In his impressive new book Relentless Strike, author Sean Naylor chronicles the sprawling history of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, America’s special forces killing apparatus. It’s filled with anecdotes of both bravery and waste, but one in particular stands out: In the aftermath of 9/11, the Pentagon considered staging an airline hijacking to fool us into feeling safer.
After the attacks, Naylor explains, the Pentagon and White House were both desperate for some sort of military action that they could put on television—a media spectacle that wouldn’t top the collapsing World Trade Center, but would at least show that the U.S. was also capable of drawing blood. This meant dropping paratroopers in the middle of the desert with nothing to do, and destroying empty buildings, but Bush, Rumsfeld and the rest of the gang wanted something grander.
Naylor’s sources are anonymous (mostly former military officers and operators), but as a longtime Army Times reporter and co-author of a mammoth New York Times piece on SEAL Team 6, his knowledge of JSOC is almost peerless:
Meanwhile, Delta’s operators brainstormed. To deter future hijackings, they suggested that the government, in conjunction with the FBI and the airlines, “leak out that there are Delta operators on board almost every flight and then do a fake takedown” using role players “in a first-class compartment that’s all stooges” on an otherwise regular commercial flight, said the Delta source
(“Delta” here means Delta Force, an elite U.S. Army unit controlled by JSOC, not Delta Airlines.)
A “terrorist” would attempt a hijacking before operators in plainclothes took him down “with hand-to-hand or something,” the source said. “Get that out [via the media]. Get inside their heads.” The aim was to “at least make [Al Qaeda] think twice and begin to think, “Hey, they’re on to us, there’s special mission unit guys on every airplane.”
Security theater in its most literal sense. Thankfully, the plan to deliberately scare the shit out of an entire airplane filled with U.S. citizens for the purposes of impressing CNN was never carried out.
Photo via USAF Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson