Keeping ‘Certain Death’ alive

Keeping ‘Certain Death’ alive

The significance of intelligence in any operation is undisputed. However, debate rages over the importance of human versus technical intelligence. Human intelligence, or Humint—as it is known in tradecraft, is gathered using personnel deployed on the ground—either by physical spying or running agents. Technical intelligence, or Techint, is obtained through means such as satellite imagery, photographic reconnaissance, breaking ciphers and so on. Spy folklore and grassroots field agents vaunt the value of Humint, while proponents of Techint claim its superiority in the modern digital context.

However, as one of the most daring rescue missions ever attempted demonstrates, intelligence is a formidable force multiplier only when both techniques are used in conjunction.

In 2000, a team of the UK’s Royal Irish regiment was stationed in Sierra Leone to help train its armed forces. Sierra Leone—a failed state for long—was in the throes of civil war, with a multitude of rebel gangs ravaging the country. The most feared of them was the “Westside Boys" who controlled the jungles outside the capital— Freetown. One particular outfit, led by Foday Kallay, was notorious for its brutality. Raging high on drugs and alcohol, the outfit’s standard modus operandi comprised killing and torture, especially amputations.

On 25 August 2000, a routine British patrol led by Maj. Alan Marshall and accompanied by Sierra Leone liaison officer Lt Musa Bangura strayed into rebel controlled jungles and was ambushed by them. Facing overwhelming odds, Maj. Marshall surrendered and tried to talk his way out. The Westside Boys had other plans. They whisked away the captives to their stronghold of Geberi Bana, 50km away. In the thick jungles of Sierra Leone, that was as good as being in a different country. The hostages were brutally beaten and tortured, with Bangura being singled out for the worst treatment.

The next day, Kallay announced that he was holding the hostages and turned in his demands for amnesty, political recognition and release of imprisoned comrades. The British realized the impossibility of meeting the demands and the need for a rescue operation. But they had no idea where to begin.

Over the next four days, Marshall and the other hostages came to the same conclusion—that they were fast running out of options. They knew it was only a matter of time before the volatile and crazed Kallay realized that the British wouldn’t accede to his demands and started executing them. Marshall had to get information about where they were imprisoned to the rescue team. Using a scrap of paper and a pen, the hostages painstakingly drew a detailed map of Geberi Bana and their exact location in the hope that they would get an opportunity to communicate with the outside world.

On the 5th day of the crisis, that opportunity seemed to present itself. Col Simon Fordham, the commanding officer of the Royal Irish battalion that the hostages were part of, met Kallay on the edges of the jungle to negotiate the terms of release. One of Kallay’s demands was for a satellite phone, which would help him contact BBC and internationalize the situation. In return, he promised to release five hostages. Kallay had brought with him a battered Marshall and his second in command Capt Flaherty as “proof of life". As Flaherty and Marshall shook hands with their commanding officer, they managed to pass him the map of the stronghold. At last, the British knew exactly where the hostages were being held and the disposition of rebels in the area.

Now the British high command had to make a difficult decision. While it had begun negotiations with Kallay to buy time, the ministry of defence had realized that any rescue mission more than 3,000 miles into hostile territory was suicidal. However, 70 commandos from the British Special Air Service and Special Boat Service as well as 100 soldiers of the Parachute Regiment (nicknamed Paras) were ordered to embark on Operation Barras. This was to be the deadliest rescue mission ever attempted since World War II. Aptly, the unofficial codename was “Certain Death".

Now that they knew where to begin, Britain deployed its Techint capability along the Rokel river, where the hostages were being held. Satellites mapped the terrain to develop rescue strategies. The commandos were faced with a dangerous conundrum. Their plan must get them to the rebels before the rebels could get to the hostages. Given the latter’s proximity to the hostages, the commandos would have only seconds before the kidnappers executed all of them.

The combination of Humint and Techint helped build a detailed picture of the operational area. It was a grave one. Kallay and 150 rebels held the hostages in a stronghold in the middle of dense forest on the northern bank of the Rokel. There were another 100 rebels armed with heavy weapons on the opposite bank in the village of Magbeni. Additionally, there was absolutely no way for the commandos to reach the stronghold by road without losing the element of surprise. The river option was also abandoned when a reconnaissance team realized that hidden sandbags had been placed to prevent a river-borne approach. With such hurdles, the mission was already in danger of failure.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

This is the first of a two-part series. Comments are welcome at