Russian special forces, and the Alpha Group in particular, came under criticism during the 2002 Moscow hostage crisis in which 129 hostages died from the effects of the gas used to knock out militants who had seized a theatre.
5. Few of the world’s counterterrorism forces can compete with France’s National Gendarmerie Intervention Group, or GIGN. The group is 200 strong and trained specifically to respond to hostage situations. It claims to have freed more than 600 people since it was formed in 1973. It is against French law to publish pictures of its members’ faces.
One of the most extraordinary episodes in the GIGN’s history was the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. Because of the prohibition on non-Muslims entering the holy city, a team of three GIGN commandos briefly converted to Islam before helping the Saudi armed forces plan the recapture of the mosque.
4. Israel’s Sayeret Matkal is another of the world’s most elite units. Its primary purpose is intelligence gathering, and it often operates deep behind enemy lines. During the selection camp (Gibbush), would-be recruits endure hardcore training exercises while being constantly monitored by doctors and psychologists. Only the strongest get in.
In 2003, Israeli taxi driver Eliyahu Gurel was kidnapped after transporting four Palestinians to Jerusalem in his cab. But the Sayeret Matkal unit located and rescued him from a 10-meter pit in an abandoned factory in a suburb of Ramallah.
3. The British Special Air Service, known commonly as the SAS, is the infantry counterpart to the Special Boat Service. Their insignia bears the phrase “Who dares wins.” Asked about the importance of the SAS’ role in the fighting that followed the Iraq war, US Gen. Stanley McChrystal responded: “Essential. Could not have done it without them.”
2. The UK equivalent of the Navy SEALS is the Special Boat Service. The selection process involves a grueling endurance test, jungle training in the rain forests of Belize, and combat survival training, which involves intense interrogation of candidates. And you get only two attempts to pass.
1. The US Navy SEALS might one-up even the Marines. To join their ranks, you have to be able to do a minimum of 42 push-ups in two minutes, 50 sit-ups in two minutes, and a 1.5-mile run in 11 minutes. And that’s before training starts.
BONUS: The US Marines are hardcore in their own right. Below, a US Marine drinks the blood of a cobra during a jungle-survival exercise with the Thai navy as part of the “Cobra Gold 2014” joint military exercise.