4. The SEAL Raid in Iran That Didn't Happen
When U.S. forces routed the Taliban government in Afghanistan and forced bin Laden and his top lieutenants to flee, many senior al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, escaped to neighboring Pakistan. But a separate group, including the al Qaeda leader's son, Saad bin Laden, fled to northern Iran, where American troops would not pursue them and the Iranians would likely not detain them. But the Shiite clerics running Iran placed the al Qaeda operatives and their family members under virtual house arrest, and they became a shield against possible attacks from the Sunni-based terrorist organization.
One plan in particular illustrated the bold thinking and wildly unrealistic aims of the military's initial approach after 9/11 to kill or capture terrorist leaders. The plan called for hunting the eight to 10 senior al Qaeda leaders and operatives who had sought refuge in Chalus, an Iranian resort town on the Caspian Sea, where they had been detained.
At the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., military planners drew up options for Navy SEALs to sneak ashore at night using state-of-the-art mini-submarines. Once they landed, the SEALs would slip past Iranian guards to snatch the al Qaeda leaders. Another option called for Special Operations helicopters to spirit American commandos into the town and whisk them out again with their quarry. The Americans went as far as conducting two or three rehearsals at an undisclosed location along the U.S. Gulf Coast in early 2002. They conducted small-boat insertion exercises involving about 30 Special Operations personnel, most SEALs, and eventually concluded the mission was feasible if they were provided with more detailed intelligence on the locations of the al Qaeda members and the security around them.
The logistics of the mission were daunting. Chalus sits at the edge of the Elburz coastal mountain range about 70 miles north of Tehran, and the failed rescue of the American hostages in Iran in April 1980 loomed large in commanders' memories. Eventually, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rejected the mission as too risky and too politically volatile. Many of the al Qaeda operatives are reportedly still there.