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May 3, 2005
25 Years Ago: Operation Nimrod And The First Saddam Test

Twenty-five years ago this week, Saddam Hussein first tested the mettle and will of the West by covertly launching a terrorist attack against an Iranian embassy in London, ostensibly by Iranian rebels against the Ayatollah Khomeini. Six terrorists took over the embassy at Princes Gate on April 30, 1980, touching off a six-day standoff that ended after the crack British commando squad SAS saved all but two of the hostages and killed all but one of the terrorists.

The Scotsman publishes a retrospective today of Operation Nimrod, the rescue plan which the SAS implemented almost flawlessly and which still remains one of the most successful counterterrorist operations ever. Michael Howie spoke with operation designed Clive Fairweather to review the politics involved, both before and after, and the effect that Saddam's attack and the SAS response had on global politics.

A number of aspects of the Princes Gate attack continue to shape events to this day. For one thing, Princes Gate tested the will of Margaret Thatcher, up to that time a somewhat unknown quantity as a world leader. Her predecessor, Edward Heath, had caved in to terrorist demands earlier and had paid a huge political price for doing so. No one expected Thatcher to allow the terrorists to leave the country, but in the aftermath of Nimrod, a legend developed that Thatcher ordered the deliberate killing of the terrorists to send a message to others so inclined:

According to one SAS assault soldier shortly afterwards, a highly sensitive message was passed on from Thatcher just before the attack began. It was relayed, verbally, to the assault team.

The soldier claimed: "The message was that we had to resolve the situation and there was to be no chance of failure, and that the hostages absolutely had to be protected. The Prime Minister did not want an ongoing problem beyond the embassy - which we took to mean that they didnt want anybody coming out alive. No surviving terrorists."

While this caused a sensation in Europe, transforming Thatcher's image into a bloodthirsty vigilante, the result was that foreign terrorists steered clear of the Iron Lady (alhough the IRA had no such hesitation). Both Iran and Iraq interpreted Operation Nimrod as an indication that Britain would tolerate no Jimmy Carter-style dithering, as was happening with the American embassy hostages in Teheran. Neither would challenge Thatcher directly again, and when America elected Thatcher-like Ronald Reagan to replace the hapless Carter, both would rely on only the most indirect of efforts against American interests.

However, as it turns out, the vigilante image resulted from a fundamental misunderstanding of Thatcher's orders, as Fairweather recalls for the first time since Nimrod:

"The Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, issued everyone with a clear set of orders," he says. "They were that we had to play it long, that the rule of law must prevail throughout, that the police must be in charge and that only minimum force could be used with the aim of rescuing all the hostages. His last instruction to us was that no terrorists were to leave the country. A lot of people, with a wink and with eyebrows raised, thought that last one meant kill them.

"Not so. That simply meant we could have taken them out of the embassy and taken them to Heathrow but that no-one was leaving the countrys airspace.

"People thought the message from Thatcher was waste them, but that wasnt the case. The message was to rescue the hostages, not kill terrorists."

From the very start, Fairweather insists, the plan was to avoid bloodshed. "The police, who had controlled the operation throughout the six days superbly well, always wanted it to end peacefully.

"The terrorists wanted publicity for their cause, which they got. But they literally lost the plot when they started trying to get other Arab countries involved in the negotiations. They must have been exhausted.

"They would probably still be alive today had they not opened fire on one of the hostages. At the end of the day, police had no option but to commit the SAS to the assault. It should be said that the SAS played a very small part in the operation compared to the police."

That hasn't stopped people on the Left from smearing Thatcher and the SAS as thugs who deliberately busted into the embassy to murder the terrorists. One such person is Chris Cramer, who started off on April 30th as a hostage but faked a heart attack to convince the terrorists to let him go. Cramer, at the time a BBC employee, spoke years later (2002) about his experience at Princes Gate (emphases mine):

I won't roll out the victim syndrome for you at all -- well, maybe I will for two or three minutes. My own humbling experience was 20 years ago last week. Not, of course, as I remember it. It was actually last Wednesday at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Not, of course, that I remember it because it has no affect on me. Tomorrow I fly to London for a reunion, the first in 20 years. And I'll come back to you and let you know how that feels next year, if you like.

My experience was very brief. I was stupid enough to apply for a visa inside the Iranian Embassy in London in April 1980. I was stupid enough to be there when Iraqi terrorists stormed it. I was there for a very, very short time. I was there for precisely 28 hours. Not that I remember it, because I'm a member of your profession. We don't do PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].

I was fortunate enough to have a slightly troubling stomach condition, having been in Zimbabwe, which manifested itself in a very short space of time. It's a most incredible heart attack. And I do fantastic heart attacks. I do great heart attacks. So convincing with my heart attack that the people there were embarrassed and threw me out.

And I was released after 27 hours into the hands of the Metropolitan Police in London and two days later into a dreadful bunch of terrorists called the SAS, who were probably worse than the terrorists inside the Iranian embassy.

And four and a half days later, Maggie Thatcher, in one of her rare moments of triumph, deployed the SAS in broad daylight to storm the embassy and they rescued all but maybe one or two of the hostages. Two were murdered. The SAS conveniently took out five members of the terrorist group and forgot to take out the sixth. So that was my brief, humbling experience.

Despite the successful rescue of his soundman, Sim Harris, Cramer has repeatedly told people that the real terrorists that day were the SAS instead of Saddam's henchmen, which certainly set the stage for the next twenty-five years of news coverage by Western media of Saddam Hussein and his genocidal rule. Without bothering to learn the facts, the media assumed that Thatcher had ordered the SAS to kill everyone in the embassy, when in fact she intended only to ensure that the terrorists not be allowed to leave the country. And despite the years since Princes Gate, not much has ever been reported about Saddam Hussein's involvement in staging the attack, nor have the media ever covered the Iraqi dictator without playing a similar moral equivalency card or deliberately averting their eyes from his crimes. Eason Jordan famously admitted on the cusp of Iraq's liberation that he deliberately withheld reports of Saddam's crimes from his CNN audiences in order to gain access to Baghdad -- even on at least one occasion forcing his reporters to use regime-provided copy as CNN's supposedly independent report about Iraqi activity.

And where is Chris Cramer these days? He now heads CNN International.

It appears that Western conservatives learned the correct lessons from Nimrod and Princes Gate. The Exempt Media and the Left remain as clueless as ever.

Be sure to read the entire Scotsman piece on Nimrod.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 3, 2005 4:41 PM

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