At 11.32 on a cold morning in London early last year six young men, who had been on a spending spree and had mailed 203 lb of women’s cocktail dresses, children’s toys and ties back to Baghdad, entered and took over the Iranian Embassy in Princes Gate. It was not immediately clear who they were or why they were there, but soon Scotland Yard learnt that behind the stuccoed facade overlooking Hyde Park there were 19 hostages, among them a British policeman.
During the six days that followed much was done to pursue the ‘softly softly’ approach preferred, not just by British police tradition, but by the anti-terrorist squads of the last decade. As the terrorists’ identity – Arabs from the Iranian south-western region of Khuzestan – and their goals – autonomy for the homeland they call Arabistan, publicity for their cause and for their grievances against the Ayatollah, and at least an element of tit-for-tat over the Americans held hostage in Tehran – became known, so the by now almost routine siege manoeuvres got into gear. Police negotiators arrived to set up the field telephone that was to be the terrorists’ one contact with the outside world; the press assembled, bringing with them a labyrinth of electric cables, mobile telephones and telephoto lenses, and entered into their symbiotic relationship with the police; a government crisis committee was formed under the name of COBRA; a psychiatrist was found to advise on whether they were serious terrorists or ‘nuts’. The long night of bargaining began. It was the South Moluccan train hold-up at Assen, the German Embassy siege in Stockholm, the OPEC Ministers drama in Vienna, all over again.
And yet, from the beginning, there was something different about this siege. For one thing, the terrorists did not seem to know the first thing about the country they had come to. They did not know, moreover, that after the Heath Government had allowed Leila Khaled, the 24-year-old Arab girl who tried to hijack a plane over Britain, to go home, and were internationally condemned for their weakness, there were to be no more safe passages for political terrorists. British policy and COBRA were clear on that point. The six gunmen would be going nowhere but to gaol.
There was also something different about the actors in this game, something that turned the comfortable Stockholm syndrome, which presupposes growing empathy between captor and captive in these situations, upside down. These were no innocent bystanders in a bank raid. Both the terrorists and, as it soon appeared, some of the hostages were after the martyr’s mantle. ‘I don’t mind getting killed,’ the gunman they knew as Faisal told one of the hostages. ‘When I left home I didn’t think I was going to get back alive.’ And among the hostages was Lavasani, a 29-year-old Islamic zealot who was ready, some thought eager, to die. (According to the Observer account, richer than the Sunday Times version in detail and background, the former Press Attaché at the Embassy, who had recently returned home and so narrowly escaped being a hostage, said later: ‘I really wish I had been martyred.’)
And so, for six days, the police bargained and the terrorists hedged. Sick hostages were exchanged for radio broadcasts; good behaviour was rewarded by a fine Persian dinner. Hour by hour, the demands were pared down, until only one real request remained: the presence on the scene of an Arab diplomat to channel the gunmen’s wishes.
It could have worked. As with the two previous London sieges – Spaghetti House and Balcombe Street – the hostages might well have walked out unharmed, their captors talked out: in the now fashionable words of the New York City Hostage Squad, the ‘turkey’ might have been ‘contained’. At one point, in return for a BBC World Service broadcast, the gunmen released two hostages. ‘The mood,’ reports the Observer book, ‘was so good that the gunmen and hostages signed their autographs on the boxes in which the food had been sent in.’
The elation did not last. Made frantic by exhaustion, suspicion, and despair at the absence of an Arab envoy, Oan, the gunmen’s leader, broke the rules. Lavasani’s wish to be a martyr was granted. But his death made what followed inevitable. ‘His killing,’ the Observer team writes, ‘was to be the turning-point. Once the police knew a hostage had been shot, there could be no more talking. Death was not negotiable.’ That the tragedy could have been avoided, in many people’s opinion, is a point played down in both accounts, though the Observer reports Professor Gunn, the psychiatrist on the scene, as saying: ‘I honestly believe that if we had managed to get an ambassador on Sunday then the outcome would have been very different.’
The events of the last hours of the siege are now part of contemporary history. Lavasani’s death unleashed the ultimate weapon: the military anti-terrorist squad that is an essential ingredient in the security apparatus of many countries today. Black-hooded SAS commandos abseiling down the walls of the beseiged embassy were watched by a million television viewers. The timing could not have been better: seven o’clock on a bank-holiday evening. The smoke, the confusion, the bursts of gunshot – live. It was James Bond, only better. The Israelis had triumphed at Entebbe; the Germans at Mogadishu. It was Britain’s turn.
After it was all over, after 17 living hostages had been taken to hospital and two dead ones to the morgue, a few churlish observers nonetheless raised a question: had it really been necessary to kill five of the six gunmen – in SAS parlance, to ‘negotiate’ them? Troubling accounts, produced by the hostages, suggested that at least two of them were shot dead after they had surrendered. One of the hostages, Faruqui, told the Observer: ‘One of the terrorists was sitting on the floor, and when he was pointed out by the Iranians to the commandos they asked him to stand up and then shot him.’ This uncomfortable piece of information was quickly swept away in the gathering tide of national euphoria. Nor has it excited much attention at the trial of the only surviving terrorist: a witness’s words, that ‘the soldiers entered the room, took on the terrorists and killed them,’ have been reported blandly, as has the fact that some of the terrorists were kneeling at the time, having emptied their pockets of bullets and thrown their guns out of the window.
