They thought they had it all wrapped up but suddenly the mission failed and the hostages were executed, and here’s what went wrong
“We now need time to grieve and come to terms with our loss. We would therefore be grateful if you would respect our privacy at this most difficult of times.” With these grave words and heavy hearts from United Kingdom, UK, the family of 28-year-old Briton, Chris McManus, a construction worker, resigned themselves to the tragic denouement to the hostage drama which started in May 2011 and ended in a catastrophe on Thursday, March 8 in Mabera Lukuwa, a suburb of Sokoto State. In Italy, grieving family and friends of Franco Lamolinara and his hometown, Gattinara, declared a day of mourning to bid the illustrious 47-year-old engineer farewell. “It was a shock; we had faith. We didn’t expect it. Franco was well-known and loved in town; it is a loss for our community,” Daniele Baglione, mayor of Gattinara, told ANSA, an Italian news agency.
While McManus’ heartbroken girlfriend would be imagining how she nearly became his wife and Lamolinara’s widow and two teenage children are bracing up for a long winter without their breadwinner; Nigeria, Britain and Italy are doing a post mortem to confirm why the carefully planned mission failed and trying to manage the crisis of failure.
Both men, employees of Stabilini Visioni, an Italian construction company, were working on the Central Bank of Nigeria branch under construction in Birnin Kebbi, Kebbi State, when they were abducted from their accommodation on May 12, 2011. Nothing was heard about them again until last December when a group, al-Qaeda in the land beyond the Sahel, released a video clip showing both men in blindfolds. McManus was wearing a red Adidas T-shirt with vertical white lines that looked like the jersey of Arsenal Football Club; while Lamolinara wore a black shirt. It was learned that negotiation for ransom was not making the expected progress and the kidnappers were getting jittery. But Nigeria, British and other international partners working with Nigeria in its Boko Haram crisis had no idea of where the hostages were held.
A breakthrough, however, came on February 1 when the State Security Service, SSS, arrested Abu Qaqa, the spokesman of Boko Haram, at a hideout in Kaduna. That raid, TELL gathered, yielded information that McManus and Lamolinara were being held at Sokoto State. A follow up to the clues led to the arrest of Abu Mohammed, said to be the ringleader of the kidnappers, on March 6 in Birnin Kebbi. His interrogation yielded further information that exposed the location of the hostages. According to a security official, interception of communication with the kidnappers showed they had become apprehensive that their location may have been found out. Assessment of the situation suggested they would probably kill the hostages and try to escape. So Britain obtained permission to raid the compound, located behind a hospital at Mabera, to pre-empt them.
British military and intelligence officers had been working with Nigeria for several months on the hostage case. The British government's crisis committee comprising political, military and intelligence officials, known as COBRA, had met about 20 times since the men were kidnapped last May to consider the possible options to rescue the hostages. Consequently, a contingent of Special Forces, drawn from the elite Special Boat Service, SBS, was deployed to Nigeria, British officials said. "Their (COBRA) very strong advice was that it was important to act, and to act quickly and that offered the best chance of getting those people out. Our opinion and the opinion of those on the ground was that the hostages were under imminent and grave danger,” said Steve Field, British prime minister, David Cameron’s spokesman.
Eyewitnesses felt that it was the noisy military helicopter which over-flew the house where the hostages were held that alerted the already suspicious kidnappers that their cover had been blown. Prior to this, soldiers had been deployed and the residents asked to stay away. An armoured personnel carrier was equally deployed. A lady eyewitness said that once it was plain to the kidnappers they were under attack; they took the hostages into a back house, close to a toilet, and shot them at close range.
According to Mahmoud Abubakar, who lives on the same street, “The security agencies tried to break into the house but there was resistance. The people inside the house were shooting at them and they returned fire. They exchanged fire for some time. I saw a military truck come out of the compound with two bodies on it. I didn’t see their colour, because they were covered with leaves.” Five bodies were counted by eyewitnesses, the two expatriates and three of the kidnappers. The assault was made up of Nigerian soldiers, SSS operatives and about 20 UK SBS commandos. The main operation was said to have lasted about one hour.
