Monday, 18 January 2021

In this interview, James Rogers, Editor of The British Interest, talks with General David Richards, Baron Richards of Herstmonceux, about Operation PALLISER, the United Kingdom’s (UK) military operation in Sierra Leone in 2000.

JR: 20 years ago today you began deploying to Freetown in Sierra Leone to evacuate British citizens as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) looked set to descend on the city. Why was Sierra Leone so unstable and what were your objectives in Operation PALLISER?

DR: Sierra Leone had had a very fraught ten years in the run-up to Operation PALLISER. In many respects, it had never really successfully transitioned from the colonial era to what our forebears had hoped of it – a modern democracy. Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s it was run by very corrupt, very autocratic and sometimes violent leaders. The army became involved in politics often because it was the only force that could impose its will on the population. Whilst that was bad, it probably did save lives, ironically. Some sort of rule was better than no rule. In the last three years before Operation PALLISER, things deteriorated further, as the RUF gained in numbers and capability. In 1998, it nearly seized the whole of Freetown, leading to an evacuation operation. In 1999, it nearly did the same again, and looked set to do the same a third time in the Spring of 2000. I was there in January and February of 1999, watching and advising the Sierra Leonean government, so I had a very good feel for the dynamics of Sierra Leone’s situation. As far as my objectives were concerned, my orders were very clear. It was to conduct a non-combatant evacuation operation. But because I was aware of how Sierra Leone ticked and what its major players were trying to do and achieve, I decided – somewhat unilaterally – to do more than just evacuate and leave the country to its own devices. I felt that would be endorsed by the British political leadership, in particular Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, and Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary, who both had a rather soft spot for Sierra Leone. 

JR: The British intervention in Sierra Leone has been described as a model humanitarian intervention: Why do you think it was so successful? Was it because the objectives were limited, or because your forces demonstrated their ability to overwhelm their opponents – the RUF? Would it be right to describe the operation as ‘proactive deterrence’?

DR: On your last point, I have never viewed it in that way. I think it did, rather like the Falklands, demonstrate that Britain would intervene when necessary in line with the ‘Doctrine of the International Community’ that Blair had been strongly pushing and advocating. Within Sierra Leone, it probably did deter the RUF downstream. 

I would like to say that all war is essentially psychological, to persuade your opponent or enemy of the inevitability of their demise. Britain had a preponderance of force in Sierra Leone. We did not actually, but we created a picture in the minds of everyone in Sierra Leone that we were almost militarily omnipotent. Strategically, this was important, because we were consistently at risk of not following Teddy Roosevelt’s great dictum, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ To do otherwise is very dangerous, because when one deploys on a military operation, one has got to be able to dominate the agenda. This was what I described in my Commander’s Intent to my forces, that they were to act in a way so as to persuade the RUF of their defeat. We built the campaign based on that precept.

Why else was it so successful? Because we lived by my Intent, and we made sure that we were always playing on our enemy’s mind. At the same time, concurrently, we reinforced and bolstered the morale of the population and the government and of our own rather polyglot friendly forces, which we called the ‘Unholy Alliance’. This included the United Nations (UN) and the so-called ‘West Side Boys’, who had a very mixed previous record, and would go on to do some unpleasant things. But at that point, we persuaded them to fight with us. Along with the rump of the Sierra Leone Army and the tribal militias, we pulled them altogether into a semi-fighting force, allocating tasks as appropriate. 

The UN would not fight aggressively, but I did persuade them to at least defend their positions, and we could work the others around them. The objectives were quite limited, very to begin with. But tactics required for a ‘neo’ as we call it, were rather similar to those which were required to prevent the RUF entering Freetown and getting hold of the airport. I concealed the real intent from my political masters and my military superiors in Britain, because I did not want to be prevented from doing what I knew we could do. 

The vital importance of command and control is underestimated in armed forces around the world, but also amongst our political leaders. If one fails to get the command and control right, lots more will not follow. It does not matter how good one’s  soldiers or logistics are; effective command and control is the most important thing, because that actually stitches everything together. 

Lastly, I would just say the importance of tempo is really critical to success. It is critical to get ahead of the enemy. It is vital to force the enemy to respond constantly to one’s design, necessitating the creation of genuine tempo. It does not necessarily mean one has got to be fast, just that one has to be faster than an enemy can respond. A lot of people do not get that right, and are often prevented from getting it right by political leaders and other constraints. On Operation PALLISER, we deployed very quickly, and we completely seized the opportunity for a high tempo operation, winning that vital principle of war: surprise. 

JR: Subsequent interventions – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – have, arguably, been less successful than operations PALLISER and SILKMAN in Sierra Leone: why do you think this was?

