The Crimes of SEAL Team 6
January 14, 2017
Matthew Cole / The Intercept
Officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, SEAL Team 6 is today the most celebrated of the US military's special mission units. But hidden behind the heroic narratives is a darker, more troubling story of "revenge ops," unjustified killings, mutilations, and other atrocities -- a pattern of criminal violence that emerged soon after the Afghan war began and was tolerated and covered up by the command's leadership.
The Crimes of SEAL Team 6
Matthew Cole / The Intercept
(January 10 2017) -- Officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, SEAL Team 6 is today the most celebrated of the US military's special mission units. But hidden behind the heroic narratives is a darker, more troubling story of "revenge ops," unjustified killings, mutilations, and other atrocities -- a pattern of criminal violence that emerged soon after the Afghan war began and was tolerated and covered up by the command's leadership.
1 -- THE WEDDING PARTY MASSACRE
ON THE AFTERNOON of March 6, 2002, Lt. Cmdr. Vic Hyder and more than two dozen operators from SEAL Team 6 boarded two Chinook helicopters en route to eastern Afghanistan hoping that within hours, they would kill or capture Osama bin Laden.
Earlier that evening, general officers from the Joint Special Operations Command had scrambled the SEALs after watching a Predator drone video feed of a man they suspected was bin Laden set off in a convoy of three or four vehicles in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, where al Qaeda forces had fortified themselves. Although the video had revealed no weapons, and the generals had only tenuous intelligence that the convoy was al Qaeda -- just suspicions based on the color of the man's flowing white garb and the deference others showed him -- they were nervous that bin Laden might get away again, as he had a few months earlier after the bombing of the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. This was a crucial moment: Kill bin Laden now and the war could be over after only six months. The vehicles were headed east toward the Pakistani border, as if they were trying to escape. The mission was code-named Objective Bull.
Afghanistan's Paktia province is about the size of New Hampshire, with 10,000-foot ridgelines and arid valleys with dried riverbeds below, nestled along the border with Pakistan's tribal areas. The prominent mountain range often served as the last geographic refuge for retreating forces entering Pakistan. As the special operations helicopters approached the convoy from the north and west, Air Force jets dropped two bombs, halting the vehicles and killing several people instantly.
That was not how the SEALs wanted the mission to develop. Inside the helicopters, some of the operators had pushed to hold off any air attack, arguing that they had plenty of time to intercept the convoy before it reached the Pakistani border. "The reason SEAL Team 6 exists is to avoid bombs and collateral damage," said a retired SEAL Team 6 member who was on the mission. "We said, 'Let us set down and take a look at the convoy to determine if it's al Qaeda.' Instead, they dropped several bombs."
The bombing stopped the convoy along a dry wadi, or ravine, with two of the trucks approximately a kilometer apart. Survivors began to flee the wreckage, and over the radio, Hyder and his team heard the order that the convoy was now in a "free fire zone," allowing the Chinooks' gunners to fire at anyone deemed a threat, regardless of whether they were armed. The SEALs had no authority over the helicopter gunners.
The two Chinooks landed separately, one near each end of the convoy. Both teams exited the helicopters to find a grim scene. The SEALs with Hyder came out and separated into two groups. One, led by an enlisted operator, took in the damage to one of the vehicles. Men, women, and a small girl, motionless and in the fetal position, appeared dead. Inside the vehicle were one or two rifles, as is customary in Afghanistan, but none of the men wore military clothing or had any extra ammunition. "These were family weapons," said the retired SEAL.
The SEALs from the other helicopter immediately headed up a steep hill after landing to locate an armed man who had been shot from the helicopter. When they reached the hilltop, the operators looked down in disbelief at women and children, along with the man -- all were dead or mortally wounded from the spray of gunfire from the Chinook's gunners, who had unloaded after the free fire zone had been declared. They realized the man had been trying to protect the women and children.
Other SEALs on the ground proceeded as though the survivors were combatants. Hyder and an enlisted operator named Monty Heath had gone in a different direction and saw a survivor flee the bombed vehicle toward a nearby berm. Heath fired once, hitting the man, sending him tumbling down the back side of the small rise.
At that point, Hyder began assessing the damage and surveying the dead. "I was going around to the different KIAs with my camera to take photos," Hyder told me in an interview, using the military term for enemies killed in action. "It was a mess."
Hyder said that he and a few other SEALs began to bury the casualties near a ravine by piling rocks over them. As he did so, he approached the man Heath had shot. "He was partially alive, faced down, his back to me, and he rolled over. I shot him, finished him. He was dying, but he rolled over and I didn't know whether he was armed or not. That was the end of that." Hyder said that his single shot had blasted open the man's head.
According to Hyder, the encounter ended there. But the retired SEAL who was on the mission tells a different story. According to this source, after shooting the man, who turned out to be unarmed, Hyder proceeded to mutilate his body by stomping in his already damaged skull. When Heath, who witnessed Hyder's actions, reported them to his team leader in the presence of other members of the team, "several of the guys turned and walked away," said the retired SEAL. "They were disgusted." He quoted Heath as saying, "I'm morally flexible but I can't handle that." Heath refused to comment for this article.
The retired SEAL, who spent the better part of two decades at the command, said he never asked Hyder why he mutilated the corpse. It wasn't necessary. He assumed it was a twisted act of misplaced revenge over the previous days' events -- specifically, the gruesome death of Hyder's teammate Neil Roberts.
