Milan – RAID SAS – Darwin Settlement. Painting
by Daniel Bechennec.
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Special forces are a distinctively British contribution to contemporary military capability. They have their origin in Winston Churchill’s directive of July 1940 to ‘set Europe ablaze’, the immediate outcome of which was the creation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Churchill’s belief, ill-conceived though it proved to be, was that covert attacks by irregular forces within the territory of German-occupied Europe could undermine Britain’s enemy from within. He envisaged the work being done by local patriots, armed and advised by British agents. Churchill’s scheme, though it did much to restore the national pride of Europe’s defeated peoples, did little to weaken Nazi power. His conception of forming irregular units had an indirect result, however, that was permanently to alter the way in which states use military force. Fertilised by the idea of SOE, the British army’s thinking in the middle period of the Second World War turned towards the creation of its own irregular forces, trained and equipped to operate inside enemy territory. The first such units, organised at Churchill’s direct order, became the commandos, raiding forces to be landed from the sea; they had their airborne equivalent in the Parachute Regiment, which was trained and equipped to descend from aircraft behind enemy lines.
The SOE, commando and Parachute Regiment ideas coalesced to inspire free-thinking officers of the British forces in the Middle East during 1940–2 with a conception of their own: that instead of seeking to recruit civilians to fight as irregular soldiers, they should turn professionals into irregulars. The outcome was a coterie of unconventional units, the Long Range Desert Group, Popski’s Private Army, the Levant Schooner Squadron, the Special Air Service. When the war came to an end, most were disbanded to survive only as romantic memories. The Special Air Service (SAS) found a different destiny. It had had a very successful war, attacking airfields in apparently quiet sectors of the desert and pinpoint targets in continental Europe; though stood down in 1946, it was revived – as the Malayan Scouts – to conduct covert operations against Communist terrorists in the Malayan jungle in 1948 and thereafter accumulated many other functions. By the 1980s it had become the instrument with which the army, often acting as the agent of the government, conducted covert operations against terrorists and organised criminals inside and outside the United Kingdom; it also acted as the irregular arm of the regular forces in conventional operations. Quite small – its intensely selective recruitment process limited its numbers to about 400 – its effectiveness was out of all proportion to its numerical strength.
One of the functions at which it excelled was undercover observation. SAS troopers learnt how to penetrate a landscape and disappear inside it, ‘lying up’ in ‘hides’ for days at a time, surviving in great discomfort to bring back eye-witness accounts of enemy locations and activities. Northwood headquarters decided at the outset of Operation Corporate that, because of the paucity of intelligence derived from signal interception and overhead surveillance, it would be essential to insert SAS parties to watch and report. Those missions would shortly be enlarged to include direct attack on exposed enemy positions identified as offering critical threats to the success of the expedition.
One was decided upon at the outset. The Argentinian presence on South Georgia, though it lay 800 miles from the Falklands group, was seen as an affront; it was also soon perceived as presenting an opportunity. During the long preparatory period, as the task force moved south in stages during March and April, the government felt increasingly under pressure to allay public anxiety with news of success. The recapture of South Georgia would satisfy the requirement. A mixed party of Royal Marines and SAS was therefore embarked on HMS Antrim and detached to the objective. In extreme weather conditions and with inadequate equipment, the party eventually got ashore, having narrowly avoided disaster in the process, and completed their mission between 21–24 April. The Argentinian servicemen, who had replaced the scrap dealers, gave up easily. The marines and SAS suffered no casualties, though many had been close to death by mishap several times.
Following the South Georgia foray, the SAS, with its Royal Marines equivalent, the Special Boat Squadron (now Service), was committed directly to preliminary operations in the Falklands; at a later stage it also took a full operational part in the fighting and attempted a number of still mysterious penetrations of the Argentinian mainland, intended to give early warning of Argentinian air strikes but also to intercept them by surprise attack.
The first major special forces mission was launched against the Falklands group in early May. Six Special Boat Squadron (SBS) teams and seven four-man SAS patrols were landed by helicopter from the fleet, the SBS tasked particularly to choose landing beaches, the SAS to gather intelligence of Argentinian deployments. One SAS patrol lay up at Bluff Cove, eventually to be chosen as a subsidiary landing place on the west coast of East Falkland, the main island, one at Darwin, near San Carlos, the initial and main landing place, three overlooking Port Stanley, the island capital on East Falkland, three on the barely inhabited West Falkland. It was there that the SAS drew first blood. On 14 May forty-five men of D Squadron, who had been guided to their destination by a patrol inserted three days earlier, landed by helicopter to strike at the airstrip on Pebble Island where the Argentinian air force had based eleven Pucara ground-attack aircraft, guarded by a hundred men. The SAS troopers were accompanied by forward observers from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery to direct the fire of frigates offshore. Under the bombardment the SAS laid demolition charges which destroyed all the enemy aircraft and withdrew without loss, leaving an Argentinian officer dead and two of his men wounded.
