The story behind Delta Force, the unit that carried out the al-Baghdadi raid

While SEAL Team 6 made headlines for the 2011 Osama bin Laden operation in Pakistan, Delta Force, the unit that hunted ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been at the heart of the more recent campaign that destroyed the Islamic State’s physical caliphate.

The 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, better known as Delta Force, is a special operations outfit that over its 42-year history has been responsible for a number of high-profile missions, in the process becoming engrained in popular culture.

Delta Force was formed in 1977 as the U.S. military’s response to an increase in international terrorist incidents. Its first leader was Charles Beckwith, who had spent time with the British Army’s Special Air Service in the 1960s and was influenced by his experience there.

Combat ready special operation forces soldier
A Special Operations Forces soldier in Afghanistan. (Photo: Tom Weber/Milpictures/Getty Images)

One of the unit’s first missions was Operation Eagle Claw, the planned 1980 extraction of hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Iran. That mission was aborted before Delta Force could act because not enough helicopters made it to the Desert One staging area in the Iranian desert in operational condition. Delta was also involved in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, an event that was portrayed in the book and film “Black Hawk Down.” The unit was responsible for the capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and also played a role in the operation that led to the deaths of his sons Uday and Qusay. The group has also worked on operations in Latin America, including the hunts for Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.

The process of becoming a Delta Force operator is long and rigorous. Applicants undergo a series of grueling tests, including a timed 40-mile hike across the mountains of West Virginia and a “commander’s board,” in which current and former senior Delta members ask questions and ultimately decide a candidate’s fate. If selected, candidates go through a six-month operator training course that teaches specialized skills, like hostage rescue and compound breaching. If they make it through the operator training, they’re officially part of “the Unit,” as the group has been called.

Delta Force operates under Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, which was formed in 1980 and also oversees other units, including the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and Navy SEAL Team 6. By 2009, JSOC had organized itself so that one unit would have primary responsibility for each combat theater: the Rangers in Afghanistan; SEAL Team 6 in the Horn of Africa and Yemen; and Delta Force in Iraq and Syria.

In addition to its being featured in “Black Hawk Down,” the unit has been referenced elsewhere in popular culture, starting with the 1986 film “The Delta Force,” starring Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin. It was also the basis for the CBS series “The Unit,” which ran from 2006 to 2009. Jack Bauer, the lead character in “24,” was described as an ex-Delta Force captain. The unit also served as the inspiration for a series of computer games in the late 1990s and early 2000s.


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