Introducing Task Force Orange

by Timothy Chilman


Our story begins on April 24, 1980, with Operation Eagle Claw, the disastrous U.S. attempt to rescue hostages from the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

Task Force Orange
RH-53Ds aboard the USS Nimitz prior to Operation Eagle Claw

Six Hercules transport aircraft and eight RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters were to fly under radar and rendezvous at a secret landing strip in the Iranian desert, code-named Desert One. All aircraft bore black-red-black identification stripes. At Desert One, the aircraft would refuel from Hercules-mounted bladders containing 6,000 gallons of jet fuel, and the helicopters transport an assault force of 120 men to Desert Two, an isolated, mountain hiding place, after which they would set off for Tehran in vans. This would have been the first mission of the US Army’s recently-created Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta (Airborne), better known as Delta Force, which had been set-up by Vietnam veteran Colonel “Chargin’ Charlie” Beckwith following the example of the British Special Air Service.

At least, that was the plan. Two hours after taking off from the USS Nimitz, the rotor blades of Bluebeard 6 cracked. Bluebeard 1 malfunctioned upon entering a dust cloud – a haboob, a sandstorm following a thunderstorm where the sand is like talcum powder. Bluebeard 1 returned to the Nimitz. As radio silence was observed, the helicopters were not informed that the air at Desert One was clear, and the pilot later said he would have continued, had he known. The hydraulic pumps of Bluebeard 8 failed en route to Desert One.

Task Force Orange
The aftermath of Operation Eagle Claw

A minimum of six helicopters was required, so the mission was aborted. When Bluebeard 3 took off, a dust cloud obscured the view of the pilot, causing vertigo. Disoriented, his aircraft drifted toward an EC-130, which the rotor blades impacted. The helicopter crashed and its fuel tanks exploded. Ammunition exploded, and shrapnel damaged the remaining helicopters. Five Air Force personnel and three Marines died. A memorial to them stands at Arlington National Cemetery. The helicopters were abandoned and U.S. forces departed. Two of the U.S. helicopters now serve with the Iranian Navy.

Eagle Claw had involved all U.S. armed services: navy helicopters with Marine crews, Air Force airplanes, and Army soldiers. The deficiencies of the mission as identified by the report of the investigative panel chaired by aviator Admiral James L. Holloway, Jr. were in mission planning, command and control, and inter-service operability. The key failings were that insufficient helicopters were used – ten would have been required – and those present had been prepped on the Nimitz for marine conditions when they were traveling to the desert. Al Jazeera ascribed the helicopter shortage to the timidity of politicians.

Task Force Orange

Hence a unified entity, the Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), was established and commenced operations on April 16, 1987. USSOCOM comprises the Navy SEALs of Task Force Blue, the Delta Force troopers of Task Force Green, and the signals specialists of Task Force Orange, otherwise known as the US Army Intelligence Support Activity. Sometimes the Task Forces work with Task Force Black – British SAS and SBS.

The objective of Task Force Orange is to collect actionable intelligence for use by the other units. It boasts its own wing of aircraft at Baltimore/Washington International Airport. The American Special Ops website says Orange consists of around 300 people, The Washington Examiner puts the figure at 600 and AOL says it is more than 1,000. These people are from each of the armed services, and sometimes allied forces.

Human intelligence is collected. Reconnaissance of a safe house by operatives would include working out routes of ingress and egress, blind spots, and the number and disposition of hostile forces. Agents are run. Signals intelligence is obtained, for instance locating people who use cellphones or monitoring a terrorist entity through its communications. In Iraq, al Qaeda operatives used cellphones constantly to coordinate activities and detonate explosives. Seized cellphones often gave access to a list of key phone numbers. Monitored emails could be used to focus efforts. In 2006, the new division of Computer Network Operations was created.

While the National Security Agency (NSA) has unparalleled eavesdropping technology, it is unable to penetrate a fiber-optic telephone cable. At sea, U.S. submarines splice cables, and on land the task falls to Task Force Orange.

After the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Task Force Orange operatives entered the tribal areas of Pakistan and planted listening devices. U.S. spy satellites are not believed to be sufficiently sensitive to detect cellphone or hand-held radio transmissions. Al Qaeda operatives are said to have been located in this manner.

Task Force Orange
The USS Cole

Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harthi was the primary planner of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000. He is said to have once been bin Laden’s bodyguard. He was the highest-ranking al Qaeda member in Yemen. In 2001, Yemeni troops assaulted his village of al-Hosun in the lawless-but-oil-producing province of Ma’arib, in a mountainous area 100 miles east of the capital, Sana’a. 18 soldiers and six tribesmen were killed, but al-Harthi escaped. On November 3, 2002, a GPS fix on his cellphone allowed him to be killed with six others by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone as he traveled in a jeep. One of the others killed was an American citizen.

On January 7, 2006, insurgents in Iraq kidnapped American Jill Carroll, a freelance journalist working for the Christian Science Monitor. Task Force Orange picked up the communications of men associated with the kidnappers. SEALs and Delta Force operatives kicked in doors and killed some people. One raid revealed information which led to the next. It was determined that Carroll was usually held at a farmhouse in Baquba, north of Baghdad. USSOCOM, including Task Force Black, raided the farmhouse, capturing twenty terrorists and killing five. Carroll was absent, but subsequently released. One of the USSOCOM operators said the kidnappers had decided: “Here, you take her. Get off our backs.”

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a hyperactive child and a bully, then a high school drop-out, then a simple, short-tempered, barely literate petty drug dealer accused of sexual offenses, and finally the most wanted man in Iraq. The bounty on his head was $25 million, just like bin Laden. In October 2002, Zarqawi was blamed for the murder of US aid official Lawrence Foley in Amman.

