You’ve heard about the Special Air Service (SAS). Perhaps you’ve heard about their maritime brethren, the Special Boat Service (SBS). Chances are, however, you haven’t heard about their youngest sibling, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR).
And for a good reason. Created in 2005, this shadowy unit is the equivalent of America’s Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), aka the Activity.
Like the Activity, from the few things publicly known, the SRR specializes in, but certainly is not limited to, Human Intelligence (HUMINT). It’s seen combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, among other places.
But before it, there was another unit.
If we’re to judge a unit’s “tier” by the number of its cover names, then the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) had to be Tier 1 plus something. Over the years, it went under many names: the 14 Intelligence Company, the Det, Northern Ireland Training and Advisory Team, Joint Communication Unit Northern Ireland, Argus, and Ajax.
The 14 Int, as it was more commonly known, emerged in 1972 following the need for effective covert surveillance on both Catholic IRA and Protestant loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland. The “Troubles” between the two communities were fuming. And the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were trying their best but falling short.
With around 120 operators, both men and women from all branches of the military, it split into four detachments, the Dets, each with its slice of the province’s toughest areas: Antrim, Londonderry, Belfast, and Newry.
They ran plain clothes covert surveillance, bugging, reconnaissance, and sometimes direct action operations. Subject to both civil and military law, thwarting terrorist plots was a constant legal nightmare.
The SAS, for example, who were very active in the province, were deemed too aggressive and callous for the delicate job of agent and informer handling.
And although 14 Int worked closely with Hereford, which provided troopers so the Det could launch and run its first selection and training courses, jealousy and inter-service rivalry (as is often the case) were never too far away.
This wasn’t your “regular” special operations unit. It was more akin to an intelligence service gone feral than a military outfit.
Functioning as a rankless meritocracy (as far as one of these can exist in a military), initiative, intelligence, and independent thinking were highly sought-after traits in recruits.
The unit was so successful that, as the years progressed, it deployed farther and farther from British shores. The Balkans, the Middle East, and Spain (to track possible IRA-ETA links and assist the Spanish government in its war against the Basque terrorist group) are just a few of the places its operators have been rumored to be.
In 2005, it amalgamated into the newly created Special Reconnaissance Regiment.
But before any car-chasing and nocturnal ‘activities’ happened, there was a selection.
And it wasn’t easy.
This article was originally published in October 2019. It has been edited for republication.
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