Relentless Strike

Title:                                         Relentless Strike

Author:                                   Sean Naylor

Naylor, Sean (2015). Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. New York: St. Martin’s Press

LCCN:             2015017796

UA34.J65 N39 2015


  • Machine generated contents note: — Author’s Note — Glossary — Prologue — Part I – The Ferrari in the Garage — Part II – A New Era Dawns — Part III – Building the Machine — Part IV – A Global Campaign — Endnotes — Bibliography — Acknowledgments.


Date Updated:  January 31, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed in The Intelligencer[2]

The JSOC [prounced JAY-SOCK]—Joint Special Operations Command—is an elite and little-understood part of the American military. Most know about Delta Force and SEAL Teams, but few have heard of their umbrella group, JSOC. First designed to rescue American captives during the Iran hostage crisis, the group grew and Naylor provides a tour of the organization’s many covert operations, from apprehending Manuel Noriega in Panama to hunting war criminals in the former Yugoslavia. The author’s primary interest is the post-9/11 war on terror, where JSOC was the allied forces’ most essential wing, involved in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the course of the Iraq War, JSOC developed a sophisticated global intelligence capability that rivaled the CIA’s, and was linked to America’s elite commando units. The book ends in 2014 with the successful rescue of an American and a Danish aid worker abducted by Somali pirates.

Much of this account is wrapped in secrecy. There are few names or recognizable people. As one nameless official describes JSOC, “It was so, so top secret that it was extremely difficult to do our job.” The author admits that the intense secrecy slowed his research.

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[3]

Forget the high-level Washington blather about troop levels and anti-terrorist strategy in the Middle East. Oblivious to such non-productive chatter, a fighting force unique to the American military experience is waging a war which relies heavily upon deadly deception.

Unlike Vietnam, no public body counts are made. There are occasional headlines, to be sure—for instance, the killing of the Islamic State’s number two man in late March by covert operatives, and the elimination of Osama Bin-laden. But as should be true in shadow warfare, the least said the better. In essence, lethal operations with a small or non-existent US footprint.

Such is the message delivered by military writer Sean Naylor in a must-read book about the overseer of this secret army, formally the Joint Special Operations Command (jay-sock, in military-speak). The command brings together elements of the army, navy and air force, augmented by CIA operatives—men and women of exceptional skills who are bold enough to make decisions on their own, and execute them with deadly force.

Naylor’s section on origins and organization of JSOC is a jumble of names the recitation of which will be of scant interest to most readers. To obscure JSOC’s role in the shadow war, operational units change names frequently. For instance, a navy unit named Task Force Sword in due course becomes Task Force 11. One outfit was dubbed “Army of Northern Virginia,” with a nod to General Robert E. Lee.

The meat of the book consists of examples of the ingenuity JSOC fighters employ against the enemy. What is striking is that many of the tricks were developed by field operatives who devised new innovative ways to dispose of enemies.

A prime example. A JSOC unit recruited Iraqis—code-named Mohawks—to conduct intelligence operations which required the ability to blend in with the population. In one operation, a Mohawk would enter an Internet cafe known to be popular with suspect terrorists and upload software on the computer that employed a keystroke recognition system that enabled monitors to read messages. Some had software that “would covertly activate a webcam if the computer had one, allowing the task force to positively identify a target.”

Once a target was identified, the message would go out: the subject was “at cafe 6 at computer 4, go get him.” Other operatives would “track the insurgent far enough away from the cafe to minimize the chance of enemies figuring out how the Americans had located the target,” who would be snatched off the street.

Psychological tricks varied. Planes flying near Kandahar, Afghanistan, dropped parachutes carrying blocks of ice. Once the ice melted, the chutes would blow around until someone found and reported them, “sowing seeds of paranoia in Taliban minds as they wondered where the paratroopers might be.” The drops “terrorized” the enemy.

According to what Naylor was told, JSOC teams in a “small number” of instances found a way to circumvent political restrictions against killing, rather than capturing, enemy fighters. Their weapon was termed the Xbox, “a bomb designed to look and behave exactly like the one made by Iraqi insurgents, using materials typically found in locally made explosive devices.” Even if remnants of Xbox bombs were analyzed in FBI labs, “experts would mistakenly trace the bomb back to a particular terrorist group bomb maker because of certain supposedly telltale signature elements….”

Indeed, overhead surveillance was so thorough in and around Baghdad “that when a car bomb went off, analysts could pull the video feeds from aircraft overhead and watch them in reverse, to trace the car’s route back to its start point.”

One operation tinged with controversy was the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen and Islamic cleric who became a major player in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and hence a high-priority target. Given his citizenship, there was debate in the Obama administration about the legality of targeting him. But, as Naylor writes, “Obama had few qualms.”

Relying on human intelligence and signal intercepts, a task force traced Awlaki and saw him leave a small mud hut. CIA somehow acquired access to his car and installed a video camera that was transmitting live images to a drone. “So the CIA’s watchers actually saw Awlaki getting into the back seat.” The drone did the rest. End of Awlaki.

Formerly a correspondent for Army Times, Naylor obviously gained the confidence of USOC operatives who felt comfortable speaking freely with him. Several specials ops veterans with whom I spoke quibbled with him on a few details but gave his book an overall “A rating.” Two criticized “blabber mouths” who were his sources. Whatever, a splendid– and real–adventure read.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, p. 136). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[3] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 103-104). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.


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