True story as told to me by a friend. Names blacked-out to protect those involved in this black op mission.
We were a six-man SEAL team then and had been dropped into the Caspian Sea five miles off the Iranian coast city of Bandar-e Anazli near the Elburz Mountains. Our mission was to make it to shore and head up the Elburz mountain range to a secret facility the Iranians used to process and refine weapons-grade uranium. We were to blow it up.
After we’d executed a high-altitude jump into the cold water in the dead of winter, we had inflated our boat, climbed in, and started rowing toward shore. An Iranian patrol boat had spotted us and began to fire on us. We returned fire which caused them to pause and regroup. Knowing that we’d be toast if they called for reinforcements, we did something crazy.
Davy and I had gone back into the cold Caspian Seawhile Paul and three other members of our SEAL team feigned surrender to the Iranians. Many people don’t realize that the Caspian Seais the largest inland body of water in the world. Bordered by a couple of “stans” (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) along the Russian, Azerbaijan, and Iranian borders. Since it is completely land-locked, it has no tides. It has a reasonably high salt content but supports both saltwater and freshwater fish, so the buoyancy was okay, not as good as the ocean but better than fresh water.
We both hung onto the side of our inflatable, waiting for the Iranians to come. They pulled alongside the inflatable shouting in Farsi for us to keep our hands up. Everyone on our team spoke passable Farsi and Arabic, not that it was important the Iranians knew that at that moment.
We had specifically trained for this mission for almost two months which was almost a luxury for a SEAL. However, with all the Intel and training we had in place for this mission, the fact that the patrol boat was more than an hour earlier than we’d expected made me uneasy. That’s normally a sign of what’s to come, but my philosophy is that the difference between good and great is the ability to overcome bad Intel with good training and quick thinking. The team I commanded had both.
Davy and I slipped off the side of the inflatable and deeper into the dark, cold water. We surfaced on the others side of the Iranian’s small vessel. The side rail was too high to grab with one hand so I pulled the pin on a flash bang grenade, counted to five, and flipped it over the side of their boat. At the same time, Davy tossed two climbing lines over the rail. The sharp flash and noisy blast followed by gunfire was deafening. We pulled ourselves into the boat and finished the job. In the end, eight Iranians were dead and one of my men had been injured. Paul had taken an errant bullet fired by one of the now-dead Iranians in the shoulder.
We knew the flash and noise had probably carried to shore so we sunk the boat with the dead aboard and then headed to our rendezvous point just outside of Bandar-eAnazli,Iran. We gave the proper signal on our approach and it was returned by the CIA operative who was to be our guide. We cautiously headed to shore.
Davy had stemmed the flow of blood from Paul’s shoulder. The bullet passed through and he had both an entry and exit wound to deal with. Besides the fact that he was my friend, I knew our mission depended upon the ability of each of us to do his job. As I looked at him, Paul smiled as if reading my mind. “Don’t worry boss, I’ve got this.”
We knew that, eventually, someone would either come looking for the patrol boat and its crew, and us, depending on whether the Iranians had contacted anyone once they spotted our team. We turned our now-empty boat around and rigged it to head straight out to sea. Then we climbed into the truck with our gear and our CIA guide, heading for our planned drop off point in the Elburz Mountains. We made it without a hitch and were able to shift most of the things from Paul’s pack between the rest of us and rig his so that he could carry it on his uninjured right shoulder.
There’s a very good reason that we train with loaded packs in harsh territory. Looking at the trail that now lay in front of us, I was grateful that we did. This adventure had started when a young NSA analyst had spotted a train rail spur that hadn’t been in use for years in these mountains. The area we were in was about two hundred miles northwest of Teheran. The analyst had noted that within a two-month period there was traffic on the rails. Our assets on the ground then identified that the spur ended in a closed zinc mine that had been abandoned before the 1979 revolution. From that Intel and anomaly over two-and-a-half years ago, the CIA had determined that the Iranians had established a facility to refine weapons’ grade uranium in the old mine.
An Iranian nuclear scientist who had defected to the US and whose death had been faked by the CIA confirmed that the Iranians were beginning to process uranium for weapons. The rail spur lay on the line between Teheran, the Capital, and Tabriz, one of Iran’s largest cities. It was located sixteen miles from our drop-off point. Once we reached the drop-off point, we were met by a second CIA contact, a young Kurd known only to us as Ali. He spoke passable English and had grown up in these mountains. He was a part of a group of fighters who routinely battled against the Iranian Government. The six of us followed him up the narrow, jagged trail and we could tell it was rarely traveled.
The rail spur was on the other side of the Elburz Mountains, and our sixteen-mile trip would take us almost two days to complete. We didn’t reach the sixteen-thousand-foot mountain crest until eighteen hours after we’d dropped into the Caspian Sea. We made camp just over the crest in a cave where we could build a fire and finally warm up without being seen.
When we checked in with SPECWARCOM, we were told that the boat we set adrift had been found and an all-out search had been initiated. That explained the helicopter and military plane traffic all day. Another problem was that Paul, normally one tough son-of-a-bitch, was in bad shape. He had developed a serious fever. We weren’t going to leave him behind but everyone knew that he would slow us down, and part of this mission depended on its exact timing.
The CIA had intercepted an Israeli communiqué and discovered the timing of their planned raid on two other facilities. We knew those raids would be air strikes that would throw the Iranian military and government into turmoil, at least for a short while. At the time of this mission, we were in two wars; Iraq and Afghanistan, so the President decided to make the Op black and secret, using the Israeli strikes as our cover.
