The FBI HRT (Hostage Rescue Team), is the United States’ premiere hostage rescue team and was founded with the help of Delta Force aka Combat Applications Group (CAG) and sometimes referred to as “Domestic Delta”.
The world is constantly changing, over the past 50 years the proliferation of non-state actors has made small teams of highly specialized elite soldiers a must-have for every military on the planet. The various special mission units of the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command are the tools which the US uses to bring fight against terrorist organizations abroad.
Domestically, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is responsible for preventing and combating terrorism within the borders of the US. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) is the Bureau’s response to increased hostage-taking and terrorist attacks within the US. Known for its motto Servare Vitas, To Save Lives, its speciality in hostage rescue and counter-terror operations makes it the foremost and most effective team at the disposal of the FBI. Its purpose is to rapidly respond to and solve critical situations pertaining to hostage rescue and domestic terror.
1. Doctrine of the FBI HRT
The purpose of the HRT is multifaceted given its variety of disciplines, but primarily it is the FBI’s main counter-terror and hostage rescue unit.
The HRT specializes in being one of the most rapid response components of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group, being able to respond to hostage and terror situations, primarily in a domestic setting. They utilize the tactics of many other US special operations groups, training alongside groups such as Delta Force and the FBI’s regional SWAT teams. (Source).
Their skills in close combat, sniping, room clearing and rapid breaching are combined with their extreme mobility and adaptability to make them an elite tool for the FBI.
2. History of the FBI HRT
The HRT was founded in response to the rapidly evolving nature of global security, and threats posed to the US both domestically and in a foreign setting. The team itself was born in the aftermath of the 1972 and 1984 Olympics. During the 1972 Olympics, Palestinian terrorists kidnapped nine Israeli athletes after killing two others. During a shootout with German authorities, all hostages and terrorists were killed. (Source)
When the US was selected to host the 1984 Olympics, the FBI was tasked with creating a team that could perform counterterror operations and prevent a similar hostage situation. (Source) In 1983, the HRT officially completed its extensive training. Such training involved the creation of shoothouses, exploration of theoretical tactical situations, rapid responsiveness to hostage situations and coordination with other FBI elements such as their regional SWAT teams. (Source) It culminated in the conducting of a practice anti-terror drill where HRT countered a nuclear terror threat alongside SWAT and the FBI’s Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST). (Source)
2.1. Post ’83 HRT
Since its inception and initial deployment in 1983 and 84’, HRT has expanded its technical skills by training alongside other teams. (Source) Delta Force in particular was an important factor in the formation of the HRT, with the tactical skill of Delta motivating the FBI to have a team of equivalent calibre.
In 1994, it became a component of the Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG). Since it has become a component of CIRG, it operates alongside other US defence and law enforcement elements as a rapid response tactical team. (Source)
The attacks on 9/11 would further raise the importance of counter-terror teams, and would vastly expand the scope of HRT beyond the domestic realm. It would begin to, and to this day still does, operate alongside other US forces, in addition to its domestic security purpose. (Source)
As of January 2020, there are a total of 149 full-time duty team members on the HRT. (Source) According to the available information on team composition, they have two operating teams: Gold Team and Blue Team. Within these teams are specialists that draw from the myriad of disciplines that HRT utilizes, such as assaulting, sniping, hostage rescue, counterterrorism and counter-hijack operations. (Source)
In addition to their internal organization, their tactical composition may change depending on their mission and what other teams they are working with. The FBI HRT can work alongside essentially any special operations team or special task force, be it domestic or abroad. Their operational composition changes depending on the parameters of the mission.
Selection for the HRT is akin to that of many US special operations forces. Applicants are required to be highly experienced and seasoned individuals with relevant skills in order to be considered for selection. The minimum qualifications for the team include: (Source)
- Be a US citizen.
- Be able to obtain Top-Secret Clearance.
- Possess a driver’s license.
- Commit to a three-year contract as a Special Agent.
Additional requirements include ongoing testing for drug usage, polygraph examinations, credit and background checks as well as interviews with the FBI. (Source) These requirements come from the requirements of the FBI as a whole, which influences the requirements of each of its specialized teams.
Following selection, the trainees for the HRT will undergo the physical and tactical training courses necessary to become operators.
Training for the HRT occurs in two different settings, in a preparatory phase for new operators, and in an ongoing fashion following training completion.
New operators conduct a large battery of training courses. Physical conditioning is one of the first components. This includes things such as long-distance runs, forced ruck marches, obstacle courses, full kit training and full kit marches. (Source) Extreme exercise conditions operators for their extremely physically demanding work. This physical training, alongside other entry-phase training, goes on for roughly six months before the trainees graduate to the next phase of training.
