FARC jefe was killed yesterday in a gun-battle with Colombian military commandos. This is by no means the end of the FARC – which, embroiled in the cocaine trade and taking advantage of Colombia’s vast territory and difficult geography continues to have the ability to fight and terrorize. Nonetheless, 15 years ago the FARC appeared to be capable of destabilizing the state. Now, while still dangerous its place in Colombia has been marginalized. The Colombian government has built some impressive military and technical capabilities. Hopefully, as the threat from FARC is reduced, these capabilities can be turned to Colombia’s many other internal challenges so that the country can consolidate its democracy and extend its writ throughout its territory.
The TerrorWonk has written quite a bit about FARC, so here is a short retrospective that will give some insight into the source of Colombia’s successes over the past few years. In some ways, it has been a model in that the US provided critical aid and resources – but the overall expenditures were relatively small – but the Colombians themselves did most of the work. It did require two important elements that are in short supply. First, it has taken over a decade – the relative inattention by the US public and media may have served the country well, allowing policy-makers to pursue a systematic, careful strategy without watching public approval. Also, Colombia’s political class has served up some very capable leaders including former President Alvaro Uribe and the current President Juan Manual Santos.
Posts on the 2008 Hostage Rescue
Whenever there is a dramatic success against terrorists, someone assumes the Israelis are behind it. There was technical assistance, but there was something else as well:
Not every terror attack can be prevented, but Israel has stood in the forefront of reminding the world that force – properly and intelligently applied – can be used to neutralize terrorism, thereby setting the stage for last week’s dramatic events in Colombia.
This recap of the rescue gives a sense of how deeply Colombian intel had penetrated the FARC. A penetration that was critical to assassinated Cano:
Cesar, the commander of the FARC front holding the hostages put them on a helicopter after receiving an order he believed came from the FARC jefe Alfonso Cano. Consider the implications of this: it would be as if someone tricked a General into believing he had just received an order from the President. Such communications are not handled casually. The fact that Colombian intelligence could deliver this fake message probably indicates a very high-level of human and electronic penetration into the FARC’s communications networks.
Reporting on Interpol’s assertion that the files on the captured FARC computers are authentic has focused on potential Chavez-FARC ties. But another bit of FARC news should be noted. Six of FARC commander Mono Jojoy’s bodyguards had plotted kill him, probably to collect the $5 million reward. The plot was discovered and three of the six were killed, the other three escaped and are now aiding the Colombian authorities. This plot was no doubt inspired by the death of another member of the FARC Secretariat, Ivan Rios – again at the hands of his bodyguards. The Colombian government’s decision to pay Rios’ bodyguards the reward no doubt encouraged Mono Jojoy’s bodyguards. This is roughly equivalent to Generals being shot by their own troops.
There is probably no better counter-terror strategy than to get a group to turn on itself. The campaign against the notorious Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) in the late 1980s was successful because the paranoid leader, the eponymous Abu Nidal (real name Sabri al-Banna) became convinced that his organization had been infiltrated by the CIA and his subordinates were plotting against him. He became unhinged and began burying them in wet cement. Reportedly, on one night he killed 150 ANO members.
While there are many more posts, This post gives an overview of how clever strategy turned FARC’s strengths into weaknesses:
The two of the FARC’s strengths were the vast territory of Colombia (more than two and a half times the size of Iraq), which gave them many places to hide and their ideological flexibility, which enabled them to enter the drug trade and link with international criminal networks. But Colombia’s size made it difficult for the cadres to meet in person. FARC operatives are vulnerable to interception by security forces when moving long distances. Turning to electronic communications only played into the strengths of the US, which has shared intelligence with the Colombians. With both personal and electronic communications under pressure the FARC’s command and control structure has deteriorated. In the 1990s the Colombian government granted the FARC a demilitarized zone. The re-establishment of a de-militarized zone is the FARC’s primary demand in negotiations over the approximately 700 hostages they hold. The need this zone to bring the leaders together – not necessarily for physical or weapons training – but for strategic communications.
The FARC’s engagement in massive criminal activity has been a strength because it kept the organization flush financially and created links for the organization to acquire new technology and skills. But this too has become a weakness. The massive involvement in narcotics trafficking has decimated any credibility the FARC might have once had with the Colombian people – now they are viewed as little more than another cartel. At the same time, the easy money has led to corruption and “lack of ideological rigor” among many FARC commanders. Also, the international criminal networks are subject to infiltration. Only days before the Raul Reyes assassination, the Department of Justice indicted 11 FARC commanders and collaborators based on information obtained from satellite phones purchased in Miami that were being monitored by the DEA. In 2001 the DEA managed to sell four tapped satellite phones to the FARC.
The tactical successes, such as infiltrating satellite phones are impressive. But the real victory, in turning FARC’s strengths to weaknesses, is at the strategic level.