7 Mar 2011

SAS veteran criticises ‘amateurish’ Libya failure

Amateurish, naive and embarrassing – that’s the insider’s verdict from an ex-SAS instructor speaking to Channel 4 News about the failed Special Forces mission to Benghazi.

An SAS veteran has branded the botched mission that led to the detention of a team of Special Forces soldiers in Libya “amateurish”.

The attempt to fly an MI6 and SBS team into rebel-held Benghazi without negotiating their safe passage first was “naive” and evidence of poor planning in Whitehall, the source said.

He spoke out as Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons the soldiers had been withdrawn following “a serious misunderstanding over their role”.

An eight-man team understood to have included soldiers from the elite SBS unit and an MI6 officer was released late on Sunday after being captured when they landed in fields near Benghazi, a rebel stronghold in the east of Libya.

The mission, described as “bizarre” by Oliver Miles, the former British ambassador to the troubled North African state, was authorised personally by Mr Hague.

Channel 4 News understands a helicopter from HMS York flew the men into a rural area near Benghazi with the aim of making diplomatic contact with rebel leaders in the area.

But they were arrested by suspicious locals, who told Channel 4 News they found guns, bombs, maps and fake passports inside the soldiers’ luggage.

Channel 4 News Political Editor Gabry Gibbon has learnt that some of this equipment included tactical communications kit.

‘Nobody goes in cold like that’

A former SAS instructor, who now works for the private firm Ronin Concepts providing security for journalists covering stories in combat zone, told Channel 4 News: “People in my sort of field infiltrate warzones all the time.

“It is the same process for Special Forces crews going into foreign rebel-held areas.

“Nobody goes in cold like that. It seems very naive and very badly-planned.

“It’s all about negotiation. Everybody in Libya is on the end of a phone. It’s a matter of talking to the right people and finding out who is in charge of the militias and bringing them to the table.

“That’s how we do media things. We’ve been doing it for years and the SAS have been doing it for years.

“They should have had a team of rebels meet them and then been escorted in. The armed team are just there to protect them against against being ambushed or attacked.

“It’s a bit amateurish and it’s a bit rash. They should know better.

Political Editor Gary Gibbon on yet more developments in the foiled SBS-led diplomatic mission:

I hear that the SBS team that landed in Libya in the early hours of Friday morning had cases of communications equipment with them.

Just the sort of tactical communication stuff that the Libyan rebel forces need to coordinate their actions against Colonel Gaddafi's forces and substantially different from the sort of equipment that would be needed by a diplomatic outpost getting to know the rebel leaders.

We are clearly in a phase where covert help is favoured and pursued and overt help is warily plannned for but on many levels dreaded.

Where that quite leaves the terms of engagement or legal standing of British forces operating in Libya, I'm not sure.

If I had been on that operation I would have been asking: ‘What are the risks? How do we get out of here if it goes wrong. Where does our information come from? Who are we talking to?’

“If we’re not talking to anybody, the risks are too high.”

“Somebody’s rattled their cages in the corridors of power and it’s a knee-jerk reaction, probably using inexperienced junior officers who have been thrown into the job together rather than an experienced ground.”

He added: “It’s been bandied about that this was an SBS job.

“They’re not as experienced. They’re very much a junior player to the SAS. People get them confused as equals. They’re not at all.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it was them. If it was the SAS I’d be very embarrassed, because they should know better.”

‘Serious misunderstanding’

Mr Hague told MPs: “Last week I authorised the despatch of a small British diplomatic team to Eastern Libya, in uncertain circumstances which we judged required their protection, to build on these initial contacts and to assess the scope for closer diplomatic dialogue.

“I pay tribute to that team. They were withdrawn yesterday after a serious misunderstanding about their role leading to their temporary detention. This situation was resolved and they were able to meet Council President Mr Abdul-Jalil.

“However, it was clearly better for this team to be withdrawn. We intend to send further diplomats to Eastern Libya in due course.”

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said the incident “raises questions about ministers’ grip and response to the unfolding events in Libya”.

He added: “I wonder whether, if some new neighbours moved into the foreign secretary’s street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell, or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night?”

Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, spokesman for the rebels’ provisional transitional national council, said that the soldiers had been held “because they came into the country unofficially without previous arrangement with Libyan officials”.

He added: “Libya is an independent nation, and we have our borders that we expect to be respected.”

There are fears the incident could damage future efforts to establish diplomatic channels with forces opposed to the rule of Colonel Gaddafi.

But MP Patrick Mercer, a former army infantry officer and the Chairman of the House of Commons Sub-Committee on Counter-Terrorism, told Channel 4 News the rebels had no choice but to make a public protest against the insertion of British forces, in order to avoid handing Colonel Gaddafi a propaganda victory.

International Editor Lindsey Hilsum blogs from Libya: 
He was a 21 year old economics student, and he said he'd never handled a weapon before. He was standing at the side of the road leaning on a shoulder-launched rocket which, he said, had "a bit missing". He said he wouldn’t go to the front until the bit arrived, but that didn’t make me worry about him any less.

His friend, a 23-year-old student of civil engineering, had no weapon at all. I asked if he wasn’t being foolhardy, plunging into battle unarmed.

"As Shakespeare says, the question is: to be or not to be," he replied.

My fear is that he’s right, and that many of these idealistic young men will lose their lives in the battle to oust Colonel Gaddafi.

Click here to read Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum's full blog.

Rebels ‘had no choice but to protest’

He said: “Politically there has been a lot of talk and a lot of sabre-rattling, which hasn’t necessarily been very realistic.

“I am pleased to have my hopes confirmed that covert operations that intend to put western diplomats alongside Gaddafi’s opponents are actually happening.

“When one of these extremely delicate operations does go wrong, what else can you do if you are the Libyan opposition except say ‘we don’t welcome western troops inside our sovereign space?’

“To do anything else makes it look like there’s some long-standing plan between foreign forces and the Libyan opposition, which of course is totally unhelpful to that opposition.”

Mr Ghoga went on to say there was “no crisis” between the council and Britain and that anti-Gaddafi forces were “more than willing” to talk to any delegation sent “in a legitimate way”.