Afghanistan is considered to be one of the dangerous places on the planet. There is danger lurking around the corner every single day given the politically volatile situation. There have been number of instances of abduction and execution of hostages, particularly of aid workers belonging to the various international aid agencies. There have been rescue attempts of hostages in the past, some of which were successful and others having ended in utter failure. One such case was that of Linda Norgrove, a British doctor, who was killed in a botched rescue operation about eighteen months ago. There have been successes as well. One such classic operation was brilliantly executed by a Special Forces team comprising British SAS and US Navy’s SEAL Team 6 in the inhospitable terrain of Badakhshan in Northern Afghanistan sometime around 1st / 2nd June 2012. The objective of the operation was to rescue two aid workers belonging to an international aid charity Medair and two other Afghans held along with them.
The four female workers belonging to a Swiss-based aid organization Medair, including two Afghans, had been kidnapped on 22nd May 2012 while traveling on horseback from Yafta to Yavan district in the remote Northern province of Badakhshan. After their abduction, the four hostages were held in a cave deep inside the thick Koh-e-Laram forest within the Shahri Buzurg district of North-Western Badakhshan close to the Tajikistan border.
Shortly after the four women were seized, the kidnappers, who were known to have close links to the Taliban, released a video in which they demanded a £ 6 million ransom and the release of a comrade held in custody.
International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) commanders hoped initially that the kidnapping would be resolved peacefully.
Planning the Rescue
While the negotiations were on, the Special Forces began to plan for a worse case scenario and started to reconnoitre a series of potential helicopter landing sites – a difficult task given the nature of the terrain, highly mountainous and thick with forest. They were tasked to prepare for a rescue mission in the event of negotiations breaking down or if the lives of the hostages were threatened.
While the British and US forces planned and rehearsed their rescue mission, back in London the Prime Minister chaired several Cobra (Cabinet office Briefing Room A) meetings where he kept senior members of the cabinet informed of the latest events.
In attendance amongst others were the heads of MI5 and MI6, the Director of Special Forces, General Sir David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Tim Allen, Sir Kim Darroch, the National Security Advisor and the Philip Hammond, Defence Secretary.
“I have given my approval to COMISAF [General John Allen, Commander of the International Security and Assistance Force] for a rescue mission to be launched,” he told the meeting gathered round a large conference table in the windowless room under Downing Street. “It is just a matter of when and how”.
Over the next few days, SAS commanders, intelligence officers and members of the Afghan National Defence Directorate, watched the activities of the abductors on real-time video transmitted via satellite from the Predator as they prepared the rescue plan within the headquarters of the Joint Special Forces Group in Kabul.
By the evening of 28th May, a force of 28 members of the SAS and an equal number of US Navy SEALS had established a forward operating base within the headquarters of a Provincial Reconstruction Team close to the town of Fayzabad, around 30 minutes flying time from the hostages’ location.
But by 30th May 2012 the Predator garnered some vital intelligence. The Briton Miss Helen Johnston, 28 and 26-year-old Kenyan Moragwa Oirere also an aid worker were separated from their two Afghan colleagues and being held in a different cave.
Of more concern, however, were the details of an intercepted phone call in which the Taliban had begun to urge the kidnappers to “make a declaration of intent”. Back in Kabul intelligence officers assumed this meant that at least one of the hostages risked being murdered. The development was what the American Special Forces called a “game changer”. It was time for “executive action”.
Around mid-afternoon of 1st June 2012, during the twelfth consecutive Cobra meeting chaired by David Cameron, those present were informed of the latest developments, including the imminent launch of a hostage rescue operation - no further information was given.
In Kabul, the decision was taken to split the hostage rescue force. A 28-strong SAS detachment would be responsible for freeing Miss Johnston and her Kenyan colleague, while the US team, composed of members of Seal Team 6 - the same unit credited with having shot dead Osama Bin Laden - was tasked with rescuing the Afghan hostages.
The intelligence from the aerial reconnaissance was at best sketchy but it was thought that at least four kidnappers were guarding Miss Johnston and Miss Oirere, while a further seven were holding the two Afghans.
