In the days of Ian Fleming, spies were recruited from the halls of Oxford and Cambridge. Today’s spies blend in on foreign streets. Meet the Increment.
“What the hell is the Increment? Some kind of secret unit?”
“It’s looser than that. More ad hoc. We use soldiers from the Special Air Services, mostly. Black-ops people, highly trained. Many of them are from the – forgive the term – former colonies. Indians, Paks, West Indians, Arabs. They all speak the languages fluently, like natives. They can operate anywhere, and more or less invisibly. They have the mythical 007 license to kill, as a matter of fact. I like to think of them as James Bond meets My Beautiful Laundrette. They give us certain capabilities we would not have, even under our own rather expansive rules. You don’t know about the Increment because, strictly speaking, there is no such organisation.” – The Increment by David Ignatius.
The first sign came on my flight from JFK to Heathrow. Sean Connery as James Bond gliding across the screen as I neared the land of his origin, hoping to get a sense of what Bond’s present-day equivalents are up to, hoping to learn if such a thing as the Increment has any basis in reality. He is the foremost of British spies, those men and women who work for Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He makes carrying out secret and deniable actions – the ones a government can say it had no part in – look elegant, a good indication that it’s fantasy. The contours of the covert world are not as sleek as they seem in Connery’s portrayal.
I’ve spent more time than I’d judge advisable in conflict zones and other places where covert operators were active. I know I’ve run across some; I’m still wondering about others. For the most part the shadow worlds remain shadowy, places where nothing is certain and the imagination can undermine efforts to understand what really happened. There is also a larger point: These kinds of outfits – Increments, or small mobile teams of special operators who can get in and out of places they’re not wanted, kicking down doors or taking lives if necessary and achieving their objective without leaving fingerprints – have existed for ages. They’re especially valued today because of the nature of current threats – the quasi-rogue governments that eschew international law, the insurgencies and nonstate actors trying to provoke outsize responses they can use to their advantage – and because countries such as the US want to have secret teams such as this at their disposal. Special operators remain busy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They have been working in Iran and would to a much greater degree should a war break out there. If sanity prevails, however, the next spasms of armed conflict are more likely to involve Hezbollah, Pakistani militants or pirates off the Horn of Africa than China or Russia.
Intelligence today has to concern itself more with counter-insurgency than with conventional warfare. “In a counter-insurgency environment you really need to do two basic things,” says Australian David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerrilla and onetime advisor to US Army General David Petraeus. “Protect the bulk of the population, which usually involves a lot of security work and winning over people who are willing to be reconciled, and kill or capture a very small proportion of people who are intimidating the population and are unwilling to reconcile. There’s a constructive element and a destructive element – an overt element of protection and a covert element of whacking people who are, essentially, irreconcilable assholes.” That last element, he says, “tends to be something better done by low-profile organisations.”
The US has a domestic intelligence organisation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and an overseas intelligence body, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The latter contains the National Clandestine Service, which coordinates clandestine and covert activities. Likewise, the UK has Military Intelligence Branch Five, or MI5, for domestic matters and, for international affairs, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as Military Intelligence Branch Six – MI6 – or Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service. For years MI6 helped the younger CIA operate in terrain the Brits knew better, especially in what was then the British Empire. MI6 can count successes ranging from feeding misinformation to Germany during World War II to taking part in the operation that tracked the nuclear network of Pakistan’s AQ Khan. It also joined the CIA in several actions that had been deemed successes but now look questionable at best: toppling elected leaders in Iran in 1953 and in the Congo in 1961. There were embarrassments as well, the most recent being the misreading and politicising of intelligence on Iraq, the biggest being the revelation that a World War II-era officer named Kim Philby – at one time MI6’s liaison to the CIA – had been working for the Soviets.
These days the CIA has more people and greater resources than the Brits do, but it’s still easy to find people who believe MI6 officers are more capable than their American counterparts. “I think their officers are very strong,” says Mike Hurley, a former CIA officer who led teams in Afghanistan in 2002. “They have to be because they need to do more with fewer people and resources. There has always been an emphasis on how to be more efficient and focus on what’s important.” It’s also more secretive. Despite the Bond-related notoriety, the agency didn’t officially admit its existence until 1992, and its officers are bound by a strict Official Secrets Act (OSA). Unlike in the US, “there aren’t any MI6 officers going on TV to explain what’s going on in Iraq or Afghanistan,” says Stephen Dorril, author of the encyclopaedic history MI6. The Foreign Office does not comment on intelligence matters, and leaks are far less common than they are in America. That doesn’t mean MI6 is not actively gathering information, recruiting sources and conducting infiltrations, exfiltrations, false-flag operations – in which a source is convinced he is working for a third country – or anything else, says one former officer. In fact, right now “it is bigger than it’s ever been, except for World War II,” says Dorril, adding, however, that “compared to the CIA, it’s a minnow.”
