At Large

It’s Not a Movie

A real-life hostage rescue that lacked a Hollywood ending.

By 3.16.12

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In the typical Hollywood action film a special operations unit daringly raids an enemy camp and rescues innocent victims of kidnapping. Some of the good guys might be killed, some wounded, but lots of bad guys hit the dust. In the end, the innocents are all rescued and the entire operation is a great success. That's Hollywood. In real life it is much more complicated and often tragic.

In the daylight hours of March 8, 2012 a sixteen-man team of British commandos of the Special Boat Service (SBS) augmented by four regional intelligence special operators attacked a compound in the Mabera suburb of Sokoto, northwest Nigeria. This was a joint British/Nigerian operation that had discovered the whereabouts of two civilian construction engineers who had been taken prisoner about ten moths earlier by a then unknown criminal gang. Later it was suspected that the kidnappers were members of the jihadi group, Boko Haram.

The location of the two prisoners, one British, the other Italian, was obtained during interrogation of a captured leader of a supposed Boko Haram splinter group after an earlier gunfight in Zaria, Kaduna. This SBS team is one of two who in spite of their name also operate on land. This team immediately coordinated its planned follow-up rescue operation with its liaison in the Office of the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. PM David Cameron gave his personal approval for the operation to proceed.

So far, so good. Proper procedure had been followed in swift fashion; the basic outline of the attack on the Sokoto compound had been approved; optimum security had been maintained. The commandos quickly moved into place; their Nigerian spec ops compatriots secured a wide perimeter outside the target compound. But here is where the script begins to break down.

Supposedly the Italian authorities knew nothing about the activity in progress. This story was maintained in order to cover the political positions of the president and prime minister of Italy. Italian law enforcement and judiciary have taken a public stance against negotiation for ransom of any hostages, and in these volatile times all must seem in line with that stated policy. When the story broke of the raid, however, the Italian leadership gave the appearance of being completely out of the loop. It said it was not informed beforehand about the action in Sokoto. Basically Rome wanted it both ways. It didn't want to know anything and then was upset that it didn't know anything. The Brits insist the action was taken without time for coordination.

With that matter aside for the moment, the scene turns to the twenty SBS team members who began an assault on the enemy compound. Armed relatively lightly, both sides battled on in the dry, 110 degree heat of this region that borders the Sahara. The fire-fight lasted nearly an hour as the British unit carefully infiltrated the compound.

According to a Nigerian woman living in a section of the target home with her husband, six of the criminal gang burst in with the prisoners; the two hostages were dragged into the bathroom and shot multiple times. The woman's husband was shot and killed by the attacking force as the captors fled. No other casualties have been reported, though three prisoners were taken during the raid and another two arrested later in Zaria.

The British and Nigerian authorities agree that there was no alternative to attack as soon as they learned where the hostages were being held and that they were about to be moved. The expectation was that the two Europeans were slated for immediate execution, according to the original captured informant. Nonetheless, the Italian president and prime minister vociferously condemned the lack of consultation and cooperation by their EU and NATO partners. The apparent truth is that the British did not trust the security at the upper levels of Italian leadership.

An additional problem now is that press sources in Africa report discussions on possible ransom were held with representatives of the kidnappers by British and Italian officials. To complicate matters further, a purported spokesman for Boko Haram has insisted that group had nothing to do with the kidnapping. Meanwhile other press sources with close contacts with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) say that the group in Sokoto was affiliated with the latter. In fact, AQIM is supposed to have facilitated a demand for ransom from the family of the British man who was being held.

Rome continues to be outraged over the entire affair in public even though Italian ops personnel apparently had been briefed all along. It was the politicians who were cut out. To add to the political complexity is the fact that Britain is currently attempting to mediate a conflict between Italy and India over the arrest of two Italian marines for allegedly killing two Indian fishermen who were mistaken for pirates while attempting to board an Italian ship.

All this is far too complicated for a Hollywood film, but it reflects the real world circumstances of what was unfortunately a typical special operation. The U.S. Army expression for such an activity that long has been adopted by most English-speaking military is FUBAR. It doesn't take a cryptologist to figure out what that means.

There will be no medals for this operation, but it took the same degree of courage and élan as a more successful effort would have required. That's what separates fact from fiction. The motto of the SBS is "By Strength and Guile." It does not ensure every mission will succeed, but it does mean everything will be done to make success possible. Now comes the unforgiving after-action report minus the Hollywood post-production editing. The Italian political elite should be happy it was cut out of the script.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.