Last year, on 12 May 2011, two employees of an Italian oil construction company, Stabilini Visinoni Ltd, were kidnapped from their apartment in Birnin Kebbi in northwest Nigeria by a “horde of gunmen”. Two months passed before any communication from the abductors surfaced regarding their two hostages: Chris McManus, a British construction engineer with the company, and his Italian companion, Franco Lamolinara.
British and Nigerian intelligence had no leads but suspicion ran high that it was a terrorist hostage operation: a large amount of cash in the apartment was left behind, and previous kidnappings in the area, as opposed to the numerous kidnappings in the oil-rich southern delta, involved Islamic terrorist organizations.
Background: Terrorist attacks in the predominantly Islamic north of Nigeria appeared to be influenced by a resurgent al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, a successor to the Groupe Islamique Armé [GIA] with which I was concerned in 1994 in southwest Algeria and the Western Sahara, and the later Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat [Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat or GPSC]), recently active across the nearby border with Niger as well as Mali and Mauretania, after branching out from its previous focus on Algeria.
More importantly for Nigeria is Boko Haram (roughly, ‘western culture is forbidden’), another Salafist terrorist group which has operated primarily in northeast Nigeria but which has shown signs of expanding to the west. They have also used the name Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah li Da’wah wal Jihad, or ‘Community of People of Tradition for Preaching and Holy War’, not coincidently similar to the GPSC title.
Both AQIM and Boko Haram swear allegiance to al Qaeda, along with Somali-based al Shabaab. AQIM has publicly pledged to support Boko Haram through arms and training, and Boko Haram has increased its links with al Shabaab. US Africa Command (AFRICOM) commander General Carter Ham has said that the three groups show evidence of becoming increasingly linked. (The only major terrorist group in Africa not involved with this new al Qaeda expanded group is the Lord’s Resistance Army of Ugandan Joseph Kony.) Boko Haram has quickly expanded in area of operations and tactics, from attacks on Christian churches and police stations to the suicide car bomb attack on the UN building in the capital of Abuja in August of last year.
In early August, a tape was left with a French news agency in Lagos. The one-minute video showed the two blindfolded men kneeling before a group of masked armed men, like many other tapes that were released by terrorists in Iraq and Pakistan, and McManus stated that the British government “should meet the demands of al Qaeda”. There was no mention of money, and the amorphous demand left officials perplexed about the motivation of the group other than a strictly ideological one.
After the appearance of the video, an ad hoc Cobra committee that oversees British national security operations at Whitehall took up the task to coordinate the crisis, including communication with the Italians and the Nigerian government of Prime Minister Goodluck Jonathan. Some 20 meetings involving a variety of players took place with apparently no real progress until the release of a second video in December, staged in the same way as the first, but this one demanded that British Prime Minister David Cameron had two weeks to authorize “negotiations”, otherwise the hostages would be killed. Again, this was a vague demand with no means of coordination with the kidnappers, and the three governments agreed to let the deadline pass as it was assessed as a “bit of macabre theatre” for the sake of posturing.
A major break came about three weeks ago with the capture of the local Boko Haram faction leader, Abu Muhammed, and four other members of the sect. The interrogations led the combined British and Nigerian task force to a small compound in Sokoto, northeast of Birnin Kibbe, with some evidence that this was a rogue operation.
A team of some 20-40 members of a squadron of the British Special Boat Service (SBS) with support from the Royal Marines were in place to conduct an assault once a target area was identified. (The alert unit for counter-terrorism is rotated through the four squadrons of the SBS and the four squadrons of the Special Air Service.) The plan was developed on the fly as it was believed that the kidnappers would be increasingly suspicious about the missing terrorists who were in custody, and intelligence from around the compound showed that the terrorists were preparing to move, probably up the chain to a more dedicated and deadly al Qaeda section. A plan was initially created for a night assault, probably just before dawn, but the plan was overtaken by events on 8 March (possibly through an OPSEC violation on the part of the Nigerians), with a sudden daylight assault, hastily approved by PM Cameron, performed instead.
The attack was initiated by a Nigerian Army APC crashing through the gate of the compound. SBS troops quickly shot dead two of the terrorists, Nigerian soldiers killed some half dozen more trying to escape after a prolonged gunfight, but unfortunately the two hostages were killed before the rescuers could get to them. There is some speculation that they were already dead before the assault. As for the captured terrorists, Nigerian PM Jonathan promises that they will be prosecuted “to the full wrath of the law”. (The government also replied to inquiries that Abu Muhammed had died shortly thereafter from gunshot wounds sustained during his capture.) Predictably, a Boko Haram spokesman denied responsibility for the kidnapping, which is likely further evidence that the group is still loosely tied, possibly around tribal affiliations, without clear coordination from a central headquarters or leadership core.