Upon graduating from the initial training phase, members of the HRT move on to more specialized training. Depending on the specialization of each member of the team, they may train with different special operations groups. Maritime operators for example will complete phase 2 of BUD/S with Navy Seal candidates. (Source) (Source) Candidates with prior sniper experience or potential to attend follow-on training as snipers.
HRT also participates in exchange programs with various special operations units including Delta Force, DEVGRU, the DEA’s FAST team, Border Patrol’s BORTAC units and Police CERT teams. These teams help build the essential and variable skills that the HRT needs to fully fulfill its objectives.
4. Tactics, Techniques, Procedures (TTP)
The unique skills of the HRT allow them to be reliably available and capable of tackling any threat. Its more notable tactics and procedures include hostage rescue tactics, precision shooting, rapid deployment, counter-hijack tactics and tactical site surveying.
Hostage rescues add an additional layer of complications to a standard operation. Teams breach, sweep and clear close quarter spaces while considering the safety of hostages. The HRT drills and consistently trains in a number of different tactics, including: (Source)
- General CQB combat.
- Providing tactical cover for unarmed personnel.
- Neutralizing and/or apprehending barricaded or fortified combatants.
Precision shooting is equally important to the tactics of the HRT as its CQB skills are. Snipers, often trained by Delta Force and other specialized marksman teams, provide a long-range solution to HRT missions. Snipers in the HRT and other FBI-derived teams must learn to coordinate with tactical teams assaulting the objective. They additionally learn negotiation and intelligence collection and exploitation tactics. Typically they will act as the forward most element, gathering intel via observation and can initiate negotiations if the situation dictates it.(Source) Snipers are capable of tracking of multiple targets, defensive fire tactics and accuracy over long distances. (Source)
4.2. Mobility Team
One of the mainstays of the HRT is its ability to deploy to a given situation within 4 hours. This is sustained by the team’s high personal readiness standards, but also effective use of rapid deployment vehicles such as helicopters. HRT members are capable of fast roping, allowing them to perform rapid tactical action once they arrive. (Source) Training alongside specialized air teams allows the HRT to become even more proficient in deploying via rapid response vehicles.
Tactical site surveying is a highly important skill of HRT. It allows HRT teams to conduct functional tactical analysis of a target building or area, in preparation for a breaching attack. It also serves the purpose of red teaming for facilities around the US and on foreign bases. The skill is useful in a live tactical setting but also can be applied to defensive preparations.
5. FBI HRT Equipment
In conjunction with the team’s purpose of rapid response, the HRT’s vehicles allow the teams to arrive quickly and effectively. For their two support elements, the Tactical Helicopter Unit and Tactical Mobility Team, there are a range of air-based and land-based vehicles that may be employed by the HRT: (Source)
Tactical Helicopter Unit:
- Bell 412EP.
- Bell 407.
- UH-60M Black Hawk.
- MD 530.
Tactical Mobility Team:
- Chevy pickups featuring modified assault ladders.
- Chevy Suburban 4x4s.
- HMMWV (Humvee) vehicles.
- LAV II Bison and Coyote APCs.
- Chenowth Desert Patrol Vehicle/ Light Strike/ Advanced Light Strike variant.
- Polaris MRZR.
Each of these vehicles gives the HRT the speed, responsiveness and edge it needs to be able to respond to a crisis situation. Without vehicles supporting the operations and deployment of the HRT, it would be much less adaptable and effective.
The HRT arsenal is similar to that of the special operations groups, in that it varies greatly depending on the mission. Sniper rifles and CQB weapons take priority on a majority of the missions, however, the arsenal is far more extensive. HRT weapons include but are not limited to the following: (Source) (Source)
- M4A1 Carbine
- Mk 18
- HRT Carbine
- Benelli M4.
- Remington Model 870.
- HK MSG90
- Remington Model 700
- Barret M107
- GA Precision FBI HRT Rifle
- Mk 46
- Mk 48
- Glock 19M
- Glock 26
- Glock 23
5.1.1. The HRT Carbine
During the Global War On Terror (GWOT) many special operations teams fell in love with the Mk 18. The Mk 18 is a shortened version of the M4 carbine. The weapon has undergone a few modernizations since its inception in the late 1990s. However it has been a mainstay on the battlefield due to its compact size making it perfect for close quarters combat. It is likely here where the HRT got their inspiration for their custom carbine for their assaulters.
