David Cameron’s anguished decision

It fell to the Prime Minister to authorise a rescue mission which resulted in the deaths of a British and an Italian hostage. The action took place before the Italian authorities were informed. Could something different and better have been done?

The background to the story is the rise of the violent militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria and the seizure of two civilian hostages last May [2011].

The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, [which means] “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. Residents in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters, dubbed it Boko Haram. Loosely translated from the local Hausa language, this means “Western education is forbidden”

The location of the hostages appears to have been confirmed recently. They were on the point of being moved. Nigerian forces with British support considered immediate action to be necessary.

Life and death decisions

The latter in particular are schooled in the general principles involved. Each such incident has its special features, so are there more general lessons in leadership to be learned?

The decision to act was quickly followed by news that the rescue had ended in tragedy, and that the two hostages were dead, whether in cross fire of through execution by their captors was not clear. Mr Cameron could do little beyond expressing his extreme sadness and condolences to the bereaved family.

The President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, who appears to have been alerted too late to contribute to the decision-making to provide the Italian perspective, was understandably dismayed at the outcome and shocked at the process.

The ‘inexplicable’ decision

The BBC later reported the events and the reactions of the Italian President:

It is “inexplicable” the UK did not tell Rome of a bid to rescue a Briton and an Italian held in Nigeria, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano says. Islamist militants took Chris McManus, 28, of Oldham, and Franco Lamolinara hostage in north-west Nigeria last May. The engineers died as Nigerian and UK forces tried to free them on Thursday [8th May 2012]. UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said Rome had been told of intelligence behind the rescue attempt and informed “as the decision was taken to act”. Mr Napolitano said the British government needed to explain why it did not inform the Italian authorities ahead of the operation.
“The way the British government has behaved is quite inexplicable. To have failed to inform or consult Italy, with regard to a military action which could have such consequences. A clarification is needed on both the political and diplomatic levels.”

The dilemma

The primary dilemma for Mr Cameron was whether to accept the military assessment that a rescue attempt was required. Keeping the Italians informed was of secondary importance. It remains to be seen whether, prior to the fateful decision, the military leaders and political leaders had not put in place communication channels, in anticipation of fast-changing events. It seems plausible to argue that the difficulty at the end, came about from actions (or inaction) earlier on.

The Italian political scene was in disarray after the appointment of a new President. David Cameron had become embroiled with the leaders of the European Union over a period of months. The military seemed to have requested permission to take action without setting up communications that would have led to some hot-line at just such a crisis point.

Conclusion

The complexities of the situation are beyond the scope of this brief analysis. The action itself was only partly under the control of the British military forces on the ground: The British defence secretary, Philip Hammond later noted that “when a window of opportunity became available, a well-trained Nigerian force with British support went in and tried to rescue them”.

Military historians and leadership analysts will have their say. Until then, we are left with a few general principles to examine and test for their credibility.

“What would you have done?” Mr Cameron might well ask his critics. “We wouldn’t have arrived at where you ended up” could have been the answer. Better planning in advance may or may not have improved the decision taken, but it would possibly have improved the overall decision-making processes.

Acknowledgements

Image from The Blaze is of Imam Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader.

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