Monday, March 12, 2012

A Failed Rescue Attempt in Africa – An Analysis of a Special Forces’ Operation

In early March this year, one of Britain’s elite Special Forces, the Special Boat Service (SBS) carried out an operation in the Nigerian city of Sokoto, about 100 miles north-east of Birnin Kebbi to rescue a British national Chris McManus and an Italian national Franco Lamolinara held by gunmen belonging to the Nigerian terrorist outfit Boko Haram. The operation, unfortunately failed resulting in the two hostages being killed. Though this operation did not get a lot of media coverage, it sparked off a diplomatic row between Britain and Italy since it has been alleged that Britain did not inform Rome about the rescue attempt till it was underway. 

The hostages Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara worked for Stabilini Visinoni Limited, an Italian construction firm, and were involved in the construction of a local headquarters for the Central Bank of Nigeria.

Gunmen seized the two engineers in the town of Birnin Kebbi on 12 May 2011. 

Birnin Kebbi is the capital of Kebbi state, in Nigeria’s North West and far from its oil-rich southern delta, where cash-driven kidnappings of Western workers are an occupational hazard. And unlike many Westerners in Nigeria, Mr. McManus was not involved in oil but in construction, as an engineer. The company, B Stabilini Visinoni Limited, which employed him was founded by Italians but has extensive Nigerian involvement.

But Kebbi borders Niger, where Al-Qaeda in the Magreb is active. In 2009, its members abducted a group of Western nationals, including Edwin Dyer, a Briton, who was murdered six months later. 

On the night of May 12 last year, Mr. McManus and his Italian colleague, Franco Lamolinara, were in their apartment with two other colleagues, a German and a Nigerian. 

According to the Nigerian police, the apartment was stormed by “a horde of gunmen”. In the melee, the German escaped, while the Nigerian was shot and wounded. Mr. McManus and Mr. Lamolinara were abducted. 

One detail of the abduction which was particularly troubling was the fact that the two men had kept a large amount of cash in their apartment but it was ignored by their abductors. 

That was seen as an ominous sign that whoever had taken Mr. McManus and Mr. Lamolinara was motivated by something other than money, but the picture remained hazy. 

Then, in early August 2011, a short video clip was sent to a French news agency in Lagos which showed the two men, bearded and blindfolded, kneeling before men carrying automatic weapons. 

In the film, Mr. McManus asked the British Government “to meet the demands of al-Qaeda”, but, significantly, there was no demand for money. 

The tape deepened British officials’ fears that the men were in the hands of Boko Haram, regarded as hardcore Islamists linked to al-Qaeda. “We’re not talking about Somali pirates or ransom gangs. These guys are ideologically-driven Islamists, part of the international AQ network,” said a British source. 

Following the appearance of the video, Whitehall’s Cobra committee, which oversees national security operations, met to consider the kidnapping. In all, the committee discussed the case about 20 times, initially chaired by civil servants but later overseen by senior ministers, including David Cameron. 

In early December 2011, a second video was released in which the hostage-takers declared that Mr. Cameron had two weeks to authorise “negotiations”. What would be the subject of talks was not clear, since the group made no clear demands. 

But they were clear about one thing: if that vague condition was not met, the hostages would be killed. 

Despite the threat, the Government, in agreement with Italy and Nigeria, decided to let the deadline pass because intelligence officials assessed that it was a “bit of macabre theatre” rather than a serious threat. But it did add urgency to the task of locating the hostages. 

It was reported that Nigerian intelligence officials tracked the group to the city of Sokoto, about 100 miles north-east of Birnin Kebbi. GCHQ at Cheltenham, Britain’s signals intelligence service was also at work, identifying and monitoring the telephone calls of the group. 

Once they were located, the option of using British Special Forces to attempt a rescue became a viable option for Mr. Cameron. 

Two weeks ago, a Squadron Group of the Special Boat Service deployed to Nigeria. The SBS was chosen to carry out the mission as it was the “Stand-By Squadron” for counter-terrorism. The post is rotated through the four SAS and four SBS squadrons every six months. 

In all, about 40 British Special Forces personnel went to Nigeria, travelling in civilian clothes and aboard commercial airlines, their weapons and gear shipped in British diplomatic bags. The commanding officer of the SBS, which recruits almost exclusively from the Royal Marines, set up his Task Group Headquarters at the British Embassy in Lagos. 