A resident of the compound identified simply as Hauwa who said her husband was a guard, recalled how the kidnappers reacted when the attack began: “After that, there were about six men who came out of the house with the two hostages. They came into our wing of the compound, pushed the captives into the toilet and just shot them. I screamed." According to her, she did not know the hostages were being held in the compound because they were kept in the main house she was strictly forbidden from entering.
Snippets of the operation from the secret service confirmed that the kidnappers were a splinter group of Boko Haram and had links with al-Qaeda. The operation was carried out without the approval of the main group and this made the negotiation very difficult and posed logistics challenge to the collection of the ransom. The al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, which mentors Boko Haram, allegedly declined them assistance for not being briefed before the kidnap.
According to the British secret service, the SBS commandos were the first to go into the building and were engaged in a shootout with the leader of the kidnappers who managed to escape. However, Nigerian security forces at the gate shot him, before he could get away. On searching the house, they found drugs such as penicillin, anti-malarial tablets and other toiletries scattered on the floor of the house.
Reacting to the failed mission, Cameron said, "After months of not knowing where they were being held, we received credible information about their location. A window of opportunity arose to secure their release. We also had reason to believe that their lives were under imminent and growing danger. Preparations were made to mount an operation to attempt to rescue Chris and Franco. Together with the Nigerian government, today I authorised it to go ahead, with UK support... I am very sorry that this ended so tragically."
Italy is protesting loudly about its exclusion from the operation and members of parliament are asking questions why Italian authorities and intelligence officers in Nigeria were not involved in the decision to give the go-ahead for the operation. “We must shed full light on the reasons why the British government did not inform our own,” insists Massimo D'Alema, president of the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic. Senator Lucio Malan told the BBC, “It is quite uncommon that a country that is involved is not informed before. Apparently it was a very difficult situation and it might have been the best decision but it is still to be explained why the Italian authorities haven't been informed.” And another member of parliament, Rosa Calipari, added: “It would seem that despite the presence of an Italian who had been in the hands of kidnappers for a long time, our country was told only after the blitz."
Similarly, Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, noted, “The behaviour of the British government, which did not inform or consult with Italy on the operation that it was planning, really is inexplicable."
Be this as it may, the mission may have failed to rescue the two hostages alive but the security services of Nigeria and Britain think there are some positives from the operation. David Richards, a general and head of British Armed Forces, said the attack and deaths of senior Nigerian terrorists “sent a shock wave” through the al-Qaeda network in Nigeria. “We know all their leaders are in disarray,” he affirmed. Consequently, he said the British Special Forces would remain in Nigeria to help the embattled country to “track down” the terrorists. “At a higher level a great deal has been achieved and we will now work with the Nigerians to exploit this opportunity in the future.”
So why did such a carefully planned operation fail in execution? One of the reasons was the desperation of the kidnappers. Apparently realising that they had lost out, they decided to ensure that the hostages were not taken out alive. It is believed that the kidnappers reshuffled the cards once one of their members was arrested, making whatever sketch of the layout and position of the hostages obtained on interrogation obsolete. Secondly, the bare terrain may have taken out the element of surprise; the commandos had no cover and it was a day operation. There are fears too that the security men under-estimated the terrorists. Perhaps, an aerial demobilisation of the kidnappers by putting them to sleep through a nerve gas with the commandos in gas masks would have saved the lives of the hostages. The kidnappers had sufficient time to take the hostages to the back of the house where they shot them.
Again trying to gain entry unsuccessfully with an APC from the back, suggests that the forces did not have enough information on the layout of the compound, else they would known that obstacles existed there. In addition, lack of local knowledge may deprive the SBS of a critical success factor.
The SSS last Wednesday paraded eight young suspects arrested during the operation. They confirmed that the leader of the group died from wounds sustained on the failed rescue. They further confirmed that more arrests have been made across the North from disclosures made by the suspects during interrogation.