The first reports about the Colombian military’s rescue of the 15 hostages held by FARC (in Spanish) indicate an impressive intelligence operation. The hostages were held in three separate locations. Colombian intelligence had infiltrated one of the FARC fronts holding the hostages as well as the FARC Secretariat. They told the front commander “Cesar” that the hostages were being transferred on the orders of FARC chief Alfonso Cano. After gathering the hostages in one location the FARC unit was met by a helicopter, ostensibly from an NGO (that doesn’t actually exist). Then the hostages were loaded onto the helicopter and the FARC commander and his deputy were taken captive to be handed over to judicial authorities. The other members of the FARC front were permitted to escape.
The fifteen hostages were rescued without firing a shot. The long nightmare of the hostages and their families is finally over.
There are many implications to this tremendous success. It indicates both the FARC’s rot and impressive Colombian capabilities. That Colombian intelligence could manage this elaborate ruse shows how much information they have gathered about the FARC’s internal workings. The computer files seized, both from Raul Reyes, but also from the computer of FARC leader Ivan Rios – who was killed by his own men, were no doubt invaluable. That FARC would fall for this ruse indicates increasing fragmentation and decay. The loss of several top leaders, and the reported serious illness of FARC’s top military commander Mono Jojoy have all contributed to FARC's weakness.
Communications has long been an Achilles heel for the FARC, which is spread out in Colombia’s vast hinterland. The hostage rescue operation is the most dramatic capitalization of this weakness so far and it will also exacerbate it. FARC leaders will now doubt the origin of their orders – leading to further fragmentation.
It is an impressive operation – imagine if Iraqi forces could carry out operations like this. (Colombia’s security forces have benefited tremendously from U.S. support under Plan Colombia – hopefully some of the lessons learned will be transferable to the global counter-insurgency against radical Islamist terrorists.)
The escape of the rest of the FARC front was probably a wise operational move. Engaging them could have resulted in a firefight in which hostages could have been hurt or killed. The unit will probably dissolve and its members may join the chorus of former FARC members broadcasting calls for active FARC members to turn themselves in. (The program has been successful – over 1000 FARC fighters desert per year according to some reports and has included top commanders.)
One dark spot: the use of the NGO ruse may have consequences – not just in Colombia – but worldwide. Future efforts to negotiate these kinds of releases may be effected – and the FARC is believed to hold an additional 700 hostages. The NGO role of serving as interlocutors between states and terrorist groups – while easy to criticize – is often useful and necessary. Their neutrality in these conflicts worldwide does allow them to deliver humanitarian aid and facilitate communications. If terrorist groups are more hesitant to engage with NGOs because of this incident it may block these useful channels.
However, this kind of ruse may only work with a particularly isolated group. Less fragmented groups, like Hezbollah, would probably restrict their dealings to well-established NGOs - so that the impact may be limited.
The invaluable Bloggings By Boz a leading stop for LatAm news reports the fascinating detail that the Colombian rescuers were wearing Che T-shirts.