On the military side the elite Special Air Service, based in Hereford, England, corresponds to the American Green Berets and Delta Force, and the Special Boat Service (SBS), based in Poole on the English coast, is akin to the Navy Seals. Originally the SAS was designed to work behind enemy lines; later it was given the counterterrorism brief. The SBS was focused on coastal and seaborne missions, though its writ, too, has expanded. The two units are sometimes territorial, battling each other for resources and jurisdiction, but both can be deployed alongside regular troops as well as sent on clandestine and covert operations.
Military historian Nigel West calls them “the precursor of all other special-forces units.” Generally speaking, the SBS has worked in Afghanistan, and the SAS was deployed to Iraq, where it played a significant part in the effort to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. “You find a lot of self-motivated guys” in the British special forces, says Tim Larkin, a former special ops intel officer who has worked with them on several occasions. “The Brits really test for the idea of being by yourself with little direction.” The selection process, he adds, focuses on people who’ve been in the service for a few years, who have some experience and “who don’t need a lot of oversight.” Having seen them at work in Afghanistan, Hurley offers his praise: “They were much better at getting a feel for the neighbourhoods,” he says, “for the people, for the buzz on the streets.” Over the years they’ve done counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia and on the Arabian Peninsula, hunted war criminals in the Balkans, worked counter-narcotics in South America and helped enforce a peace agreement in Sierra Leone. They’ve been active in Egypt and Borneo, and in Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War. And of course in Northern Ireland, which served as a laboratory for counter-insurgency and intelligence experiments, for better and for worse. Much of this occurred far from public view. Like intel guys, special operators are subject to the OSA and risk ostracism should they go public with information. It happens, but it’s considered bad form and potentially dangerous. “SAS members are never named, even when they are decorated,” notes West.
There are times when special skills are needed, when regular troops aren’t allowed or are too conspicuous. The CIA has its own paramilitary teams, the Special Activities Division; MI6 does not. Instead, section chiefs have direct lines to Hereford and Poole. Since World War II, Dorril says, MI6 has worked closely with the special forces, “but it’s become more formalised in the past 20 years.” It can be an ad hoc arrangement, but at any given time certain SAS and SBS members are seconded to MI6, put through challenging training and prepared to do whatever MI6 needs done. This unit has had many names over the years, one of which, one former military officer confirms, was “the Increment.”
As David Ignatius renders it in fiction, the Increment carries out black ops and “wet work,” the latter including assassinations. Some will tell you it’s fiction; others claim it’s real. Before heading to London I meet with a onetime military officer from a Commonwealth country. I am asked not to use his name, but he tells me in the first moments of our conversation that the Increment does exist. He knows because he worked with it in Iraq. He doesn’t think the Brits have directly assassinated anyone – or even tried to – in a long time. His work with the Increment involved cultivating sources and identifying Iraqi insurgents who could be turned, then figuring out how to approach them. It was, he says, “covert diplomacy” more than anything else, long sessions in meeting rooms discussing strategies and possibilities, then low-profile efforts to meet sheiks or former Baathist officers, directly or through go-betweens, who might be convinced to stop shooting at coalition troops. “Not exciting stuff in a place that could get exciting very quickly,” he says.
Increment members were professional soldiers with special training in intelligence. They were smart, agile of mind and body. They weren’t the hulking behemoths you sometimes find in American special forces outfits but people who could blend in as ably as they could fight. The unit has also been called the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Squadron, among other designations, he says. “They like to give things really innocuous names.”
“You could be agency for all I know,” says a man in a grey suit who sits with his back to the wall, pint on the table, in a crowded London pub. I’d been introduced by a trusted colleague; when I reached London, it turned out this man would be in town for a few days before heading back to the Middle East. He said I could find him in a grey suit beneath the marquee for We Will Rock You, a musical featuring the songs of Queen. It is a thick-aired summer night. The streets are packed, but he was easily spotted amid the rush-hour commuters. He suggests a drink at a pub and dinner in Chinatown, a few blocks away.