As well as intercepted telephone calls, the SBS also had access to surveillance video of the house where the hostages were being held from aircraft flying over the city. Images were fed back to the SBS command post and the monitor screens of the Cobra briefing room in Whitehall. 

For days, the SBS and their Nigerian counterparts watched, and waited. On 7th March 2012, what officials called “a window of opportunity” opened. Intercepts of mobile phone calls disclosed that the terrorists were about to move and then kill their hostages. 

The local SBS commander briefed his chief, the Director of Special Forces, a major-general who is both one of the most admired combat commanders in the Army and a personal friend of the Prime Minister. He judged that the situation was now “go, no-go”, meaning intervention was required. That judgment was endorsed by the Prime Minister, who gave the final authorisation on 8th March 2012 after an early morning Cobra meeting. 

Conventional planning would prefer an assault at night, preferably just before dawn. But for reasons that remain unclear, the SBS was forced to make a daylight assault. 

In a sign of haste, insiders said the soldiers carried out an “emergency response” plan, rather than the more comprehensive “deliberate response” plan. 

It appears that, due to the perceived imminent threat to the hostages, the SBS were forced to carry out their 'immediate action' plan. Such a plan is called on in an emergency such as when terrorists begin executing hostages. In such scenarios, the counter terrorism team has typically only just arrived on the scene and has had little time to build up an intelligence picture or to rehearse the operation. In such a scenario, the assault team is going in blind, not necessarily knowing exactly where the hostages are being held, what opposition to expect or what obstacles they may have to overcome.

It has been reported that the SBS approached the target building in Sokoto in trucks beginning the raid at 11.00 am Nigerian time. Other reports indicate that the SBS arrived in helicopters while the Nigerian forces arrived in vehicles to set up a cordon around the target building. The assault force consisted of around 8 SBS operatives, supported by a number of Royal Marines Commandos - possibly with the SFSG. 

As the SBS began to storm the terrorist compound, a fire fight ensued, resulting in the deaths of several of the hostage-takers. When the SBS team eventually fought its way inside the buildings, they discovered they were too late - the hostages had been killed by their captors. It is not yet clear exactly when the hostages were killed, whether it was before or during the SBS operation.

“The security agencies tried to break into the house but there was resistance,” said Mahmoud Abubakar, who lives on the same street. “The people inside were shooting at them and they returned fire. They exchanged fire for some time.” 

At least two terrorists were shot dead at this stage but for all the speed and training of the British forces, it was not enough. 

When the terrorists in the room with the hostages heard the gunfire they shot both Mr. McManus and Mr. Lamolinara in the head at close range. 

A senior official at Nigeria’s State Security Service said: “The hostage-takers shot the hostages before they [the Special Forces] even entered the compound. All the terrorists have been killed as well.” 

There are lessons to be drawn for all those involved in counter-terrorism operations. 

Theoretically, the principles of assault, namely, detailed planning, surprise, methods of entry, speed, violence of action were not adhered probably due to the rapidly changing ground situation as perceived by the SBS command.

Almost all operations of this nature are carried out either at the dead of night or in the wee hours of the morning. It is quite inexplicable as to why the SBS leadership chose to carry out an operation fraught with risk not only to the lives of hostages as well as to the rescuers themselves, but also to civilians residing in the area where the operation was to have been carried out in broad daylight. (The place where the hostages were kept was known to be densely populated). Stealth and surprise became the first casualties of the operation.

Secondly, the assault team comprising of SBS personnel was backed by, according to reports, nearly 100 Nigerian troops and helicopters for cordoning of and mopping up operations. With such a large attacking force, the element of surprise was probably non-existent. There are conflicting reports as to how the troops and the Special Forces’ team reached the place of operation.

The Special Forces cannot be faulted for the failure of the mission as the ground situation based on intelligence received forced them to adopt an emergency response plan rather than a deliberate response plan with scanty information about the target and the nature of opposition that it may expect. In other words, the assault party was going in virtually blind. Also the SBS had very little or no time to carry out a dry run before executing the operation. (The Israelis, on the other hand, while executing Operation Thunderbolt in 1976 knew the entire layout of the Entebbe Airport, had intelligence on the exact number of terrorists holding the hostages and the troop deployment at the airport). In this case, SBS personnel probably were not even aware of the topography of the target area.

It is probably unfair to the rescuers to make an analysis of the operation and sit in judgment over it. In all fairness, it must be said that such missions are always fraught with extreme risk of failure and the decision makers and the team executing such an operation were just unlucky on that fateful day.