Manhunting the Manhunters

On October 26, 2020, Philip Walton, a U.S. citizen living in Niger, was kidnapped from his farm by seven men armed with AK-47s and other weapons. Within three days, U.S. Navy SEALs successfully conducted a high-risk and immensely complicated mission to rescue Walton, executing a high altitude – low opening (HALO) parachute insertion onto the objective and killing six of the seven kidnappers before recovering Walton unharmed. This operation demonstrated the truly global reach of U.S. special operations forces (SOF) and, most importantly, the speed with which the United States can and will act to protect its citizens abroad.

However, Walton’s rescue—a tactical success at every level—was “outed” in near real time by a Dutch aircraft spotting website, which provided live tracking of the operation using open-source software and crowd-sourced data. Using tail numbers and live flight tracking apps, web sleuths unraveled the network of military and civilian aircraft that took part in the operation, exposing tactics, techniques, and procedures and jeopardizing future operational capabilities.

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