Task Force Orange
Nick Berg held captive

He wielded the machete when American contractor Nick Berg, American engineer Eugene Armstrong, and British engineer Ken Bigley were beheaded. In Feburary 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the presence of al-Zarqawi in Baghdad showed a “sinister nexus” between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Although a major plank of the case for war, that one now appears distinctly questionable.

Al-Zarqawi sought to inflame sectarian tension, and mostly killed Shia civilians. He was behind the truck bombing at the U.N.’s headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 which killed 23 people, one being U.N. Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. He was also implicated in a bombing ten days later which killed the senior Shia cleric, Ayatollah Baqer al-Hakim, and over 85 more at the revered Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. On Feburary 1, 2004, during the Ashura festival, he organized the killing of 185 celebrants in Baghdad and Karbala. His followers boasted of killing 35 children in Baghdad on September 30, 2004. He has been connected to the train bombing that killed 191 people in Madrid on March 11, 2004. In October 2004, the Jordanian government charged him with leading a plot to use chemical weapons in Amman. In November 2005, he sent four suicide bombers to three hotels in Amman, and 57 people were killed, some of them guests at a wedding reception. He was a very bad man, OK?

Task Force Orange
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi met his maker thanks to Task Force Orange

Agents downloaded software at internet cafes which allowed the reading of emails. Often, code was used, so “I’ve got the groceries” could mark that a terrorist had acquired guns or bomb components.

Al-Zarqawi was a hands-on manager who owned no cellphone, instead using those of others. Emails from al Qaeda members were matched to cellphones simultaneously in the vicinity. Signals from these cellphones were intercepted, and the speakers identified. A list of al-Zarqawi’s followers was compiled. Task Force Orange was listening when an Islamic religious adviser, Sheik Abdul Rahman, spoke of visiting al-Zarqawi. When he traveled to the hideout of al-Zarqawi near Baquba on June 7, 2006, USSOCOM had its man. An F-16 delivered two 500 pound bombs precisely on target.

Mullah Dadullah was a warlord who lost a leg fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. He was a member of the Taliban’s ruling ten man leadership council before the U.S.-led invasion and was described as “Afghanistan’s top Taliban commander” after. He was close to one-eyed Taliban Leader Mullah Omar. He was linked to guerrilla operations in Helmand Province, the dispatch of suicide bombers, and the kidnapping of Westerners, including Daniele Mastro-Giacomo. Videos of military exercises and the beheading of suspected spies produced for his unit at the Taliban’s media center in Quetta, southern Pakistan, proved extremely popular ($4 a pop, with discounts for multiple purchases).

His brother, Mullah Shah Mansoor and four other Taliban were released in a much-criticized exchange for Italian journalist Daniele Mastro-Giacomo. Her translator was not released. Mansoor’s communications were monitored by Task Force Orange, showing him traveling to a Taliban training facility in Quetta. A satellite phone of one man present was monitored, allowing the group to be followed from Quetta to Afghanistan: a convoy went to Bahram Chah in southern Helmand province, close to Pakistan’s border. Usually, Delta Force would have been summoned, but they were otherwise engaged so it was instead soldiers of the British Special Boat Squadron fighting alongside Afghan soldiers who overpowered the 20 defenders after a four-hour gun battle on 12 May 2007. The Afghan intelligence service declared that Dadullah had been tracked “with [the] most modern intelligence technology.” Kandahar governor Assadullah Khalid had Dadullah’s body put on display.

Task Force Orange
The man himself

The piece de resistance, of course, is the alleged killing of Osama bin Laden hisself. Prisoners interrogated at Guantanmo Bay divulged the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was said to be close to bin Laden, Khalid Shaik Mohammed, one of the planners of 9/11, and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, al Qaeda’s third-in-command.

Mohammed was captured in Rawalpindi in 2003. He was waterboarded 183 times, but maintained that Kuwaiti was unimportant. Abu Faraj al-Libbi was captured in 2005 while in a store in the Pakistani town of Mardan. Under interrogation, he said he had never heard of al-Kuwaiti. The steering of attention away from al-Kuwaiti aroused curiosity, and emails and telephone calls from the man’s family were monitored.

An al Qaeda trainee named Ahmed Siggiqui was captured, and revealed to his questioners that bin Laden was in Abbottabad, 40 miles from the capital of Pakistan. CIA agents had obtained the registration number of al-Kuwaiti’s white Suzuki four-wheel drive, and tracked the vehicle to house No 3, street No 8-A, Garga Road, Thanda Chowa, Hashmi Colony. Abbottabad. This house stood out. Its structure was different from those of other buildings in the area: it was taller, the walls were three-feet thick and eighteen-feet high, and in contrast to other, nearby buildings there was all that barbed wire and surveillance cameras. Three gas connections had been installed within days of construction three years ago, when others face a wait of weeks or months.

Task Force Orange
House No 3, street No 8-A, Garga Road, Thanda Chowa, Hashmi Colony. Abbottabad

An intelligence source said, “We put 24/7 eyes on it.” Those within would travel for a minimum of 90 minutes before even inserting batteries to their cellphones. The building’s occupants had told people they had to protect themselves, having enemies in their home village. They did, however, interact with the local community to some extent: 12 year-old resident Zarar Ahmed was an occasional visitor to the house, and was once given a gift of two rabbits.

After the attack, techies from Task Force Orange helped to collect a “treasure trove” of intelligence comprising a handwritten journal, five computers, 10 hard drives, 110 thumb drives, and numerous documents.

One local complained: “It’s going to destroy property prices in the area.”


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