DR: I am under no illusions, having been involved in all three, as well as being the ISAF Commander in Afghanistan when NATO expanded its authority, and being central to the management or ‘mismanagement’ of the Libyan campaign. One, is a matter of scale; another goes back to my point about command and control. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, we were part of a complex coalition. All of them were designed for and by politicians. In Sierra Leone, I was a national commander with no obligation, other than military common sense, to work under and with other components. In practice, I did, but because I was not obliged to, I could pick and choose and then dominate those rather ad-hoc coalitions. In Afghanistan, sometimes the operation was being run by NATO’s twenty-nine capitals all at the same time, and it became necessary to find a route through it. Those operations were also constrained by the business of ‘red cards’, concerning what governments will do and what they will not do. 

The other thing is that in Sierra Leone we had a very clear political objective, albeit one I dreamt up for myself initially, that was then accepted by Britain’s political leadership. We consistently connected the military and the political. I saw Ahmad Kabbah, then President of Sierra Leone, virtually every day, and I was very closely involved in the management of the wider campaign with Alan Jones, then British High Commissioner. Those things were very difficult to achieve in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It comes back to command and control. In Sierra Leone, I had the freedom to act in the way that any good staff college would teach. In the other three operations, that was very difficult to achieve. I also had sufficient force so I could apply that psychological ascendancy that I talked about earlier.

JR: What lessons do you think the intervention in Sierra Leone has for British military commanders should Britain decide to intervene in future crises? Are there any lessons also for politicians?

DR: I do worry that we have over complicated the business of command. When I was a Commanding Officer, partly as a result of being a member of the Directing Staff at the Staff College Camberley under people like General Rupert Smith, we sought to apply something called the ‘Ten Commandments of the Manoeuvrist Approach’. This included things like: ‘Act faster than the enemy can react’; ‘Avoid enemy strengths, attack enemy weaknesses’; ‘Be unpredictable’; ‘Exploit tactical opportunities’; ‘Use reserves to reinforce success not failure’, and so on. I think the British Army and all armies need to go back to basics, rather than over ’doctrinise’. I am a doctrine agnostic. Doctrines are a guide, not a set of rules. Too often we look on them as a set of rules to follow slavishly. Instead, commanders should be encouraged to use their initiative in line with certain principles. That is all I did in Sierra Leone, and I ensured my subordinates did the same. I would encourage British military commanders to go down that route and get back to basics. 

As far as politicians are concerned, they ought to give military commanders the tools to do the job. If politicians cannot provide for some reason then they should trust commanders and give them the freedom – as I had in Sierra Leone – to create the conditions a preponderance of force would otherwise give them. If a commander has not got the forces they really need then to some degree they can create the conditions which those forces would otherwise have done. We did that in Sierra Leone. I know this is an area of great interest for academia, and there have been some very good books written on the relationship between senior military commanders and their political leaders. Political leaders should not try to fight battles for soldiers but instead focus on creating the strategic conditions for success. If politicians do not trust their commanders, they should sack them. Otherwise they must let them get on with the exacting business of operational command.

JR: Thank you for your time in answering these questions!


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In formulating their strategy towards Iran, British policymakers should recall the dramatic events which took place forty years ago today at the Iranian Embassy in London, which became known as the Iranian Embassy siege. The outcome, a successful British military operation against terrorist hostage takers, highlights that the United Kingdom (UK) should not compromise in the face of terrorism or hostage taking; however, the episode also serves as an important reminder that despite Britain’s attempts to make inroads with Iran, the Islamic Republic is unlikely to respond in kind and will continue to spout tales of British conspiracies and refuse to abide by international law or convention.

The siege at the Iranian Embassy in London

On 30th April 1980 – while the world was still watching the ongoing siege at the United States (US) Embassy in Tehran – six armed men, members of the recently established Democratic Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA), a group that sought the secession of the Khuzestan province from Iran, stormed into the Iranian Embassy in Kensington, London, taking 26 people hostage. The majority of the captives were embassy staff and Iranian nationals; however, there were also some non-Iranians present as well as a British police officer. Over the course of the next six days a hostage crisis ensued with the terrorists demanding the release of at least 91 Arab prisoners held in Iran, as well as their own safe passage out of Britain. At different times during the crisis, the terrorists threatened to blow up the building and execute each of the hostages until their demands were met.

Despite their continued occupation of the embassy building and their resort to execute one of the hostages, the terrorists were ultimately defeated without any of their demands met. The British Special Air Service (SAS) were dispatched and launched Operation Nimrod. The elite forces mounted an assault in full view of watching journalists. Members of the unit managed to enter the building by abseiling down from the roof while stun grenades were detonated so that the descending forces could enter through the exploded windows. Although the operation did not go completely to plan – one of the soldiers got tangled in his rope and one of the building’s curtains caught fire, the SAS displayed an impressive ability to improvise under pressure and managed to free all but one of the captives. Five of the terrorists were killed during the operation, two of whom were using the hostages as human shields.