18.104.22.168. Carbine Details
The HRT carbine is visually similar to the Mk 18 mod 1. However, the astute observer will notice a few key differences. The Mk 18 utilizes a 26.1cm (10.3in) barrel, while the HRT carbine uses and 29.2cm (11.5in) barrel. This is done for two primary factors: reliability and lethality. The slightly longer barrel increases the dwell time of the carbine. There is more space between the gas port and the muzzle, letting more gas into the system than Mk 18. Additionally, the longer barrel increases pressure behind the bullet allowing it to reach a higher velocity before exiting the barrel. These two factors culminate in a weapon that is more reliable and lethal than an MK18 while minimally sacrificing compactness.
The carbine also utilizes a unique handguard produced by Geissele Automatics. Geissele has been a long-time producer of high-quality triggers and accessories for SOCOM and makes the new Upper Receiver Group Improved (URG-I). HRT’s handguard is known as the Federal Rail and comes in an olive drab green colour for HRT. Other Federal law enforcement utilizes similar carbines but it gained the most notoriety via use by HRT. The rail combines standard 1913 rails machined into it with modular M-LOK attachment points, allowing for the user to add lights, lasers and grips at their discretion.
6. FBI HRT Notable Operations
6.1. Waco Siege
Waco is an event that has been profoundly impactful for America, one that has sparked questions about freedom, authority and the seemingly inevitable clash between the two. For the FBI and especially the HRT, the event is both a lesson in tactics and optics.
The siege of the Branch Davidian compound occurred with the memory of Ruby Ridge fresh in the mind of both the FBI and the American public. Attacking a compound with 70+ potentially armed and fanatical combatants is by no means an easy task. The Blue and Gold teams of the HRT were the best that the FBI could muster to deal with such a problem.
6.1.1. From Bad to Worse
After negotiation components of the HRT attempted a more diplomatic solution, and there seemed potential for peace as 19 children were released. (Source) It was only when Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians declared that God was keeping him inside, that the siege took a much more forceful turn. The HRT commenced a frontal attack, using gas in an initial attempt at removing the cultists. The ensuing panic and weapons exchange resulted in fires breaking out around the compound. (Source)
Amidst the fires, gunshots and collapsing buildings, 76 Davidians were killed including unarmed women and children who burned to death as a result of the fire. Additionally, 4 ATF agents died. The siege ended in a tragic loss of life that seriously damaged the reputation of the HRT, the ATF and FBI as a whole. The HRT would be used in a number of future operations, although with more oversight despite this apparent failure
6.2. Talladega Prison Riot
Given the scale of the US prison system, it is unfortunately inevitable that some prisons may lose control of their population, some even to a catastrophic level. The riot at FCI Talladega was one such situation.
Facing inevitable deportation and severe conditions within the prison, on August 21st, 1991, the 121 inmates at the federal facility rioted. The resulting riot led to the prison being taken control of by the inmates and a number of prison guards being taken, hostage. (Source)
The HRT was tasked to end the crisis when word got to the FBI director and his constituents that the inmates had discussed killing prison guards. It was not a long operation, just as the HRT planners had intended. The team entered using shape charges to breach the doors, subdued numerous inmates and freed the guards without casualties. (Source)
The operation was very much a success, and a great juxtaposition to the events at Waco, with the HRT fulfilling their operational requirements with no deaths on either side.
6.3. Colleyville Synagogue Hostage Crisis
The Colleyville Hostage Crisis is one of both success and failure. It is difficult to judge a hostage crisis success even in the face of freed hostages, and Colleyville is just such a case.
On January 15th, 2022, Mailk Akram took four hostages at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue. His motive surrounded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani who was imprisoned at Fort Worth. (Source) Following deployment of the HRT, and other FBI elements, a siege commenced.
Eventually the HRT was deployed with lethal force, out of higher fear of civilian loss of life. The HRT task force breached the synagogue, tossed multiple stun grenades and then entered the room where Akram and the hostages were. Akram was killed by HRT gunfire, and all hostages were rescued. (Source)
6.3.1. The Aftermath
This is, by definition, a success for the HRT. However, compared to the events at Talladega and Waco, Colleyville is perhaps a different lesson for future HRT missions. A lesson that is in between the two previous events. The hostages were indeed rescued, however, the killing of Akram leaves his motivations unclear. Had he lived, perhaps more could have been understood about his intentions, motivations and machinations. This too should be considered with many hostages or active shooter situations, were ending the threat may be the priority, but too carries a downside of less information after the situation is resolved.
When the US possesses an asset as skilled as the HRT for response to such situations, perhaps it should consider that the path of highest lethality, such as at Waco and Colleyville, may not be the one that offers the most long-term solutions to such situations.
The HRT, and other forces within the FBI, will continue to grow in their capability and breadth of operations. Their skill, though requiring temperance in the most dangerous of situations, is one that is unmatched in their discipline. It can be said that should a hostage situation spiral out of control, or should a domestic terror attack be detected, the HRT will be only a few hours away.