For many countries, the slaughter of nine hostages at the Munich Olympics in 1972 was the beginning of an understanding about the nature of modern terrorism, a sense of the vulnerability of their institutions, the frailty of their defences. They reacted by forming and training a variety of crack anti-terrorist outfits, some military, some police, some neither quite one thing nor the other, but all trained in commando skills and advanced weaponry, sieges, hijacks. The Americans placed a unit of Black Berets on permanent alert at Fort Stewart in Georgia and Fort Lewis in Washington: men with hair cropped to a quarter of an inch and steel-soled jump boots. The Dutch merged Marines, Military and Civil Police to form the Special Assistance Unit of the Mariniers. The West Germans, who have no Federal police force, selected a unit of commandos from within their border guards, the Grenzschutzgruppe Neun (GSG 9). Britain did not need to look so far. It already had a unit superbly suited to the job – the SAS. Tony Geraghty’s account of its shaping as an urban counter-terrorist force does not make edifying reading.
In 1941, a subaltern in the Guards, David Stirling, fighting Rommel in the Western Desert, decided that what the campaign needed was guerrilla tactics: small units of highly-trained commandos striking by stealth. After the war, the skills of the first Special Air Service were transferred to the jungles of Borneo, the deserts of Oman, Aden, Yemen, and later to Northern Ireland. Wherever there was trouble, sooner or later the SAS soldiers with their winged dagger badges were sure to volunteer and appear – secretive, close-knit, and, according to an Army medical profile, showing signs of ‘expediency, shyness, suspiciousness, forthrightness, self-sufficiency and high anxiety’. ‘It cannot be overstressed,’ Geraghty writes, ‘that the contemporary SAS is an instrument of psychological warfare.’ The winning of hearts and minds that was to become a catchword in Vietnam was a vital part of their counter-insurgency work in South-East Asia in the Fifties and Sixties – indeed, many trends in modern warfare (aboriginal auxiliary forces, deep-penetration patrols) seem to have started with the SAS. ‘It was not our numbers, but our ideas which made a big difference,’ an SAS officer told Geraghty, speaking of the Oman campaign.
The distinction is sometimes lost on the reader. Who dares wins is a chronicle of physical, not psychological, persuasion. Villagers are reported gunned down without undue concern as to whether they might be shepherds rather than guerrillas (‘we thought we might as well put a few away while we had the advantage’). The law is scorned (in 1972 an SAS group working in Oman decided to cross the border and blow up an army fort 80 miles inside Yemeni territory). It is hard to forget 16-year-old John Boyle, the Catholic boy shot in error in an overgrown graveyard in County Antrim; it is also hard to admire as much as Geraghty does men whose reflexes are honed for action ‘as if they were tennis stars being groomed for the men’s final at Wimbledon’.
The training, in fact, is designed to weed out all but men of a particular kind of iron: disciplined, impervious to pain and shock and pity. In SAS words again, ‘sickeners’ – cross-country marches weighed down by bricks, the Mud Crawl through rotting sheeps’ entrails, interrogation procedures which are not very different from those practised by some of the Latin American police forces on their prisoners – ensure that the faint of heart soon fade away. SAS men, reports Geraghty, are taught how to kill a war dog, a skill ‘some of the Regiment’s soldiers used to remarkable effect during an exercise in friendly Denmark ... to the outrage of the dog handlers concerned’. Among the rejects and the ex-SAS soldiers has grown up a band of mercenaries, whose names crop up in African wars and whose skills are at a growing premium today. The aptitudes and enthusiasms developed in the ‘élite corps’ are hard to reconcile with ordinary life: why not become a bodyguard, captain of a foreign commando unit, an advisor in ‘security’?
The world saw 26 embassies and consulates besieged last year: ways have to be found to deter those who take hostages. But it should not be forgotten, amid the paeans of self-congratulation, that seven people died in the Princes Gate affair – one hostage during the storming. Perhaps we ought now to ponder the nature of the anti-terrorist machinery that has sprung up so quickly; the links between world commando forces; the international cooperation that requires the presence of a State Department official in Rome during the weeks of the Moro kidnapping; the activities of the West German police computer, which saw fit to check the identity of every rail traveller aged between 20 and 25 who went to Paris from Germany by train at one point in 1979; the commando rejects that make such good mercenaries; and the desirability of training men in ‘Killing Houses’ to shoot sitting, unarmed human targets with as much ease as friendly dogs on a training exercise.
Geraghty’s book leaves a strong impression that the SAS, tolerated but never popular with the Regular Army, has always looked for a role. It is hardly surprising that the regiment entered the field of anti-terrorism with such alacrity, nor that they perform in it so deftly. Such men need jobs – when the GSG 9 was sent in to Mogadishu, a senior officer commented with relief that the event had come just in time. It would be sad if the SAS found their role on the streets of British cities. Geraghty’s final words are not intended as a warning, but they serve as such: ‘After a decade of urban terrorism in Europe, “Funnies” are no longer odd men out. They may be said to have come in from the cold.’