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Placing SoCom Military Liaison Element assets in the position of both hunter and hunted


I can remember when a Military Liaison Element (MLE) was an innocuous unit. It has come to describe small groups of SoCom military personnel attached to embassies "in Africa, southeast Asia and South America [where] terrorists are thought to be operating, planning attacks, raising money or seeking safe haven." Reporting to the  US combat commanders in the region and Special Operations Command (and not to the ambassador or CIA station chief), the MLE mission is "to gather information to assist in planning counterterrorism missions, and to help local militaries conduct counterterrorism missions of their own." Intelligence gathering, called situational awareness, is high on their agenda.

"USSOCOM Plans, Directs, and Executes Special Operations in the Conduct of the War On Terrorism in Order to Disrupt, Defeat, and Destroy Terrorist Networks That Threaten the United States, Its Citizens and Interests Worldwide." These are individuals of remarkable capability. The essence of their tradecraft was inherent in penetrations by Red Cell of fully alerted bases such as the Naval Submarine Support Facility (NSSF), part of the Naval Submarine Base New London, "destroying" a nuclear sub in the process, and the Point Mugu Naval Air Station, "destroying" the base's fighter contingent and Air Force One. Drawn from various spec ops resources, Red Team was created with the overt purpose of testing naval base security and the covert purpose of global covert counterterrorist missions.

The public record differs as to whether Red Cell carried out its cover mandate with one site saying "a portion of the unit would deploy overtly to a given Naval base to carry out its security mandate, while a small element would covertly infiltrate a foreign nation to carry out whatever counterterrorist activity was required" while another noting that ""Naval Special Warfare Development Group, (formerly known as MOB 6, SEAL Team SIX, and MARESFAC) [is reported to be] one of only a handful of US units authorized to conduct preemptive actions against terrorists and terrorist facilities (NOTE: Red Cell once shared this charter, although it was never put into practice before the unit was disbanded). The former site stated that "aggressive neutralization" of terrorists as practiced by the UK and Israel was a tool, but if not Red Cell then certainly other SoCom elements.

These SoCom assets either deploy from safe havens or insert covertly. Attachment to an embassy compound or expat housing is anything but covert. Leaving aside the opportunity for unilateral action or covert actions independent of other intelligence agencies, turf and coordination issues between DoD and CIA, angering host nations and the possibility of little bits of El Salvador left to "find, fix, finish and follow-up" on troublesome personnel, no where do I see mentioned anything about defensive measures for the MLEs. What keeps the MLEs from becoming targets while in country?

As the MLEs do not operate under cover, "do not hide the fact that they are military personnel," and must work from hotels and embassy facilities, what keeps the bad guys from attacking the MLEs, turning SoCom's rules against them:

  • Method: Find, Fix, Finish, and Follow Up
    • Find Using Full Range Of Sensors, ISR, Analysis, HUMINT, …
    • Fix Using Superior Fires, Mobility, Agility, and Pervasive Communications
    • Finish Terrorists Wherever They Are Operating
      • Eliminate Safe Havens, Leadership, Training, and Membership Via Lethal/Direct Action Capabilities
    • Follow Up to Achieve Stability and Erosion of Base for Future Terrorists
  • Very Good at Finishing - Need to Improve Find and Fix

MLE staff could be all too easy to find and fix. The case of an attempted robbery of two MLE staffers in Paraguay eighteen months ago could just as easily have been a counterstrike by hostile assets:

"One official who was briefed on the events, but was not authorized to discuss them, said the soldiers were not operating out of the embassy, but out of a hotel… two military personnel on temporary duty in Paraguay [were] attacked by two men, one of them armed with a pistol, when the taxi came to a stop… The attackers were disarmed after a brief struggle, but one of the assailants picked up a piece of wood and tried to continue the attack… "One of the service members was armed and when the attacker continued the service member shot him.""

Would that all the detractors of the MLE program and all the political infighters jockeying for turf, spend some time thinking about MLE assets operating without cover from insecure forward bases, very possibly under hostile surveillance.

Elite Troops Get Expanded Role on Intelligence
New York Times
March 8, 2006

US placing special operations troops in embassies
By Will Dunham
6:35pm ET

US has intelligence gatherers at select embassies
Times of Oman - International News
March 09, 2006

J. Frank Wattenbarger
Advanced Technology Directorate
3 February, 2005

Regional Defense Counterterrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP)
Scott W. Moore
Joint Special Operations University

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Terrorism Public  


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