Case Study: Caches and Searching

It seems like a good interest/history topic to cover some first hand experiences of caches and search procedures in counter terrorist operations. It s a little at variance to what we have mainly been used to since 9/11 in terms of the ‘GWOT’. During my time in the British Army I spent a deal of time on ‘operational deployments’ to Northern Ireland, mainly during the 1990’s.

So, what are we talking about? Imagine the situation in Northern Ireland. It is a First World Country, part of the United Kingdom (that point being the large part of the debate and reason for the insurgency!) There is a porous border to the south (sound familiar?) and terrorist operations were taking place in and amongst the population, which is very sectarian. It would be a mistake to underestimate the Irish Republican Terrorist, but respecting them for employing effective tactics is different from being able to respect them as human beings due to the overt tactics of causing mass deaths of innocent civilians through the deliberate use of large IEDs and targeting of civilians to maximise terror and effect.

There is a framework to how this all went. Surveillance and intelligence operations are a big part of what the British Government was doing to combat the threat. ‘Green Army’ troops are deployed extensively on the ground in support of the police and sometimes full on combat situations happened, other times it was more terrorist in nature. Due to this surveillance, and the efforts of the British to disrupt terrorist movement and operations, it was hard for them to move weapons into place for an operation. VCPs (Vehicle Check Points) were a hazard and could happen anywhere at any time. Thus, passing through them it may be obvious that a carload of ‘players’ are who they are, but they can’t be arrested or detained without reason. They will be allowed on their way. There are rules to this game.

So, the terrorists develop a system. They have a logistics chain with ‘quartermasters’. Weapons are moved along this chain. The idea is that when an operation is to go down, weapons will be moved to a cache. This means that the players can collect the weapons and carry out the operation with minimum movement carrying those weapons. Remember that these are not suicide types so the operation will only go down if they think they can get away with it, so as the parts are moving they need to be sure of their escape route. For example, if they are going to conduct a shoot onto a Brit patrol, they will only go through with it if they can identify all the elements of the patrol and thus be sure that their escape route is accessible (Satellite Patrolling is a counter to this).

The cache is an interesting thing. There has to be a system so that with the cut-outs employed the various parts know where to find the cache. In a rural area it is often something like a buried PVC pipe in the side of a ditch, with end caps so it stays water tight. There is a system for identifying it. There will be a series of markers, or reference points. For example: drive along the ‘X’ road until you get to the ‘parking area’. There is a tree struck by lightning (marker 1). Follow the dirth north from the tree to the fifth fence post (marker 2) then …etc (marker 3), cache is below it. Weapons will be picked up, operation carried out, weapons dropped.

The other side to this is the security forces response. Randon searches upset the locals so they are not allowed. The 5 and 25 meter checks that troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan learn actually developed in the years of counter IED operations in Northern Ireland, where they were the 5 and 20 meter checks. The 5 meter check is an individual check when stopping, to ensure you are not sitting on a device, or for example you may notice a command wire snaking down the wire of a barbed wire fence. The 20 meter check is done for a patrol stop, to secure an area from devices and from command wires running into it. This 20 meter check can be done as an ‘extended 20 meter check’ to search an area. Areas can be searched at random or in response to a tip. On a patrol, the team will decide to search an area. To do this, they will use a technique developed, which uses the same marker system as the terrorists. Simply, identify items that would suit use as reference points, start there and try to identify what the next marker would likely be. If you do find a cache, be careful it may be booby trapped with a pressure plate or other device. It may be empty. If you find one, you can either flag it up the chain so EOD comes out and you clear it, or if you are clever you use it as the basis of an operation to try and follow the chain to the actual quartermasters. Covert cameras to observe the cache, perhaps moving to a live OP. In extremis, a ‘reactive OP’ can be carried out, because ‘ambush’ is not a politically correct term.

Remember that military operations were carried out under the strict rules of engagement of the ‘yellow card’. If a terrorist fires at you and then drops his weapon, you cannot engage. Basically, they had to have the weapon up and pointed at you before you could return fire. Your own weapons were carried loaded but not made ready, so that a trained response to contact involved cocking your weapon before removing the safety catch and returning fire.

There was a lot to this cat and mouse game, but I hope this serves as a useful interest post.