After a decent night’s sleep, if you can have one while you’re freezing, we rose at first light. Paul’s fever had broken during the night and that was good news. We started our descent to the rail spur. However, an hour later, I stumbled and took a nasty fall, spraining my ankle. With the help of a can fashioned from a tree branch, I hobbled along and our team made it to the spur only one hour behind schedule. The toughest part of the mission was still ahead.
Twice a week a train pulling eight or nine cars arrived at the spur. After the cars were uncoupled, the train left and the cars were guarded by ten heavily armed soldiers. Then a locomotive came out of the abandoned mine, hooked up the cars and pulled them inside. We were to take the train, kill the guards and engineers, then send it into the mine with a surprise—three hundred pounds of special explosives that the six of us had lugged over the mountain. The complicated thing was that the kills had to be precise and quick so that no one could warn the people inside the facility.
We had studied satellite imagery from twelve of the train car exchanges over the last six weeks and had been pleased to see they were always carried out in the same manner. Ten guards arrived with the original train and stood guard until the locomotive from inside the mine appeared. Then the engineer and a helper would inspect the coupling of the cars, greet the guards, then climb back into the engine and with the guards hanging on the side of the cars, retreat into the mine. Hours later, the guards would return to the spur to await the other train and more cars, just like clockwork.
The rail spur sat in what looked like a canyon with steep walls almost three-hundred feet high and difficult to climb. We had decided that four of us would be snipers, two on each side of the canyon walls, and the other two would be dug in near the tracks in case there was anyone else in the arriving train besides the engineer and his helper, or in the chance that they wouldn’t exit as normal.
I was going to be one of the men dug in on the ground, but had seriously thought of changing places with one of the snipers. I decided against it since we’d already switched Paul from being a sniper to the man on the ground with me. He would be able to handle a hand gun better than a sniper rifle. I let him make the call because we all know the right thing to do for the team and the mission.
We had three hours to set up before the train arrived. Based on the satellite photos, we chose the best locations for the sniper set up and where Paul and I would dig in on opposite sides of the tracks with the help of a couple of my men. The cut in the mountain for the spur line was about sixty feet wide and we were right against the vertical canyon walls. The ground was covered with boulders and brush and someone would have to be almost on top of us to see us. Even then, it would be difficult. Davy was one of the snipers and hidden about thirty feet above my position. He was running communications and would execute orders as he had a better view of the area.
I looked at my watch. The train coming from the main line was late. Then I heard Davy’s voice through my ear piece. “The train’s entering the spur.”
“Everyone ready,” I asked. I heard five clicks.
The next sound I heard was the train’s chugging engine and screech of its brakes, followed by the sound of combat boots hitting the rough gravel surface around the train. From my position, I could only see two of the armed guards. I had a clear view of the front of the line where the mine engine would hook up once it arrived. Then I heard the clanking sound of the engine being uncoupled from the cars.
“The engine is moving back to the main line. I count ten bogeys,” Davy said. “Number One, I have a bogey approaching your position.”
I clicked the transmitter one time in acknowledgment then I heard the guard’s footsteps. I gripped my M-4 rifle. In this position my combat knife would be of no use. If I moved, I’d lose the element of surprise. Then I heard the voices of some of the other guards. They were speaking Farsi. The footsteps stopped about ten feet in front of me. I saw the guard set his weapon on the ground, and stand up straight.
I almost laughed at the next distinctive sound followed by the acrid smell of urine. I breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t decided to walk a little closer to relieve himself. I’ve never had to kill someone for pissing on me. The shame of the matter was that I would not have blown the mission if he had chosen my spot to pee. I would have taken it and had to live with the ribbings from my team for the rest of my life.
After he finished and picked up his AK-47, I heard the whistle of the approaching locomotive that was coming from the mine which sat five miles from our position.
“The engine’s in sight,” Davy said.
Again, I heard the squeaky sounds of brakes scraping against the steel rails. Then I saw the slow-moving locomotive as it made its final approach to pick up the waiting cars. As soon as it came to a stop after it connected with the cars, the engineer and his assistant climbed down from the cab. As soon as their feet hit the ground, Davy executed the order to take down the guards. As soon as I heard the first salvo of shots from our snipers, I jumped up from my hiding spot, aimed and took the engineer down – then his assistant. The total action took twelve seconds. Three seconds better than our best time in training.
Our snipers quickly climbed down from their perches, picking up spent shells on the way in an attempt to cover our tracks. Davy searched each of the dead men bagging any identification or documents that might be of use to the CIA. Using my bolt cutters, I broke the locks on each freight car. We quickly entered each to photograph the specialized processing equipment. We found a couple of computers, removed the hard drives and packed them up.
Davy had begun to power up the engine for the trip back to the mine while Paul supervised the placement of the explosives. The rest of us wrapped up by laying the dead bodies aboard the train. Then we boarded and rode it as it backed toward the mine. The final bend in the track was a mile from the mine where we would exit and watch the train as it went into the mine then detonate the explosives.
After we got off the train and rigged it to make the rest of the journey un-manned, we climbed out of the canyon to a spot with a clear view of the mine’s entrance. The train was traveling at almost thirty miles per hour back into the mine and we detonated the explosives as soon as we lost sight of the last car. The explosion was immediate. A huge eruption of rubble, and dust shot of the mine’s entrance; then the roof collapsed silencing the noise, and burying the facility under thousands of tons of earth as if it had never existed.
It took another twenty-four hours to make our way back to the pickup point then into Iraq. Paul got patched up at a hospital and came home sporting a couple of new scars that would make bar stories years later. I found out that my ankle was broken. The doctor wondered how I was able to limp in. The Israelis made their bombing raid on the known Iranian nuclear facilities while our mission never made the news. We liked it that way.