In a development highlighted by the McCain campaign, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was briefed by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe before Wednesday’s rescue of 15 hostages held by terrorists, including three Americans.
The rebel organization has been hit by a series of reversals, most of which were facilitated by intelligence penetrations or communications intercepts before this latest setback. The NYT dry observed, “the rescue came during a period of fragmentation in the FARC after the killing and capture of several senior commanders in recent months.” The BBC described how the operation to rescue the hostages held by FARC was mounted, how the rescuers “slipped” someone into the FARC operational chain and diverted it to their enemies. There were several problems that needed to be solved to carry out this switch. First the hostages had to be retrieved from their dispersals to where they could be rescued en masse. The second problem was how to effect the rescue itself.
Operation Check – as in “checkmate” – came after months of information gathering and preparation. The Colombian authorities received close co-operation from US security services, who shared intelligence, equipment, training advice and operational experience, according William Brownfield, the US ambassador to Colombia.
It was a complicated affair. According to reports, the 15 hostages had been held in three separate locations. Through duplicity and subterfuge, “Check” brought them together in a single holding station in southern Colombia.
From there, the captors were duped into believing their charges were to be transferred by helicopter into the hands of another Farc leader, “Alfonso Cana”, at a location somewhere between La Paz and Tomachipan, according to Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos.
The concept of “taking over” an enemy command and control system was reputed to have been employed by the IDF in their recent attack on Syria’s nuclear reactor. The basic idea is to hack into the control system and subvert it over a critical time window. Wired describes what happened in Syria:
U.S. aerospace industry and retired military officials indicated today that a technology like the U.S.-developed “Suter” airborne network attack system developed by BAE Systems and integrated into U.S. unmanned aircraft by L-3 Communications was used by the Israelis. The system has been used or at least tested operationally in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last year.
The technology allows users to invade communications networks, see what enemy sensors see and even take over as systems administrator so sensors can be manipulated into positions so that approaching aircraft can’t be seen, they say. The process involves locating enemy emitters with great precision and then directing data streams into them that can include false targets and misleading messages algorithms that allow a number of activities including control.
The operation against FARC appeared to work on the same principle. FARC was spoofed into thinking they were following orders when in fact they were being misled. But the illusion has to hold up seamlessly for the duration. At any point in the operation an information leak would have meant the failure of the operation. And the last part, which involved the impersonation of a FARC helicopter flight by Colombian military men, could easily have become a death trap.
The infiltrators then herded the 15 captives, as well as two of the rebels – including the notorious Cesar – onto the chopper. It was only once the aircraft was airborne that the rescuers revealed their true identities – the rebels were disarmed, stripped naked and tied up as the liberated hostages celebrated so jubilantly that in the words of Ms Betancourt, “the helicopter nearly fell from the sky”.
Winston Churchill once wrote that “nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” But the difference between exhiliration and tragedy is often inches; and victory and defeat is often separated by the narrowest of margins. With the loss of the hostages to the government, FARC has probably lost all opportunity to trade them for its prisoners held in Colombian jails. But it could so easily have turned into defeat. The power of information — and information security — was never more dramatically demonstrated.
But one other thing was on display in this instance: decisiveness. After the last preparations have been made and the final contingencies prepared for, there always remains the last bit of irreducible risk. Uribe had to spin the wheel and hope it worked out. He and GW Bush would probably have been pilloried by the press if the rescuers had walked into a trap or had a firefight ensued which resulted in the death of the hostages. And John McCain would have fared differently if it had failed utterly. But that’s academic. The bullet missed, and now the hostages, Uribe and his American allies can bask in their moment of exhilaration.