LESS THAN 48 HOURS before Objective Bull commenced, a small reconnaissance group from SEAL Team 6's Red Team had tried to establish an observation post on the 10,000-foot peak of Takur Ghar, overlooking the Shah-i-Kot valley, where forces from the Army's 10th Mountain Division intended to strike the last redoubt of al Qaeda forces massed in Afghanistan.
Neil "Fifi" Roberts, a member of the SEAL recon team, fell 10 feet from the back of a Chinook and was stranded as the helicopter took fire from foreign al Qaeda fighters who were already on the snow-covered mountaintop. Two hours passed before the SEALs in the damaged helicopter were able to return.
They didn't know it, but Roberts was already dead, shot at close range in the head shortly after his helicopter departed the mountaintop. A Predator drone video feed filmed an enemy fighter standing over Roberts's body for two minutes, trying to behead the dead American with a knife.
Eventually, two other elements of a quick reaction force -- one of which included Hyder -- landed at the top of Takur Ghar. In the ensuing 17-hour battle with the al Qaeda fighters, six more Americans were killed, and several were wounded. After the bodies were recovered, Hyder and the other members of Red Team were forced to reckon with the mutilation and near beheading of their fellow SEAL. Hyder was new to SEAL Team 6, but as the ranking officer on the ground during that operation, he was technically in charge. He took Roberts's death hard.
Neil Roberts was the first member of SEAL Team 6 to die in the Afghan war, and among the first elite operators who died after 9/11. Beyond the dehumanizing manner in which the al Qaeda fighters had treated his corpse, Roberts's death pierced the SEALs' self-perception of invincibility.
The battle of Roberts Ridge, as it came to be known, has been frequently described in books and press accounts. But what happened during Objective Bull, the assault on the convoy in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, has never been previously reported.
Roberts's death, and the subsequent operations in eastern Afghanistan during the winter 2002 deployment, left an indelible impression on SEAL Team 6, especially on Red Team. According to multiple SEAL Team 6 sources, the events of that day set off a cascade of extraordinary violence. As the legend of SEAL Team 6 grew, a rogue culture arose that operated outside of the Navy's established mechanisms for command and investigation.
Parts of SEAL Team 6 began acting with an air of impunity that disturbed observers within the command. Senior members of SEAL Team 6 felt the pattern of brutality was not only illegal but rose to the level of war crimes.
"To understand the violence, you have to begin at Roberts Ridge," said one former member of SEAL Team 6 who deployed several times to Afghanistan. "When you see your friend killed, recover his body, and find that the enemy mutilated him? It's a schoolyard mentality. 'You guys want to play with those rules?' 'OK.'" Although this former SEAL acknowledged that war crimes are wrong, he understood how they happen. "You ask me to go living with the pigs, but I can't go live with pigs and then not get dirty."
NO SINGLE MILITARY unit has come to represent American military success or heroism more than SEAL Team 6, officially designated as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and known in military vernacular as DevGru, Team 6, the Command, and Task Force Blue. Its operators are part of an elite, clandestine cadre. The men who make it through the grueling training represent roughly the top 10 percent of all SEALs. They are taught to live and if necessary die for one another. The extreme risks they take forge extreme bonds.
Made up of no more than 200 SEAL operators when the Afghan war began, SEAL Team 6 was the lesser known of the U.S. military's elite "special mission" units. Created in 1980 and based at the Dam Neck Annex of Naval Air Station Oceana near Virginia Beach, the command prided itself on its culture of nonconformity with the larger military.
The unit's name itself is part of an attempt to obscure U.S. capabilities. When it was commissioned, the Navy had only two SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) assault teams, but founding officer Cmdr. Richard Marcinko hoped that the number six would lead the Soviet military to inflate its assessment of the Navy's SEALs.
When SEAL Team 6 first deployed to Afghanistan in January 2002, the command had three assault teams, Red, Blue, and Gold, each with a mascot. Red Team, known as the Redmen, employed a Native American warrior as a mascot; Blue Team, known as the Pirates, wore the Jolly Roger; and Gold Team, known as the Crusaders or Knights, wore a lion or a crusader's cross.
The prevailing narrative about SEAL Team 6 in news coverage, bestselling books, and Hollywood movies is unambiguously heroic; it centers on the killing of Osama bin Laden and high-profile rescue missions. With few exceptions, a darker, more troubling story has been suppressed and ignored -- a story replete with tactical brilliance on battlefields around the world coupled with a pattern of silence and deceit when "downrange" actions lead to episodes of criminal brutality. The unit's elite stature has insulated its members from the scrutiny and military justice that lesser units would have faced for the same actions.
This account of the crimes of SEAL Team 6 results from a two-year investigation drawing on interviews with 18 current and former members of the unit, including four former senior leaders of the command. Other military and intelligence officials who have served with or investigated the unit were also interviewed. Most would speak about the unit only on background or without attribution, because nearly every facet of SEAL Team 6 is classified.
Some sources asked for anonymity citing the probability of professional retaliation for speaking out against their peers and teammates. According to these sources, whether judged by its own private code or the international laws of war, the command has proven to be incapable and unwilling to hold itself accountable for war crimes.
Most SEALs did not commit atrocities, the sources said, but the problem was persistent and recurrent, like a stubborn virus. Senior leaders at the command knew about the misconduct and did little to eradicate it. The official SEAL creed reads, in part: "Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond."
But after 9/11, another code emerged that made lying -- especially to protect a teammate or the command from accountability -- the more honorable course of action.
"You can't win an investigation on us," one former SEAL Team 6 leader told me. "You don't whistleblow on the teams . . . and when you win on the battlefield, you don't lose investigations." . . .
Read the complete story online at The Intercept
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