This does not mean (mark my words) that this will not be regarded as a learning experience by Boko Haram as well as Nigerians and British, and it will be a lesson impressed upon them by their new comrades in arms to tighten up, dispose of the deadwood, eliminate the internal friction and join the greater jihad against the ‘Satanic’ culture of the increasingly diluted Christian West.
As an aside, the Italian government protested that they were excluded from the final operation. They have their own anti-terrorist troops (Incursori, or Raiders) in the form of their joint special forces command (Comando Interforze per le Operazioni delle Forze Speciali – or CO.F.S.), similar to the American SOCOM. The Army elements are from the 9th Paratroop Assault Regiment of the Folgore (Lightning) Airborne Brigade, referred to usually by the name assigned to the unit, Col Moschin (after a famous alpine battle from World War I) or simply il Nono (the Ninth). The Navy contribution comes from COMSUBIN (Comando Subaquei ed Incursori – the Diver and Raider Command) and its Gruppo Operativo Incursori. (I worked with several foreign units during my career, with the longest lasting assignment being when I was seconded to what is now the Reggimento San Marco, or the Italian Marines. This put me in a position to work with the Incursori of both services over a period of several years during the mid-1980s, and they are superb troops with a great history – the Italians, for example, invented frogmen in World War I.) So why weren’t the Italians included? I would have to lay that primarily on the doorstep of the Nigerians, since this was an internal operation though supported from the outside, involving an Italian company with Italian and British nationals at stake. Nigeria needs herculean efforts to forge a professional military, still suffering even today from the excesses of the Biafra War. They receive training from a variety of countries, and their doctrine and interoperability, not to mention logistics, appears to be a slap-dash affair. As Nigeria is a member of the Commonwealth and maintains historic links to the British as a former colony, I expect that they wished to emphasize the principle of simplicity as best they could. Coordinating such a complex operation with another foreign power was simply beyond its capabilities. (Language should not have been a factor: the Italian officers in those units with whom I worked all had a credible to excellent command of English – a required course in their academies – and I have to expect that there are still links such as the billet in which I served.) Another consideration is that while the Incursori are certainly capable, the Italian government is still hopelessly hidebound and their relationship with their Special Forces is possibly still constrained (as I saw) by a secrecy so paranoid that these specialists are prevented from a healthy contact, coordination, and cross-pollination with foreign forces of like calibre. (I was frequently a conduit for cross-training with the Americans in particular, in a ‘wink and a nod’ authorization by their commanders lower on the chain of command.) Evidence is the fact that no Italian military personnel were already on the ground well before the attempt kicked off, coordinating and planning with the Nigerians and British.
This mission reminds us that reality extends far beyond our movie screens. The world has always been a truly dangerous place, and the state of nature and of man actually is nasty, brutish and short. We celebrate the great successes of these raids and rescues, and the numbers are steadily stacking up on our side, but that doesn’t mean that there still won’t be tragedies such as this, or that the current trend will continue to be in our favour. There are the lesser-publicized events such as the attempt to rescue Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove (which resulted in her death) and New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell (captured after ignoring the advice of the military, with the rescue resulting in the death of British Para Corporal John Harrison). Even the press that widely touted the rescue in January of American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Thisted in Somalia is comparatively muted about another free-lance journalist, Michael Scott Moore, being captured by pirates, in addition to a French military adviser, two Spanish doctors, and hundreds of sailors of various nationalities. A British tourist was freed last week after payment of a ransom (and then learned that her husband had been killed during her capture several months ago), and a French disabled woman died in captivity.
We are tempered still by the growing expectation that this war against Islamic Supremacists – an actual crusade, even if there are those of us who cringe from labeling it as such – is entering a new, more inimical phase. There is the increasing trend noted above of al Qaeda-associated terrorist groups from Algeria, Nigeria, and Somalia becoming more coordinated throughout North Africa; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – mostly in Yemen – becoming more entrenched and expansive; the ‘Arab Spring’ turning increasingly sour with replacing old Arab dictatorships with Salafist or Muslim Brotherhood religious totalitarians; Afghanistan possibly slipping from our grasp as the current administration can’t seem to withdraw quickly enough; our relationship with Pakistan becoming ever more brittle; bombings in Iraq becoming more frequent in a democracy still fragile and next to an increasingly bellicose Iran. After having finally put a righteous bullet in Osama bin Laden’s head, we cannot simply declare the war at an end, pack our tents and go home.
This crusade will continue unto the generations.