Shrouded in secrecy: The elite US unit behind bin Laden′s killing | World | Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 05.05.2011

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Shrouded in secrecy: The elite US unit behind bin Laden's killing

The soldiers who killed Osama bin Laden were part of Team 6, an elite force in an already very elite group, the US Navy SEALs. These highly trained soldiers are sent on the US military's most dangerous missions.

US Navy SEALs in a helicopter

US Navy SEALs went through extensive training before the bin Laden mission

The around 2,400 soldiers in the US Navy SEALs program belong to the best of the best of the American military. The unit which was sent into Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan and killed him, called unofficially Seal Team 6, are the SEALs' elite fighting force, normally shrouded in secrecy but now hailed as heroes by many in the United States and elsewhere.

The elite unit has been involved in some of the most dangerous missions undertaken by the US military in recent decades, including hunting down war criminals in Bosnia, fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and rescuing hostages from Somali pirates off the coast of Africa.

The unit is made up of only a few hundred personnel based in Dam Neck, Virginia and is known officially as Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or Devgru.

In the early morning of May 2, there were 79 people on the assault team that killed the world's most-wanted terrorist, but only around two dozen commandoes landed inside the bin Laden compound, improvising in the dark in a situation where two dozen women and children were present but where life-and-death decisions had to made nearly every second.

The soldiers blasted their way through doors and even a brick wall, encountered gunfire on the ground floor, and made their way into bin Laden's room where his wife rushed at the leading SEAL and was shot in the leg. Then, bin Laden, who was standing in the middle of the room and, in some accounts, had reached for a weapon, was shot once in the chest and then in the head.

Brutal preparation

The Navy SEALs - the term stands for Sea-Air-Land teams - were created in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy to engage in unconventional warfare and members trained for the jungles, coasts, and rivers of Vietnam.

Their task was to go behind enemy lines and raid enemy camps, sabotage supplies, cut off enemy communications and destroy stored ammunitions. Their missions were very successful and the SEAL program was continued even after the US withdrew from Southeast Asia and many other special forces operations were cut.

SEALs combat training

The SEALs specialize in night-time missions

Today, men vying for a place on the SEALs team - women are not allowed to join - undergo intensive training. It takes 30 months to train a SEAL to the point where he is ready for deployment.

They are given instruction in diving, combat swimming, navigation, demolitions, weapons and parachuting. The men are pushed to the limit both mentally and physically in order to weed out those who might not be up to the extraordinarily demanding missions and operations with which SEALs are faced. After six months of initial training candidates need to be able to swim 1,000 meters in 20 minutes, do at least 70 push-ups in two minutes and run four miles in under 31 minutes wearing long pants.

"Fifty percent of those don't make it, so by the time you've reached SEAL Team 6, you are truly the best of the best," said Ryan Zinke, who was a SEAL member for over 20 years, most of which on the all-star squad of Team 6.

The training includes "hell week," during which recruits get four hours of sleep during five-and-a-half days of continuous, strenuous activity, including running, swimming in the ocean and rolling in sand. For those who pass that rigorous test, more follow.

"Hell Week finds those candidates who have the commitment and dedication required of a SEAL," according to the unit's website, calling it the "ultimate test" of individual will and class teamwork.

After basic training, about 200 candidates make it to Basic Underwater Demolition school. By the end of the entire process, only about 30 to 35 remain.

Tough training, tough assignments

"These guys are pros," Zinke said, adding that their intensive training has enabled them to engage a target that's a threat, or to leave it alone if it is not. They are known for their skills in using lethal force, when it is required, in complex, sometimes ambiguous situations.

Zinke himself went on missions in the Balkans with Team 6 in the 1990s, where he pursued alleged war criminals. It was not an easy life, he said.

"You're gone 200 to 300 days out of a year, for year after year after year," he said.

SEALs combat training

Combat at close quarters is stressed during Navy SEALs training

The tough training and the demands once part of the SEAL team have made it difficult for the Navy to find enough qualified people, and it has boosted its recruitment efforts over the past several years. But, according to Gidget Fuentes, a senior writer for the Navy Times newspaper, the bin Laden killing is likely to boost the group's popularity and help the recruitment drive.

Today, Afghanistan is one of the primary areas of operation for the SEALs, and for Team 6. Media reports say the unit trained for the operation against bin Laden in a US base there, where his compound was recreated.

According to Zinke, SEAL missions such as the one against bin Laden, are planned in great detail and every possibility is taken into consideration so there will be as few surprises as possible.

Vice Admiral William McRaven, the commander of the SEALs, told a US Congressional committee that he had handpicked the men for the mission two months ago and had overseen weeks of rigorous training for the operation.

"My understanding is that when the target was announced it was bin Laden, great cheers went up," said Eric Greiten, a SEAL reserve officer.

Bin Laden compound

The elite Team 6 force landed inside bin Laden's compound in stealth helicopters

New visibility

In the wake of the successful operation to kill the man behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, it is likely that Team 6 will have to get used to a spotlight it is not comfortable with.

"I was surprised quite frankly that SEAL Team 6 made the headlines so early," said Zinke.

US publisher St. Martin's Press is rushing out a behind-the-scenes account of the elite squad called "SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper" ahead of its original May 14 publication date. The publisher has almost quadrupled the book's print run to meet demand.

A politician in Chicago is pushing for a ticker-tape parade to honor the military in general, but especially the Team 6 unit that killed bin Laden.

But that goes against the covert nature of the group and in Virginia Beach, VA, near where the secretive group is based, the military has said a ticker-tape parade or other very public celebration is out of the question.

In fact, according to the newspaper USA Today, military leaders have told city officials that despite the outburst of local pride, they would rather everyone stop talking about Team 6 all together and not draw attention that could possibly risk their safety.

Author: Albrecht Ziegler / Kyle James
Editor: Rob Mudge

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