Audacious thinking, clever use of defectors, three-way electronic intercepts, copycatting precedents set by Hugo Chavez, exploiting broken command and control, and playing on the targets' egoes were among the elements of Colombia's successful hostage rescue this week, what a senior Colombian officer calls a "brutal psychological hit" against the FARC.
Today's Wall Street Journal captures these elements, showing how the skillful use of psychological means can defeat terrorists and other extremists:
- Taking advantage of a leadership crisis within the FARC, to compromise communications and make FARC units think they were transferring the hostages to the group's new leader;
- Infiltrating the FARC leadership and command structure with penetration agents;
- Copying Hugo Chavez's propagandistic recovery of hostages last January and February, by re-enacting a similar scenario with Russian helicopters painted with similar color schemes;
- Using deception to communicate between FARC leaders and the guerrillas' security detail guarding the hostages, disinforming the security detail to move the hostages to a location where they would be transferred by a helicopter under ostensible FARC control;
- Hollywood-style acting classes for undercover Colombian military intelligence officers, taught by American acting coaches and FARC defectors, to make the officers look and act like real FARC men - even mimicking the way the guerrillas walk and talk;
- Coaching to make a Colombian officer look like an Australian leftist;
- Dressing cameramen to look like they were from Chavez's Telesur satellite TV channel, copying Telesur's participation in the previous rescues (see video embed);
- Using "more cunning than firepower."
"The plan had a chance of working because, for months, in an operation one army officer likened to a 'broken telephone,' military intelligence had been able to convince [former senator and presidential candidate Ingrid] Betancourt's captor, Gerardo Aguilar, a guerrilla known as 'Cesar,' that he was communicating with his top bosses in the guerrillas' seven-man secretariat. Army intelligence convinced top guerrilla leaders that they were talking to Cesar. In reality, both were talking to army intelligence," according to the report.
Fruits of the operation include:
- Rescue of high-value hostages whom the FARC never had any intention of releasing;
- Provoking recriminations within the FARC, further splintering the organization and causing more desertions and defections;
- Further demoralizing the FARC and its supporters;
- Humiliating the FARC's strongest supporters, including Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, both of whom praised the rescue and criticized the FARC, with Castro calling the FARC "cruel" and Chavez telling the FARC to free all hostages and to disarm;
- Boosting the standing of Colombian President Uribe and the US strategy to assist Colombia;
- Increasing the domestic and international prestige of the Colombian military, which has made huge strides in its professionalism over the past decade;
- Causing liberal and left-wing groups to concede that their go-soft negotiations approach was wrong, and that Uribe's tough approach was the right thing to do.
The Wall Street Journal carries this precious quote from a top NGO leader who had criticized Uribe's approach and urged a soft line: "I have to recognize that the strong hand has prevailed," said Robert Menard, a liberal human rights activist and founder and secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. "Our insistence on the need to negotiate with the FARC, hoping they would release their most valuable card, was foolish."
A textbook operation - one for the history books of how to do things exactly right. Notably, the US was closely involved with this Colombian operation. Now, if we can do this type of thing with the Islamists, we'll be doing just fine.