The Attack That Never Was

Bodies on the beach


ON the morning of December 14th reports appeared of a foiled attack on MIA (Mogadishu International Airport), the airport complex in Mogadishu, a city within a city that houses the various manifestations of the UN, the military and political headquarters of the African Union mission in Somalia (‘AMISOM’) various embassies and the obligatory post-conflict zone mixture of security, construction and logistics contractors. Reporting indicated that an attempt had been made to infiltrate the camp from the sea (the runway runs along the shore) but that AMISOM forces had thwarted the amphibious assault, now credited to al-Shabaab.

I rang around the usual suspects. One had heard banging in the early hours but thought it was doors slamming as boys and girls do what boys and girls do in post-conflict zones the world over (some even believing that relationships survive the end of rotation). Another had been told it was Danab, the Somali special forces, doing a night shoot down on the firing range that faces out to sea.

More details emerged: up to five boats, each with ten fighters, had been fought off. Turkish Airlines, which had shown unrivalled daring in being the only international carrier to add Mogadishu to its long list of routes, apparently suspended flights. In the run-up to Christmas and with al-Shabaab’s tradition of mounting attacks on MIA at Christmas (an indirect fire attack on Christmas Day in 2013, a bloody complex attack on Christmas Day 2014), everyone was in a heightened state of alert anyway.

But al-Shabaab didn’t claim the attack. Normally, and without giving them anything akin to credit, respect or honour, al-Shabaab normally claims credit for its attacks, successful or failed, especially the high profile attacks. And, after the obligatory 48 hours that it takes for the alternative view to manifest itself in the media, pretty soon AMISOM was being accused of mounting a deception.

Military deception as a discipline is something I happen to know about, having practiced it a long time ago in Iraq, while based on the Iranian border in Maysaan province. In one of those funny moves the military often makes in the game of chess that is your career, I attended a course on Military Deception ten years after actually doing it for real (I attended the Psychological Operations course at the end of my operational tour in Psychological Operations, so this wasn’t by any means an aberration).

My chum, Colonel Dougie, who was running the course on Military Deception, puzzled me when he gave a health warning before the practical element of the course, noting that some previous students had found themselves becoming quite worked up during the exercise.

About two hours later I was quite worked up in my tweed suit (I was no longer in uniform by this time, although I gave I nod to my past by wearing a regimental tie, which was angrily askew): I was the student Colonel Dougie described. I was infuriated by my uniform-sporting colleagues’ lack of creativity, bemused by their unwillingness to get downright dirty, livid at their risk aversion.

In Iraq we had had a problem: the other side were constantly using indirect fire, mortaring and rocketing, against us. While we had never lost anyone to indirect fire in this particular location, it was wearing down the troops with the constant ‘INCOMING! INCOMING!’ alarms, donning body armour and helmets, crouched in close, darkened bunkers for hours at a time, all done in the knowledge that on one occasion the other side might actually get lucky.

My special little band had the task of doing something about it. (It was us who had briefed the commander on the morale problem he had: so it was only fitting we try to fix it.) We tried a lot of things, and one of them was military deception. A Lithuanian officer in headquarters was apparently an expert in military deception: he was sent up to assist. (The boys couldn’t master his name, so he was known as ‘Boris’.)

We mounted the old washing machine Boris had brought with him on the roof of our block with a satellite dish stuck to the top of it and fenced off the compound. (We filled the barrel of the washing machine with concrete to slow down the cycle and to stop the dish flying off and beheading some random locals fifteen few miles away.) We waited.

There was a pause in the rocketing, a long pause. One of the locally employed civilian cleaners was caught with a video camera: his footage was of the block and the washing machine/satellite dish combo. We had got their attention, certainly.

That wasn’t all we did, of course. The boys patrolled nightly, deliberately being seen near known firing points. We considered faking the destruction of a mocked up rocket team but were dissuaded. We nearly called in an airstrike on what appeared to be a mortar team (but which turned out to be some men stealing some pipes). We bought ourselves a few lulls, and then the mortaring and the rocketing would begin again.

But deception can and does work. The Allies diverted the German High Command’s attention from Sicily to Greece by planting fake documents on a body dumped at sea for the Germans to find, and then invaded Sicily famously recounted in ‘The Man Who Never Was’. D-Day preparations included grand deceptions to deceive the Germans about the likely beachheads. Iraqi forces in 1991 expected an amphibious assault on Kuwait but instead received a land based out-flanking manoeuvre. But the danger of deception in the modern age is credibility. The deception used in 1991 Gulf War both used and compromised the news media, who had dutifully focussed their cameras on Marines and amphibious assault craft. Whether such deceptions would be possible now is debatable, when everything is recordable (see Bellingcat’s tracking of the Buk launcher that allegedly fired the missile that downed flight MH17) but nothing is believable. Truth has become selective truth. Perception has become reality. Perhaps the pre-eminence of credibility, combined with our built-in risk aversion, means deception is no longer viable.

As it happens, I know that stretch of coastline very well, having been in Mogadishu on and off since Christmas 2009. It was always viewed as being relatively safe (as opposed to the city facing side of the camp) because of the jagged coral and the volcanic rock formations that run all the way along that stretch – I used to go and paint watercolours there at the end of the day. Rumour (of which there is never a shortage in either Somalia or in the post-conflict environment generally) had it that a western special forces unit (ibid – they used to run past me while I was painting the same coastline again and again) had attempted a nocturnal landing and, while they had managed it, it was a significant challenge for them, even with all their canoes and night vision goggles and years of crawling out of torpedo tubes and up the legs of oil rigs.

There is a Somali saying, ‘the Somali stands with his back to the sea’, meaning they are a generally landward-looking race. Even now it’s not uncommon to find Somalis who don’t eat fish or who can’t swim and the maritime wealth of the longest coast on mainland Africa is still relatively untapped. But there are a few fishermen and, of course, there were, for a while, more than a few pirates.

But a few fishermen and more than a few pirates does not easily translate into an amphibious assault capability for al-Shabaab. The pirates have been driven away by an international blockade and armed guards on ships. The fishermen sail by the stars and occasionally, on moonless nights, like December 14th, they have to navigate by the coastline. On the occasions when they happen to pick the coastline along MIA to fix their position and head homewards, they get a few warning shots and are sent on their way. Perhaps that is what actually happened.

There is another Somali saying: the truth can never catch up with a widely-spread lie. In the information age, I wouldn’t be so sure.



The image of the stencilled bodies on the Normandy beaches comes from a memorial to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. © syndication/Daily Mail











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