Two independent actions by special forces followed, one on 21 May, the day of the main landing in San Carlos Water, to seize Fanning Head, which overlooked the approach, and during 25–27 May to secure look-out positions on Mount Kent, dominating Port Stanley. Both were completely successful. The Argentinians at Fanning Head were driven off by the SBS which, in the period before the main landing, also sent patrols to Campa Menta Bay, Eagle Hill, Johnson’s Harbour, San Carlos and Port San Carlos. On 20 May an SAS patrol had also struck a serious blow at Argentinian ability to position troops against the bridgehead, when it was secured, by finding an enemy helicopter park and destroying the four Chinooks and Pumas waiting there. The two units, 22 SAS and the SBS, continued to be involved in operations on the islands after the landings until the Argentinian surrender on 14 June.
After 4 May, however, when Sheffield was sunk by Exocet, the main thought of those controlling special forces was to use them in some way that would provide early warning of Exocet raids or eliminate the Super Etendards which delivered them. In either case landings on the Argentinian mainland would be required. The insertion of an SAS surveillance team was attempted by helicopter against the base at Rio Grande on the night of 17–18 May; its mission was to assess the state of the defences and then retire undetected into Chilean territory, where preparations had been made to receive it. As the helicopter landed the pilot decided that his aircraft had been detected and that he must make an escape to Chile. After a hurried flight westward, he dropped his SAS passengers to proceed on foot across the border, then landed inside Chilean territory and set fire to his machine. He and his two crew were subsequently repatriated, having unconvincingly explained their presence in Chilean airspace with the excuse that they had got lost. The SAS invaders were discovered by an undercover liaison agent, taken to Santiago and hidden there until the war was over.
The second element of the scheme to eliminate the Super Etendards at Rio Grande failed because those detailed for the mission became convinced that it would end in disaster. The plan required three troops, forty-five men, to be crash-landed onto the runway in Hercules C-130 aircraft, overcome the defenders, destroy the Super Etendards, kill the pilots, whom it was hoped to trap in their quarters, and then march at high speed across country to neutral Chile. The diplomacy of the operation was dubious; so was its practicality. The soldiers’ confidence was not enhanced by the discovery that the only maps of the region available dated from 1939 or had been photocopied from The Times Atlas. At their last briefing before departure from England, two highly experienced sergeants announced that they wished to remain behind, apparently an unprecedented event in SAS history. In the face of their doubts, the senior officer felt obliged to cancel the operation and stand the other soldiers down. Some felt the dissenters should have been dismissed; others accepted that they had reason on their side.
The planners’ reasons for preparing the operation, at the extreme limit of risk though it was known to be, was demonstrated on 25 May when two Super Etendards, refuelled north of the islands, approached the fleet from an unexpected direction and launched Exocets. One was distracted by chaff and fell into the sea, the second, attracted by the huge bulk of the container ship Atlantic Conveyor, struck home. Conveyor caught fire and sank, taking with it much vital heavy equipment, including three large Chinook troop-carrying helicopters, and ten Wessex, which were intended to lift the infantry forward towards Port Stanley. Their loss condemned the infantry to walk, thus seriously setting back the final stage of the ground campaign.
After the attack on Conveyor, however, only one Exocet remained to the Argentinians. Moreover, in fierce battles between the task force and the enemy’s conventionally armed air units between 21 and 23 May, twenty-three enemy aircraft had been destroyed, taking Argentinian losses to one-third of their available strength. The Argentinian pilots had fought throughout the campaign with great courage and unexpected skill but the air battles over San Carlos Water had effectively defeated them. They were to achieve one more spectacular success, at Bluff Cove on 8 June, but by then the British ground forces were positioned on the high ground surrounding Port Stanley, whose Argentinian garrison was already showing its readiness to surrender.
There is some suggestion, unverified and unconfirmed, that the task force’s ability to defend itself against air attack was reinforced during May by the insertion of another, undetected SAS surveillance mission on the Argentinian mainland and by the positioning offshore of nuclear submarines as pickets. Certainly the full picture of the nature of the British early-warning system during the three weeks, 21 May–14 June, of the phase of intense fighting has not been disclosed. It cannot have succeeded by luck alone, for the air cover available was scanty, only 36 Harriers before losses, while the fleet’s missile defences were patchy. The remarkable total of losses inflicted on the Argentinians, including 31 Skyhawks and 26 Mirages, speaks of a more systematic warning achievement than chance would allow.