He is friendly but also wary and often vague. We are living in a cynical world, he says, but the threats are real, at home and overseas. The UK has changed. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have emigrated here from Yemen, Somalia and, in particular, Pakistan. Most go about their lives, but a small number have attended training camps run by takfiri groups. And four of them – three British citizens with Pakistani backgrounds born and raised in the UK and a Jamaican who grew up in England and converted to Islam in his teens – carried out coordinated suicide bombing attacks in London on 7 July 2005, killing 52 people.
“Your lot,” he says, “have made things worse with your policies in the Middle East.” True, I say, but your lot drew the maps, and both our lots overthrew a democratically elected Iranian government, the reverberations of which are still being felt. He grants me that but insists on his point, that what the Bush administration did after September 11 helped galvanise militant Islamists. “There are people out there who are threats to the UK and others who might be threats. That’s why there are closed-circuit cameras on street corners throughout the country,” he says. People complain about privacy, he notes, but those cameras helped piece together the movements of the July 7 bombers. They make people safer, he insists.
Cameras or no cameras, the intel agencies didn’t stop the attacks, which triggered debates over the UK’s readiness to deal with homegrown terrorists. Both MI5 and MI6 were stained as badly as the CIA on Iraq. “We learned a great deal in Northern Ireland,” the man in the suit says, echoing something I’ve heard many times over the years. Units tailored for the battle, such as the 14th Intelligence Detachment (the Det) and the Force Reaction Unit, made mistakes and went too far at times but ultimately proved effective. The IRA’s plans were often known in advance. More darkly, according to the Commonwealth officer, the Brits knew that if they wanted someone dead they could put word on the street – he was an informer, he’d blown a mission, he’d screwed the wrong guy’s sister – and it was nearly guaranteed that local outfits would handle it. Overall, the man in the suit says, Northern Ireland made the British arrogant. “It took years, that campaign,” he notes, “even though we had a lot in common with the people we were up against. Today’s enemy has a different mentality. This lot is willing to die, to blow themselves up. It’s a wholly different task to deal with people who ignore instincts for self-preservation, who are so profoundly dislocated they think it worthwhile to do something that can provide adventure in this world and passage into the next.”
In an email, James F Dunnigan, a military historian and author of How to Make War, writes that while the US has much greater technological capabilities, MI6 is better able to “go deep cover in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan (as it did earlier in Iraq) and seek to develop local agents who can get closer to the centre of things. They trade this stuff with the CIA for ELINT” – electronic intelligence – “and other technical intel. In some respects MI6 helped the CIA make up for its lost human-intelligence capability.”
Before coming to London I’d had lunch in a northern Virginia mall with an ex-CIA agent with lengthy Afghanistan experience. He was surprised the Brits weren’t better prepared after 9/11. “MI6 used to have the camel corps,” says Stephen Dorril, “the people who work in the Middle East, who lived there in the 1940s and 1950s and know the area and languages.
” But the SIS didn’t have the people to gather intelligence. For years, Dorril says, “MI6 was an exclusively white middle-class, upper-class organisation.” They were the British establishment, says Phillip Knightley, author of The Second Oldest Profession and other books on the UK’s intelligence apparatus. These public-school-educated spies, recruited by spotters at Oxford or Cambridge, were the standard-bearers of a Cold War mentality. When spying on governments or foreign militaries, such people, posing as businessmen and diplomats, can be useful. But when you’re trying to track people with no government affiliations, no real headquarters, people living in dusty villages, the picture gets cloudier.
“How are you going to get someone into Peshawar or one of those places?” asks Geneve Mantri, Amnesty International’s lead counterterrorism researcher. “It’s a colonial myth that you can look like Pierce Brosnan, dirty your face a bit and disappear into the market.” Pakistan’s tribal areas or the lawless landscapes of Somalia are harder to penetrate than, say, East Germany, at least for Europeans. In this context having something like the Increment is every intelligence agency’s dream. Mantri, for one, is dubious. If the Brits have this capability, he wonders, why haven’t they used it to more obvious effect? The Israelis might be able to, because they are a multiethnic people with origins in dozens of Middle Eastern, Eastern European and Central Asian countries.
The Chinese could do it in Taiwan, and the Russians used to be able to do it, says Dunnigan. Possibly the Iranians – certainly in Iraq. Reports emerged last summer that after 9/11 the CIA had looked into building a similar kind of unit, a group that could operate in small numbers, but the logistics proved too daunting. “The CIA program was an American Increment,” Dunnigan writes, “and it didn’t get off the ground because of the blowback problem and the fact that the CIA knew from its experience with MI6 that the agency could not match MI6’s expertise in this area.” According to a contact well versed in Israeli intelligence matters, the Israelis believe the Brits employed such a unit to get people caught or killed. Knightley, who has been writing about intelligence for three decades, deems an outfit like the Increment “plausible.”