Operation Nimrod was a success, perhaps the most significant counter-terrorist operation since the 1976 Operation Entebbe in which Israeli forces managed to free 102 hostages whose plane had been hijacked by members of the German Revolutionary Cells and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-External Operations and brought to Uganda. Following the British operation, a report in The Times on 6th May 1980 noted that William Whitelaw, then Home Secretary, said that Britain’s handling of the crisis showed the absolute determination of the British government and people not to allow terrorist blackmail to succeed. Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, joined Whitelaw in praising the SAS. In subsequent years there was a significant increase in applications to join the elite unit.

In addition to being an operation against a terrorist hostage taking scenario, Operation Nimrod was very much an effort to maintain the sanctity of the 1969 Vienna Convention which holds that the premises of a diplomatic mission is inviolable and that it is the duty of the host country to protect it from damage or intrusion.

Yet, despite Britain’s operation to ensure the safety of Iran’s embassy and nationals, putting the lives of its soldiers at risk, Iran neither reciprocated nor showed signs of appreciation. Throughout the embassy siege, the Islamic Republic dismissed it as part of a UK-US conspiracy, an elaborate plot by Washington and London to exact leverage against Iran for the ensuing US Embassy crisis in Tehran. Even after the furore when Abolhassan Banisadr, Iran’s powerless president, who was being marginalised by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s Supreme Leader, extended a word of thanks, it was still widely disseminated by Iran that this was just another British and American conspiracy.

The siege in context

The 1980 Iranian Embassy crisis in London was directly related to the events surrounding the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Unable to quell the cross-societal uprisings against his brutal rule, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, went into self-exile in January 1979. As soon as he left the country Khomeini, then a popular Iranian religious leader with a hidden political agenda, returned and was greeted by millions upon arrival. The Shah’s caretaker government soon collapsed, and in April 1979 the country voted to establish an Islamic Republic.

By the end of the year Khomeini had become Supreme Leader and installed his own version of the Velayet-e Vaqih, a religious concept rooted in Shia Islam which suggests that under certain circumstances religious clerics should have guardianship over those who are incapable of protecting their own interests such as orphans, widows or those suffering from ill health. However, Khomeini’s version of the concept put the Islamic jurist at the centre of the political and moral lives of all citizens and made his version the concept the constitutional basis for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Meanwhile, Khomeini purged his enemies from institutions of state and quashed rival political groups. During this time, one of the most restless areas of Iran was in the southern province of Khuzestan. Strategically located by the Persian Gulf, the region is home to many of the country’s oil fields and a large Arab speaking population. After several months, the insurgency was crushed.

Iran as a threat to British interests

Initially, London hoped that Operation Nimrod had earned the UK goodwill with Iran, so much so that Thatcher wrote to Bani-Sadr to express her wish that that in an act of magnanimity, Khomeini would order the release of the American hostages adding that she hoped that ‘the comradeship sealed in blood over the past few days’ would lead to better relations between the UK and Iran. However, the plea for the release of the US hostages fell on deaf ears, as did her outreach for better relations.

This follows a well-trodden path, which had materialised even before the British operation. Iran had earlier floated the Vienna Convention when on 5th November 1979, just one day after the start of the US hostage crisis, a group of ‘armed intruders’ broke into the British Embassy in Tehran and for a period of as long as five hours took over the whole of the embassy building, rummaging through documents (which had been either destroyed or sent to London) and detaining embassy staff and their families.

Indeed, irrespective of Britain’s attempts to win Iran’s goodwill, Tehran has remained one of the UK’s major security challenges. In February 1989, Khomeini issued a fatwa against the life of British novelist Salman Rushdie. In 2004, Iranian forces seized 8 Royal Navy Personnel who were forced to endure mock executions before they were released. Three years later, 15 Royal Navy personnel were detained for 13 days before finally freed. In November 2011, the British Embassy in Tehran was invaded by a 1,000 strong mob while Iran’s security personnel looked the other way as the Union Flag was set alight, documents were stolen, and diplomatic offices were vandalised. That the UK risked is soldiers to ensure the sanctity of Iran’s embassy had been all but forgotten.

More recently, in 2016, British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in Iran and forced to endure the ignominy of a sham trial. She remains detained in inhumane conditions. In September 2018, Tehran took another British national hostage, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, who is also detained under spurious espionage charges and kept in solitary confinement. Last year, British flagged naval vessels were deliberately targeted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, necessitating the dispatch of the Royal Navy to escort ships through the Strait of Hormuz.

Indeed, regardless of Britain’s attempts to gain goodwill with the Islamic Republic, the UK was and still is considered to be the ‘Old Fox’ by the regime, whose opposition to the world’s democracies is ideological and has little to do with Britain’s actual conduct. Today, not only does Iran seek to acquire nuclear weapons, sponsor terrorist groups, and destabilise the Middle East, but continues to also directly target British citizens and interests.

The 1980 Iranian Embassy raid highlights that in the face of terrorism, hostage taking or attacks against British interests, the best course of action is for Britain to maintain its resolve and not shy away from escalation when necessary.


This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Centre for Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.

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