 1983 by the Chief of Mexico's Capitol police and with the approval of the government.
The Zorros are based just north of Mexico City and frequently patrolled the streets of the capital when not engaged in special operations or training. The team is feared by the criminal element of that city as their reputation for brutality is well known.
The unit reportedly has 350 officers that are divided into three sections: 1. Urban Commando Squads, 2. Emergency Ordinance Disposal Squads and 3. Sniper and Marksmanship Squads.
The unit accesses a wide range of weaponry and generally prefers to make tactical entries into locations using the MP5 submachine gun and shotguns.
Over the past few years the Zorros have been very quiet. There has been little to no public activity from them.
It is strongly believed by many that the Mexican government may have disbanded the Zorros for reasons that are unknown.
Below is a very rare video of the Zorros conducting a tactical exercise at a training facility in an undisclosed location in Mexico. Judging by the style of uniforms, the equipment used by the Zorro officers as well as the make of the vehicles in use, it can likely be surmised that the video itself was filmed during the early 80's.
Special Air Service (22nd Counter Revolutionary Wing) - United Kingdom
Britain's Special Air Service (SAS) 22nd Counter Revolutionary Wing (CRW) is regarded by many as the finest fighting force in the world.
SAS CRW is a military CT under the command of the British Army. The team is tasked with protecting Britain from terrorism domestically and it's citizens and interests abroad. It is the primary CT team in that nation.
The reputation of SAS CRW is considered to be legendary in CT lore as it is often said to be the world's first and finest CT team. The team is a trend setter and is the most admired and honored CT and special forces team in the world.
SAS CRW also happens to be the most emulated CT team in the world.
Both Australia and New Zealand formed their CT and special forces teams based on the British model and even named them the Special Air Service.
Even Delta Force, America's secretive CT unit, is also based on the SAS model (though they grudgingly admit it). In fact, Delta Force is so heavily modeled after the UK team that for a while it was referred to as an American version of the SAS.
SAS CRW and Delta Force share a very close relationship. Because the US and Britain are often involved in the same military conflicts as allies, the two aforementioned teams have had many opportunities to work together on various battlefields globally.
Many nations have created teams based on the SAS model because it is a model that works.
Much of the tactics in use today by CT teams globally have also been derived in some form from SAS CRW. Even garden variety police SWAT teams in the US have applied some of SAS's tactical techniques and equipment to their battle repertoires (though many may not realize it if they haven't taken the time to do their homework).
For instance, the percussion grenade also known as a stun grenade and most popularly known as a "flashbang" was first developed by the SAS during the late 1970's. Today, it is used by virtually every CT unit, SWAT team and special operations/forces outfit in the world today. In fact, many police SWAT teams in the US considered the "flashbang" to be a vital part of their general tactical equipment.
Today, there are a host of munitions manufacturers and designers who develop such devices for the military and law enforcement based on the original SAS model.
For many years SAS CRW was cloaked in relative obscurity until the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege in London. The hostage incident was a high profile affair and was played out live before an international audience via the news media.
The SAS CRW's resolution of that incident was not only successful but is also considered to be a "textbook perfect" CT operation.
A single SAS CRW operative may fire as many as 100,000 rounds during training.
During the 80's and 90's, SAS CRW faced off against the terrorism of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in Northern Ireland. Since 9/11, the team has been largely preoccupied with the specter of terror from al-Qaida and it's allies.
The motto of the SAS is, "Who Dares Wins."
The Future of Counter-Terrorism Teams
The post 9/11 period has ushered in a new wave of CT teams.
The US State Department’s ATA program will likely continue to grow and be heavily occupied for the duration of the near future with developing CT teams in nations throughout the world in response to the threat of terrorism.
The ATA program will likely have a special focus on building CT teams in the military and security (law enforcement/police) services of allied Middle Eastern nations.
As the threat of terrorism increases, the world will likely also see a substantial increase in the number of these elite teams. This increase will especially come as the global citizenry will demand that their governments do more to protect them.
Weaponry, techniques and equipment will continue to become more sophisticated as CT teams carry on with their enduring struggle to stay a step or two ahead of the terrorists.
The private security industry is emerging as a new area for CT teams as major corporations and even prominent business people and other public figures are willing to pay astronomical sums to have their own highly trained and armed assault force to serve as personal bodyguards for themselves and their families both at home and when they travel abroad, especially to conflict zones.
There will be new challenges and threats that must be addressed like that of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) weapons as well as the latest phenomenon of lone wolf terrorism. The issue of lone wolf terrorism in particular will be a leading and enduring public safety and national security concern for much of the 21st Century.
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