special forces in action
The US assault on Osama Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan has been hailed as a brilliant example of its kind. By taking big risks, special forces operations can achieve goals that few would have believed possible - or they can turn into bloody disasters.
Here are 10 notable examples from the last four decades.
Operation Thunderbolt - Uganda, July 1976
A hundred elite Israeli commandos flew undetected 2,500 miles to Entebbe airport, outside the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to rescue 105 hostages being held after the hijacking of an Air France airliner (non-Jewish passengers had been released). They landed at night and stormed the terminal, taking nearly all the hostages to safety, and killing the hijackers - members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two German revolutionaries. A squadron of Ugandan fighter aircraft was blown up, to stop them giving chase. Three hostages were killed, and one Israeli soldier - Commander Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of future PM Binyamin Netanyahu.
Operation Eagle Claw - Iran, April 1980
The plan was for US special forces to rescue 52 hostages held in the US embassy in Tehran, by landing aircraft and helicopters in two remote desert locations. The next night a rescue team would have been driven to the embassy, to free the hostages and take them to a nearby stadium, where helicopters would have picked them up and flown them away. Technical problems with helicopters, aggravated by a sandstorm, led to the operation being aborted at an early stage. But in the process of refuelling, one helicopter flew into a transporter aircraft and exploded, killing eight servicemen. A hurried evacuation followed. The debacle did nothing for the prestige of the US military and may have contributed to President Jimmy Carter's election defeat a few months later.
Operation Nimrod - London, May 1980
This was the first special forces operation to be shown live on television. On 30 April, a group of Iranian Arab separatists stormed the Iranian embassy in London, taking 26 hostages. Five hostages were released in the following days, but on the sixth day of the siege, the hostage-takers killed a diplomat and threw his body out on to the street. This was the cue for the Special Air Service (SAS) to launch an assault. Five four-man teams broke into the building from different directions, using stun grenades to disorientate the gunmen. Five of the six militants were killed and 19 of the 20 remaining hostages were rescued, while one was shot dead by the hostage-takers during the SAS assault.
Loughgall ambush - Northern Ireland, May 1987
An Irish Republican Army gang had already destroyed two Royal Ulster Constabulary police stations when intelligence was received that they were planning an attack on a third - the police station at Loughgall, in County Tyrone. A predecessor of the British Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) operating in Northern Ireland, 14 Intelligence Company, closely followed their preparations. When they arrived at the station on the evening of 8 May with a 200lb bomb in a digger, the station was empty apart from one SAS officer - but 24 others were in hiding outside. As the bomb was detonated, the SAS opened fire. Eight IRA men and one passer-by died. It was the IRA's biggest loss of life in a single incident.
Assassination of Abu Jihad - Tunis, April 1988
Khalil al-Wazir, or Abu Jihad, a key ally of Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat, planned numerous attacks on Israeli civilians, but the final straw was the 1988 hijacking of a bus en route to Israel's secret nuclear-weapons installation at Dimona in the Negev desert. A month later, 30 Israeli commandos landed on a Tunisian beach before linking up with Mossad agents already in the country. One commando team shot and killed Abu Jihad's driver outside his villa while another broke down the door and fired 70 bullets at Abu Jihad. The operation, allegedly ordered by Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin and co-ordinated by future prime minister Ehud Barak, was condemned by the US as an act of political assassination.
The Battle of Mogadishu - Somalia, October 1993
A large contingent of US special forces - including Rangers, Seals and the army's Delta Force - set out on 3 October from their compound on the outskirts of Mogadishu to seize leading lieutenants of warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed. They accomplished their goal, but at tremendous cost. First one Black Hawk helicopter was shot down by rocket-propelled grenades. Then, as the assault team waited for orders to move out, another crashed. A battle raged for hours at the first crash site until an international relief force arrived to help. Two Delta Force snipers courageously volunteered to defend the second crash site, but, after a fierce firefight, were over-run by a militia mob. Eighteen US servicemen, three Italians and one Malaysian were killed. The bodies of several US casualties were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
Operation Chavin de Huantar - Peru, April 1997
Some 70 guests at a party held by the Japanese ambassador to Peru were held hostage for 126 days at the ambassador's residence by 14 members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a Marxist group dedicated to the creation of a socialist state. President Alberto Fujimori's mother and younger brother, and his eventual successor as president, Alejandro Toledo, were among those held. Peruvian security forces smuggled listening devices into the residence in order to study the hostage-takers' routine. They also tunnelled into the back garden. On 22 April commandos attacked the building in force, using ladders and explosives, surprising some of the militants during one of their regular afternoon football games. All the hostages except one were rescued. One hostage, two commandos, and all the MRTA militants were killed.
Operation Barras - Sierra Leone, September 2000
Eleven men of the British Army's Royal Irish Regiment were taken hostage on patrol in the Occra Hills, by armed rebels - the West Side Boys, led by 24-year-old Foday Kallay. Five were released a few days later. But when Kallay threatened to kill the remaining six, and the Sierra Leonean liaison officer captured with them, members of the Parachute Regiment, the SAS and the Special Boat Service (SBS) carried out an early-morning raid. Arriving in force, in six helicopters, the hostages were extracted in 20 minutes. Foday Kallay was captured and the patrol's Land Rovers were recovered. One SAS member was killed.
Moscow Theatre siege - October, 2002
Armed militants took a Moscow theatre audience of 800 people hostage, demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. With explosives strapped to their bodies, they threatened to start killing hostages after a week. Early on the third day of the siege, Russian special forces began pumping the theatre with an anaesthetic gas, possibly using the air conditioning system, and stormed it 30 minutes later. Some 40 of the hostage takers were killed and 129 hostages died - nearly all of them from the effects of the gas. Then-president Vladimir Putin thanked the special forces for their bravery and asked forgiveness for not having saved more of the hostages.
Operation Jaque - Colombia, July 2008
Colombian soldiers are reported to have taken acting classes to prepare themselves for their role in this operation to rescue former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three US military contractors and 11 members of the Colombian security services. Some pretended to be members of the rebel group holding the hostages - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) - others pretended to be members of an non-governmental organisation, or television journalists. The Farc commander holding the hostages fell for the trick. He allowed the hostages to be led on to a helicopter - to be taken, supposedly, to meet Farc leader Alfonso Cano - and he boarded it himself, with one other genuine rebel. Both were immediately disarmed and handcuffed. The name Operation Jaque comes from the Spanish word for "checkmate" in chess.