Wedding Crashers

What I at first thought was just a single issue as a gift turned out to be a full subscription to The Counter Terrorist. I’ve had one issue sitting around staring at me for months, and finally got around to cracking it. The first article offers some interesting lessons beyond those the author seems to have taken away. While the actual operation is pretty unequivocally badass, there seem to be a couple unnecessary elements towards the end.

Aaron Cohen on the cover of his book.

In “Undercover in Nablus” (an excerpt from his recent book Brotherhood of Warriors: Behind Enemy Lines with a Commando in One of the World’s Most Elite Counterterrorism Units), Aaron Cohen, an operative in an Israeli Duvdevan unit, describes an attempt to capture ‘Abu Jihad’, the “Hamas mastermind behind the Dizengoff Mall bombing.” The plan is simple yet intricate. Two operators posing as friends of the groom will snatch Abu Jihad from a wedding reception in Mishraim once the entire unit has eyes-on the target. But everyone prepares for the worst-case scenario, of course:

Rooftop snipers would surround the target location. We would have a dozen undercover cars with heavy weaponry on the perimeter, circling the streets of Nablus.

Cohen was posing as a sweet-corn vendor, with a heavily modified cart:

The cart also had a live-action camera feed… If a firefight were to break out, I had my SIG tucked at the small of my back and the bottom of the cart was custom lined with Kevlar. Flipped on its side, the cart would provide cover as a bulletproof barricade.

The actual snatch goes pretty well. Cohen gets eyes-on the target, followed by confirmation from the rest of the unit. Within six seconds the two operators inside the wedding reception grab Abu Jihad without drawing their weapons and hustle him into a waiting fake taxi.

Cohen and the others begin to just drift away, but it’s what happens right after the snatch that troubles me.

As the Duvdevan operators all make their getaway, the IDF goes into action:

It was all over so fast that everyone inside the hall was stunned. Abu Jihad had no formal bodyguards, but one of the wedding guests now rushed outside, enraged, and drew a pistol from his waistband. He brandished the black handgun, but before he could get off a shot there was the crack of rifle fire. Three whistling reports. He fell to the pavement dead.

Three of our rooftop snipers hit him with nearly simultaneous telescopic shots. The wedding guests were streaming out into the street, shouting, pointing… No one knew which direction the gunshots came from, how Abu Jihad was kidnapped from the reception so quickly, or how this other guest ended up bleeding to death in the street.

I reached behind me and felt for my SIG at the small of my back. But there was no need to pull it now. The mission was completed.

The stealth Mista’aravim mission was over; it had now turned into a massive display of military might. As Ilan wheeled the undercover taxi around the corner, I watched the scene unfolding outside my window: more than 100 IDF soldiers were taking up positions and the bulletproof, armored vehicles were beginning to roll, surrounding the reception hall. Leaving Nablus, the entire neighborhood looked like it was under siege [emphasis mine].

Now, that operation sounds very classy. Smooth tactics, hustle Abu Jihad out, and then melt away into the night. I don’t understand why it was necessary to follow it up with such a tremendous demonstration of power. Isn’t the ability to hunt, stalk, and capture more unsettling than the ability to shoot a lot of bullets? Here’s Cohen’s takeaway from the action:

A skilled operator who can infiltrate his adversaries’ neighborhoods may be the most valuable counter terrorism weapon. All soldiers must strive for a mastery of local language, an intimate understanding of local culture and customs, and to develop an advanced sense for reading the environment. An individual who cannot communicate with the people he encounters, has only a rudimentary understanding of the local culture, and has not honed his level of awareness is an operational liability to counter terrorism and counter insurgency efforts.

Not a whole lot of communication after the initial snatch. What strikes me about that last scene is that the guy waving a pistol around probably didn’t even need to be shot. At what was he about to shoot the gun? At whom? And why the IDF presence after the Duvdevan had gotten away? Cohen is a smart guy, and clearly his attention to local languages and customs allowed him to portray an Arab street vendor with no problems. But that kind of skill in infiltration has always been one of Israel’s strong suits. This operation manages to display the IDF’s strengths and weaknesses.

The later part of it, in fact, sounds like the post-extraction Battle of Mogadishu, except that the extended presence was intentional. No failed grab-and-dash or a SAR mission to attempt, but instead a calculated attempt to remind the locals who was boss. It just seems like overkill, and even more unnecessary when you consider the precision with which the actual capture was handled. There’s no need for the heavy-handedness – they’re already good at the subtle stuff. Sadly to say, this is all too emblematic of the current Israeli approach.

2 thoughts on “Wedding Crashers

  1. Depends on the situation. The part of any operation like this that you want to go perfectly is the exfiltration of the target *and* the entire team that was in place. The idea that you can just melt back into the crowd and get away is great for movies but in real life exfiltration is the most volatile and dangerous part of the whole operation for the team.

    I’m assuming that this operation was conducted in a Hamas-controlled neighborhood. The “taxi” roaring away would have already made the other Hamas members in the neighborhood very nervous. The guy with the pistol didn’t have to aim it at anyone, all he had to do was shoot it in the air. The sound of the gunshot could easily have caused the other bad guys in the neighborhood to lock it down, preventing extraction of the rest of the team. In most of these kinds of cases, you *want* the cavalry to arrive at the right instant to give the bad guys something else to concentrate on, allowing the team time and cover to exfiltrate.

    • From the article, I got the impression that the cab slipped off more quietly than that – Cohen only refers to it making “a clean getaway.”

      I definitely see your point, but I feel like the operation could have stopped just short of the massive display. Take down the armed wedding guest, if necessary, but then stop there and just vanish. Like he says, no one knew what was going on or where the shots were coming from, and he manages to melt away before the IDF makes itself known. The snipers easily could have done the same thing.

      Of course, I should add the caveat that practically I have no idea what I’m talking about. But in my head what happened seems like overkill that could have been avoided.

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