The task force suffered two grave intelligence defeats, both attributable to failures at the human level. During the subsidiary campaign to recapture South Georgia, a succession of attempts to extract an SAS party from a position made untenable by ferocious Arctic weather was only saved from disaster when a third helicopter succeeded, against every probability, in rescuing both the party and the crews of the two helicopters which had crashed in previous attempts to rescue it. The mission had been undertaken only because an army officer with exploring experience on South Georgia had assured the planners that the original mission was feasible; the episode provided an awful warning that expert information can be as flawed as any other form of intelligence. The second failure was more serious; early in the campaign a Sea Harrier from Invincible was shot down in an attack on the Pucara base in West Falklands (4 May); on the pilot’s body an Argentinian intelligence officer found his briefing notes, which when deciphered revealed the position from which the fleet was operating east of the Falklands. Until then it had been able to hide from the enemy in the wastes of the ocean, while keeping close enough to fight what was hoped would be a successful struggle to achieve air superiority over the islands. After 4 May, also the date when Sheffield was sunk by Exocet, Admiral Woodward was forced to withdraw the fleet beyond Argentinian aircraft range, and to approach the islands only when absolutely necessary.
The British had gone to war in the belief that their show of force would bring about an Argentinian withdrawal by diplomatic negotiation. After the sinking of Sheffield and the loss of the first Sea Harrier they were obliged to recognise that the conflict was real; once the troops landed on 21 May optimism grew that resistance would collapse, as the Argentinian conscripts were overcome by the superior fighting power of the British regulars. It was during the first three weeks of the campaign that the issue hung in the balance. An intelligence coup by the Argentinians, allowing them to strike one of the British carriers or a big troop-carrying ship, Canberra or QEII, with an Exocet might have shifted it their way. As it was, without access to American satellite or signal intelligence, which the British enjoyed, and with inadequate intelligence resources of their own, the Argentinians had to operate by guess and chance. Neither sufficed.
The last large war of the twentieth century, that in the Gulf against Iraq by the American-led coalition, was conducted within an intelligence environment far more favourable to the intervening force than that conditioning the Falklands War nine years earlier. The coalition was served with, besides copious and continuous sigint, frequent overflying missions, yielding high-resolution photography and much electronic and sensory data, as well as satellite surveillance in all its forms. Because the Iraqis had deployed their forces beyond their own borders, in Kuwaiti territory, the coalition also had access to plentiful and exact cartography of the operational area; the combatants made no complaints at all about the quantity or quality of strategic intelligence available to them.
The acquisition of tactical intelligence in real time proved much less satisfactory. Because the Iraqi air force took refuge at an early stage in Iran, there was no need for early warning of air attack. What was required was warning of the launch of Iraqi Scud missiles, aimed at coalition forces, their Saudi bases and the territory of Israel; even more desirable was information about the Scud launchers’ whereabouts. Early warning worked well, allowing the destruction of Scuds in flight on several occasions. Location of the launchers – a variant of the Meillerwagen that had made the V-2s so difficult to attack in 1944–5 – proved effectively impossible. Despite the insertion of numbers of special forces teams into Iraqi territory, no Scud launcher was found and none destroyed. Iraqi ability to hide and protect its weapons of highest value from detection by both external and internal intelligence-gathering means underlay the international crisis that began in 2002 and persists at the time of writing.
Saddam Hussein’s defiance of the authority of the United Nations, by his refusal to co-operate with its weapons inspectors as required under Resolution 1441 of the Security Council, exemplifies the difficulties of obtaining intelligence about modern weapons systems even under conditions amounting to those of authorised espionage. The inspectors, though present in considerable numbers – at least a hundred – on Iraqi territory, and ostensibly enjoying unfettered freedom of movement and access, were consistently frustrated, as late as March 2003, in their efforts to uncover stocks of chemical and biological warfare materials which they had good reason to believe had not been destroyed, as was required by UN resolution, and remained hidden at a number of locations. The search for the components of nuclear warheads, which it was also strongly believed Saddam was attempting to construct, proved equally unavailing. The senior weapons inspector, Dr Hans Blix, complained that he and his team were unable to fulfil their task – to report that Iraq had fully complied with the provisions of Resolution 1441 – because they were refused full co-operation by the Iraqi authorities, particularly the freedom to interrogate in private Iraqi scientists known to be working on the weapons programme. Neither Dr Blix nor Western anti-war protestors, who demanded more time for the inspectors to continue, seem to have made any allowance for the possibility that the objects of their search were so well concealed that whatever the apparent co-operation furnished by the Iraqis and however long investigations were protracted, his mission was bound to fail. The situation was unprecedented. A potential international lawbreaker had been obliged to open his borders to officially sponsored investigators of his suspected wrongdoing and yet they remained unable to dispel the uncertainties surrounding his intentions and capabilities. In absolutely optimum conditions, in short, intelligence had failed.
