Sierra Leone, September 2000.
The West Side Boys, a well-armed but poorly trained gang, has taken hostage 11 British soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment and is threatening to execute them if London doesn't meet its demands.
Back in the UK, the British government is dealing with its first significant hostage crisis since the Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980. As negotiators bargain for the hostages' release, the British military is preparing for a rescue operation.
Enter the renowned Special Air Service (SAS).
An unstable enemy
A brutal civil war had ravaged Sierra Leone since 1991. The West Side Boys, never more than a few hundred members strong, took advantage of the power vacuum, operating with impunity and terrorizing locals. Their trademark was amputating victims' arms with machetes. Men, women, and children all suffered from their wanton violence.
The West Side Boys' leader was the self-titled "Brigadier" Foday Khalley, with "Colonel Cambodia" serving as his second-in-command.
Both men and their gang used drugs and alcohol heavily and frequently. Their resulting instability pushed the British toward a military response instead of negotiations. (Khalley's demands varied from a new satellite phone to the formation of a new government.)
A task force centered around D Squadron of the SAS and A Company, 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment, and augmented by Special Boat Squadron, or SBS, operators and support troops, gradually deployed to Dakar in neighboring Senegal and then outside Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
D Squadron was chosen because of its familiarity with the region. Its operators had been in East Africa conducting jungle and mountain training when the West Side Boys kidnapped the British soldiers. Once they were notified of a potential operation, they were so eager to return to the UK and begin preparing that two troopers were killed in a car accident as they rushed to the airport. The operation had started on the wrong foot.
The gang held the hostages in the small village of Gberi Bana, adjacent to the Rokel Creek. On the other side of the creek, there was a substantial and heavily armed force of gangsters in an abandoned village.
Throughout the negotiations, the British had eyes on the ground from well-hidden SAS observation posts close to the two villages. Additionally, a special-operations signals team intercepted Khalley's frequent publicity calls to the BBC and pinpointed his location.
Their combined reports led commanders to rule out a ground or waterborne assault because of the gang's heavily armed roadblocks in the villages and the treacherous currents of the creek. The rescue force would go in by helicopter.
At one point, the negotiators, which included two SAS operators in disguise, were able to secure the release of six men, leaving five British soldiers captive. The freed troops told horror stories of mock executions and psychological violence. But more releases seemed unlikely. A rescue operation was necessary, and time was of the essence.
At dawn on September 10, the rescue force flew in on three CH-47 Chinook helicopters with two Lynx and one Mi-24 gunships providing close air support. The combined SAS/SBS force would rescue the hostages in Gberi Bana, while members of the Parachute Regiment, known as Paras, would eliminate the gang members on the opposite side of the river.
The British commandos hit Gberi Bana hard. Half the assault force fast-roped into the village while the other half landed in a soccer field. In the first moments, heavy enemy fire pinned down the teams on the soccer field. But the commandos achieved fire superiority and silenced the resistance with machine guns and anti-tank rockets.
Despite some confusion, the SAS and SBS operators swept the village and secured the hostages.
However, on the other side of the river, the Paras were in the thick of it. Because of a lack of Chinooks, the Paras had to be transported in two groups. Alerted by the helicopters' approach and the firefight on the other bank, the gangster there were better prepared.
The Chinook dropped the first wave of Paras in a chest-deep swamp, which they had to navigate under heavy fire. In the first few moments, they took several casualties, including their commanding and executive officers.
Reinforced by the second wave and displaying their characteristic aggression, the Paras took the initiative and overpowered the gangsters after a fierce firefight that lasted hours.
As the smoke settled, the Chinooks came in to pick up the hostages, rescue force, and some captured vehicles. At the cost of one SAS operator, Bombardier Brad Tinnion, and 12 Paras wounded, the rescue force managed to secure all the hostages and kill scores of gang members.
A wave of change
Operation Barras brought significant changes to British special operations.
The resistance put up by the heavily armed West Side Boys showed the need for a specialized support unit that would assist the SAS and SBS in future large-scale hostage rescues and special operations.
Until that point, the Paras and the Royal Marine Commandos had been called up to complement their elite brethren only when necessary. Even though there were close links between the units — most SAS operators came from the Paras, and the SBS at that time recruited solely from the Royal Marines — they didn't train together and didn't use the same procedures.
As a result, the British military created the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) in 2006.
The SFSG is composed of Paras, Royal Marines, and Royal Air Force personnel who have passed an additional selection process. Its main task is to be a quick reaction force for SAS and SBS operations, but it can also complement those units in domestic counterterrorism operations.
Moreover, Operation Barras was a much needed confidence boost for British special-operations forces after bad publicity in Northern Ireland, where they fought a politically complicated campaign against the IRA. British policymakers could once more be confident in their commandos.