Both groups were armed with AK47 assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades and a PKM, a Russian belt-fed machine-gun, which is capable of shooting down a helicopter.
Late on Friday morning, the British and US rescue teams were told that the operation had been confirmed. The mission was straight forward: Rescue the hostages, kill the kidnappers. H-hour, the launch time for the operation was 5 pm local time.
The rescue force flew to a rendezvous on the edge of the Koh-e-Laram Forest in MH-60L Blackhawk helicopters flown by pilots from 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), nicknamed the Night Stalkers.
Each helicopter is equipped with a M230 Chain Gun and rockets pods. Riding “shotgun” were two US Apache helicopters to provide “flank support” for the operation.
The SAS troops went in relatively light - dressed in black with machine guns, pistols, knives and both stun and hand grenades. Each man was equipped with night vision goggles and a helmet-mounted camera. A medical team was also attached to each of the assault ready to give immediate first aid to the hostages.
The first troops on the ground secured a helicopter landing site (HLS) at the top of a rocky valley and coordinated the arrival of all of the Blackhawks until the full compliment of troops had arrived. The HLS was located around two miles away from the kidnappers’ camp - but the sound of any approaching helicopters would have been muffled by the thick forest, or so the Special Forces hoped.
In the early evening light, the US and British Special Forces were closing in on the caves where the hostages were being held.
Back at ISAF Headquarters in Kabul, General Allen and his British deputy, Lieutenant General Adrian Bradshaw, watched the operation unfold on television screens inside the main operations room in so that they could maintain “full situational awareness”.
Just as the sun was beginning to set the British troops approached the cave where they believed Miss Johnston and Miss Oirere were being held. The SAS held their ground until their US colleagues reached their assault positions. It was vital for both attacks to be executed concurrently. Weapons and radios were given a final check and night vision goggles activated. Minutes later the Special Forces teams rescuers were given the order to assault.
The soldiers moved into the darkness shooting dead the kidnappers with silenced weapons. Several were dispatched with a “double tap” the preferred method of killing - two bullets in the centre of the forehead.
The US Special Forces cleared and secured their target, killing seven kidnappers in the process but no hostages had been found.
Momentarily, the commanders were faced with the dreadful possibility that the four aid workers had been moved. Seconds later, however, the tension was broken when the SAS team commander’s radio crackled into life, reporting that all four hostage were alive and well, before adding that a further four kidnappers had been killed.
The dead were searched for intelligence and weapons while medics checked the four women to ensure that none had been injured during the brief firefight.
Within minutes the helicopters were brought forward to a clearing near the edge of the forest where the four exhausted but relieved hostages were flown back to ISAF headquarters in Kabul.
At 2 am British time Downing Street was informed that the rescue operation had been a complete success. The Prime Minister was woken at 2.15 am and was given the news. He stayed up until every member of the SAS was safely back in Kabul and spoke to several of the soldiers by phone praising their courage and thanking them for achieving a successful outcome.
Spokesman for the coalition forces, US Army Col. Cummings identified the kidnappers as "a criminal armed terrorist group closely tied to the Taliban and they were armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s."
All military operations in Afghanistan, whether special or regular, are fraught with grave risk and uncertainty. This particular operation was ordered to be launched by the British Prime Minister fully aware that the outcome may not be entirely favourable. (Prime Minister Cameron had come in for sharp criticism when British Special Forces, the SBS was involved in an unsuccessful rescue of hostages in Nigeria in March 2012. Read the author’s post http://kumar-theloneranger.blogspot.in/2012/03/failed-rescue-attempt-in-africa.html). Having said that, the US and British Special Forces have during the course of the long war against Taliban and Al Qaeda have gained immense battle-field experience and sharpened their skills in one of the most adverse conditions and inhospitable terrains. Also many an operations having been conducted jointly, the co-ordination and interoperability between the two forces have been greatly enhanced.
Another important factor contributing to the successful outcome of the mission, has been the unwavering policy of the United States, Britain and other Western nations of not giving into the demands of terrorists.