Intelligence operations in the parallel ‘war against terror’ were equally frustrated, though for different reasons. The ‘war’ was misnamed, for it was so one-sided as to deprive the opponents of terrorism of any of the usual means by which one party to a conflict normally exerts pressure on the other. Al-Qaeda, the movement which had taken control of and given leadership to the diffuse forces of Islamic fundamentalist terror, has, though it means ‘the base’ in Arabic, no identifiable base and, after the defeat of the Taleban in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2002, no territory. It is outlawed in many Muslim states, where autocratic governments fear the threat it offers, through accusations of their less than perfect adherence to the fundamentalists’ conception of Islam, to established authority. The size and composition of its membership is unknown, as is the identity of its leadership, a few self-declared but elusive figureheads apart, and the structure of its command system, if one exists; it is a strength of al-Qaeda that it appears to be a coalition of like-minded but separate groups rather than a monolithic entity. Its finances, though it is known to possess large monetary resources, are mysterious, since it apparently conducts transactions by informal but secure word-of-mouth agreements traditional within Muslim societies. It does not possess large armouries of conspicuous weapons, preferring to improvise – as by its hijacking of civilian airliners on 11 September 2001 – or to make use of readily concealed means of terrorist outrage, such as plastic explosive. Like all post-1945 terrorist organisations, it appears to have learnt a great deal from the operations of the Western states’ special forces during the Second World War, such as SOE and OSS, which developed and diffused most of the modern techniques of secret warfare among the resistance groups of German-occupied Europe during 1940–4; the copious literature of secret warfare against the Nazis provides the textbooks. Among the techniques described is resistance to interrogation by captured operatives, which often failed against the Gestapo, since it was prepared to use torture, but succeeds against today’s Western counter-terrorist organisations, culturally indisposed to employ torture and anyhow inhibited from so doing by domestic and international law. Despite the arrest and detention of hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives, reports suggest that they have successfully overcome American efforts to break down their resistance to questioning.
The only point of penetration into the world of al-Qaeda appears to have been found in its necessity to communicate. Intercommunication, as this book suggests, has almost always proved the weak link in undercover systems, whatever the methods used to make it secure. Al-Qaeda has apparently thus far trusted to the difficulty presented to Western monitoring organisations by the sheer volume of mobile and satellite telephone transmissions, seemingly hoping that its person-to-person messages will be lost among the daily billions of others. It has, fortunately, proved a false hope. Modern methods of scanning and point-targeting of transmissions allow the Western interception agencies to isolate and overhear an increasingly large number of significant messages and so to identify suspects and locate where they operate.
In the last resort, however, attacks on the al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist networks will only be made successful by recourse to the oldest of all intelligence methods, direct and personal counter-espionage. Brave individuals, fluent in difficult languages and able to pass as native members of other cultures, will have to befriend and win acceptance by their own societies’ enemies. It is a technique perfected by the Israelis, whose intelligence agencies enjoy the advantage of being able to recruit agents among refugees from ancient Jewish communities in Arab lands, colloquial in the speech of the countries from which they have fled but completely loyal to the state in which they have found a new home. Western states will find such recruitment more difficult. Islam imposes a powerful bond over fellow believers; even Muslim immigrants of the second or third generation, loyal to their Western countries of adoption in every other way, feel a strong aversion to what seems betrayal of co-religionists by reporting them to the authorities for religious zealotry. The problem of recruitment is acute in the United States, which lacks both Muslim communities of large size or antiquity and non-Muslim citizens with a knowledge of the appropriate languages. It may prove easier in the old imperial countries, such as Britain and France, whose intelligence agencies, particularly the British, actually have their roots in the nineteenth-century need to police their colonial dissidents and which retain a significant residue of language and other ethnographic skills.
