A British soldier roams the crowded bazaar. His tour in that hell hole called Aden almost over, he seeks to buy something for his sweetheart. Whilst he bargains his way to a smart linen dress, he doesn’t notice the two Arabs trailing him. But why should he? The sandal-and-turban wearing men look like just another couple of locals rushing through their afternoon shopping. Looks, however, can be deceiving. These “Arabs” pack suppressed 9mm Hi-Power Brownings underneath their cotton robes. These “Arabs” are, in fact, his sole protection in a city frothing with hatred for the foreigners. These “Arabs” are Special Air Service (SAS) troopers on a covert counter-terrorism mission.
A terrorist campaign began not long after the British government declared, in 1964, its intention of withdrawing from Aden within four years.
Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup in Egypt had set the water of Arab nationalism in the region simmering. The British announcement made it boil.
In the north, an Egyptian-backed coup d’état had established in 1962 the communist Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen). Its Marxist creed lost no time in snaking its way south to the mountains and streets of Aden.
The result was the National Liberation Front (NLF). This pro-Soviet terrorist group received Egyptian support and sought to oust the British from the whole of South Yemen. On the other hand, the rival Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY), which was made up mostly from Aden townspeople and also received Egyptian support, focused its terrorist activities within the port of Aden. And like two famished pigs scrapping over a rotten apple, the two groups fought one another with as equal intensity as they fought the British, who tried, unsuccessfully, to use this rivalry to their advantage.
Between 1963 and the British withdrawal in 1967, the NLF and the FLOSY conducted a campaign of shootings, bombings, and grenade attacks on public, military, and civilian targets. Dubbed the “Cairo Grenadiers,” they often lobbed grenades over schools’ walls whilst children were playing. Snipers picking off British dismounted patrols were also common. At the time, Aden wasn’t unlike what Belfast and Ramadi would be in the future.
A normal day’s work in Aden (Wikimedia.org).
British retaliation was swift and often indiscriminate often including the cordon, search, and arrest of whole neighborhoods. It was also ineffective. Terrorists would have long vanished from the scene, and reprisals only increased the population’s loathing of the soldiers. Restrictive ROEs didn’t help either. Something more was needed. An unconventional answer to an unconventional question. Enter the SAS.
To run counter-terrorism operations within Aden 20 troopers from D Squadron were selected. They were selected because of their fluency in Arabic and their looks — they were either tanned to a degree of no return or of Fijian ethnicity (Corporal Labalaba, of Mirbat fame, was one them). With cotton robes, a pair of sandals, and a sumatah (local turban) on their heads, they could easily pass as Arabs. They established their HQ at Ballycastle House, in Aden’s military quarter. Their missions, christened Keeni Meeni (Swahili for a snake’s unseen movement in the grass), focused on the old Arab districts of the “Crater” and Sheik Othman, both being largely off-limits to conventional British forces.
An aerial view of the Crater district (Wikimedia.org).
In teams of two, they combed the bazaars and streets for known terrorists. A favorite prey of theirs, Yemeni assassins responsible for murdering local informants and British officials.
If they weren’t after a particular target, they created situations that would either generate a kill or, better, intelligence. A uniformed British soldier, often one of their Whiter SAS brethren, would serve as bait. Pretending to be shopping in a bazaar or being drunk in a street, the soldier would be trailed by a Keeni Meeni team from a close distance. If terrorists were bold enough to assault the soldier, they would promptly double-tap them with their suppressed 9mm Brownings and quickly disappear in the confusion. If they saw anyone following the soldier, they would follow him and snap photographs. They used locally purchased Land Rovers to move covertly around the districts.
Due to the nature of their operations, their Close Quarters Battle (CQB) techniques had to be faultless. Many hours were spent practicing on ranges around the city. They used the “Grant Taylor” CQB method. Developed during the Second World War for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the British Commandos by Col. Grant Taylor, this method orbited around five principles: speed, surprise, confidence, concentration, and aggressiveness (traits that the SAS were certainly not wanting in).
But they had competition in their covert activities. The Special Branch Squad, a unit formed by the Royal Anglian Regiment, was also operating in Aden. Compartmentalization and secrecy, however, meant that neither unit knew about the activities or presence of the other. And this resulted in an unfortunate blue-on-blue incident, when a SAS team shot two Special Branch operators, seriously wounding them.
An armored patrol traverses the Crater. The crowded setting offered plenty of opportunities for ambushes (Wikimedia.org).
Following the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967, and Nasser’s allegations of British support to Israel, violence in Aden spiked. Already commonplace, riots and street-fighting incidents exploded. Moreover, a mutiny in the “loyal” Arab military and police units resulted in the killing of 22 British soldiers. The Crater was now completely off-limits as an open revolt gripped the district. This was obviously an unwinnable situation. And soon thereafter, the last British forces withdrew.
The Aden Emergency had been a bloody affair for the British soldiers and civilians alike. As for the SAS, their experiences gained by running urban counter-terrorism and surveillance operations were invaluable. It wouldn’t be long before the techniques developed in Aden’s claustrophobic back streets would be perfected in Belfast’s alleys.