A strange task confronts them. It diverges widely from that of Bletchley and OP-20-G, which required the highest intellectual power and rigorous dedication to the routines of radio monitoring, interception and decipherment. The masters of the new counter-intelligence will not resemble the academics and chess champions of the Enigma epic in any way at all. They will not be intellectuals nor will they overcome their opponents by power of reason or gifts of mathematical analysis. On the contrary: it will be qualities of empathy and dissimulation that will equip them to identify, penetrate and win acceptance by the target groups. Their work will resemble that of undercover police agents who attempt to become trusted members of criminal gangs, with all the dangers and moral compromises that such a life requires. Undercover work within the terrorist groups of Northern Ireland, republican and loyalist alike, has equipped British security and specialist police bodies to understand how such undercover operations are best conducted, but the practice is always more difficult than theory and will prove particularly so with religious fanatics. Even ideological terrorists, such as the extreme nationalists of the Irish republican tradition, are sometimes susceptible to temptation or threat; republican fund-raising by blackmail and extortion has drawn the movement into crime, with corrupting effect, while its ‘military’ ethos excludes the taking of risks that threaten the lives of ‘volunteers’. Muslim puritans, by contrast, seem resistant to financial temptation, have demonstrated their readiness to commit suicide in furtherance of their violent aims, are committed to a code of total silence under interrogation and are bound by ties of brotherhood which have religious strength. No organisation, of course, is impervious to penetration or is indestructible. All have their weak spots and weak members. It may, however, take decades for Western intelligence agencies to learn how to break into the mysterious and alien organisations and even longer to marginalise and neutralise them.
The challenge will cast the agencies back on to methods which have come to appear outdated, even primitive, in the age of satellite surveillance and computer decryption. Kipling’s Kim, who has survived into modern times only as the delightful literary creation of a master novelist, may come to provide a model of the antifundamentalist agent, with his ability to shed his European identity and to pass convincingly as Muslim message-carrier, Hindu gallant and Buddhist holy man’s hanger-on, far superior to any holder of a PhD in higher mathematics. Buchan’s Scudder, sniffing from clue to clue along a trail leading from fur shop in Buda to the back streets of Paris, shedding and adopting new disguises on the way, seems better adapted to the future world of espionage than any graduate student in regional studies. It will be ironic if the literature of imagination supplies firmer suggestions as to how the war against terrorism should be fought than academic training courses in intelligence technique provide. Ironic but not unlikely. The secret world has always occupied a halfway house between fact and fiction, and has been peopled as much by dreamers and fantasists as by pragmatists and men of reason.
The Western powers may come to count themselves fortunate that, in their time of troubles during the two world wars, the central targets of intelligence-gathering, enemy communications and secret weapons were susceptible to attack by concrete methods: overhearing, decryption and visual surveillance, together with deception in kind. They have already learnt to regret the emergence of new intelligence targets that lack any concrete form: aggressive belief-systems not subject to central authority, shifting alliances of dangerous malcontents, stateless migrants disloyal to any country of settlement. It is from those backgrounds that the agents of anti-Western terrorism are recruited. Their recruiting grounds, moreover, are confusingly amorphous, disguised as they are within communities of recently arrived immigrants, many of them young men without family or documented identity, often illegal border-crossers, who take on protective colouring within the large groups of ‘paperless’ drifters merely seeking to avoid the attention of the authorities.
The United States, protected as it is by its wide oceanic frontiers and its strict and efficient border services, is certainly not impervious to terrorist penetration, as the awful events of 11 September 2001 demonstrated. The western European states, physically contiguous to countries which hundreds of thousands of young men energetically seek to leave and constrained by their own civil rights legislation from returning illegals to their jurisdictions of origin, even if the facts can be established, are much less well defended. The security problem by which the Western European states are confronted is not only without precedent in scale or intensity but defies containment. The suspect communities grow continuously in size, the nuclei of plotters and would-be evil-doers they conceal thereby acquiring greater anonymity and freedom to prepare outrages. Financial support is not a problem, since the terrorists enjoy access to funds extracted in their countries of origin by blackmail in many forms, including straightforward protection money but also donations represented as contributions to the cause of holy war. The ‘war on terrorism’ may be a misnomer, but it would be foolish to pretend that there is not an historic war between the ‘crusaders’, as Muslim fundamentalists characterise the countries which descend from the kingdoms of Western Christendom, and the Islamic world. It has taken many forms over more than a thousand years and fortunes in the conflict have ebbed and flowed. A century ago it appeared to have been settled for good in favour of the West, when the region’s technological superiority seemed to have reduced Islam to an irreformably backward and feeble condition. Allah, Muslims might say, is not mocked. Their certitude in the truth of their beliefs has driven those Muslims who see themselves as religious warriors to seek ways of waging holy war that outflank mere technology and promise to bring victory by the power of anti-materialist forces alone. Muslim fundamentalism is profoundly unintellectual; it is, by that token, opposed to everything the West understands by the idea of ‘intelligence’. The challenge to the West’s intelligence services is to find a way into the fundamentalist mind and to overcome it from within.