The man in the grey suit uses the same word, plausible, but he’s cannier about it. British intel operatives “cross lanes” more than their American counterparts. SIS officers posted overseas often work out of British embassies, and he says there are direct lines from the embassies to Hereford. Some officers work on their own, like Bond, he says, though they don’t have as many toys as the movies suggest. (“I saw Enemy of the State and was thinking it would be amazing to have capabilities like that.”) To a large extent it’s a game, he says. You get into the place you’re not supposed to get into. You identify the people who have information you want, then figure out how to get it.
In 2005 Iraqi policemen in Basra arrested several Brits who were moving around town in local dress. British troops surrounded the police station and demanded their release. More recently Stephen Farrell, a British reporter working for The New York Times, was rescued from his Taliban kidnappers by British-sounding soldiers who choppered in at night and shot their way out (killing Farrell’s Afghan colleague and losing one of their own in the process). When these stories were reported the identity of the participants was downplayed.
Officers who take part in such things expect severe repercussions if they break the silence. There have been authorised books cleared by the Ministry of Defense. Bravo Two Zero, written by an SAS officer calling himself Andy McNab, tells the story of an eight-man unit that infiltrated Iraq ahead of Operation Desert Storm. Three were killed and four were captured (including McNab). One escaped and walked for days to reach Syria. He took the name Chris Ryan and wrote his own account, titled The One That Got Away.
Problems arise when service members go on their own. In the 1980s a retired MI5 officer named Peter Wright co-wrote Spycatcher after moving to Australia (his co-writer was Paul Greengrass, who directed the second and third instalments of the Bourne trilogy). Efforts to block its publication proved counter-productive, lending the book notoriety and revealing much MI5 would prefer had not been revealed. Though the atmosphere is different now – the SIS has a website and recruits openly for jobs – there are still limits. “They come down hard on anybody who writes their own book,” Dorril says. That was the lesson learned by David Shayler and Richard Tomlinson, former officers of MI5 and MI6, respectively. After Shayler quit MI5 he began talking to journalists – claiming, for instance, that the SIS had plotted to kill Libya’s Muammar el Qaddafi and that it routinely planted false stories in the press.
He was prosecuted for violating the OSA and sent briefly to prison. Tomlinson was let go by MI6 in 1995. He unsuccessfully challenged his dismissal, then left the country (he now lives in France) and started shopping a book proposal about his experiences. The book was eventually published by a Russian company and, after years of legal wrangling, was serialised in the British papers. According to intelligence historian Nigel West (himself a former officer writing under a pseudonym), Tomlinson’s book was “the most comprehensive insider’s view of the modern service ever produced.” For his effort Tomlinson spent six months in prison and had to fight for nearly a decade to reclaim any proceeds. He was later accused of posting a list of more than 100 MI6 officers online, a charge he denies.
Tomlinson tells of his recruitment, training, early missions and work on the Russia desk.
“Although the core activity of MI6 is agent-running,” he writes, “its charter, known as the Order Book, requires it to maintain a capability to plan and mount special operations of a quasi-military nature.” Actions are subject to the approval of the Foreign Office. Members move on aircraft flown by specially trained pilots from the Royal Air Force. The SAS and the SBS contribute men who have already “served for at least five years and have reached the rank of sergeant. They are security vetted by MI6 and given a short induction course into the function and objective of the service.” They receive additional training in the use of explosives, methods of sabotage, surveillance, guerrilla warfare tactics and theory, and “advanced insertion techniques – for example, parachuting from commercial aircraft or covert landings from submarines.
” As Tomlinson tells it, the SAS and SBS personnel are joined by a volunteer cadre of men and women with “a diverse range of specialist skills.” Their primary task is surveillance and countersurveillance. “They blend into foreign streets,” Tomlinson writes. “Some are drawn from ethnic minorities and many have a good command of foreign languages.” More important, they are “deniable assets.” If caught, the British government would claim no knowledge of them.
Chris Ryan also wrote a book called The Increment, but his is a thriller about an ex-SAS officer forced back into service with rogue members of the top-secret outfit. In Ryan’s rendering the Increment is “a tiny unit consisting of just six men and two women, each of whom did a two-year tour of duty. It operated in the murky shadow lands between the regiment, the regular army, the intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6 and the Home and Foreign Offices.” Ryan did not serve a day in prison, however, even though his Increment carries out assassinations and whores itself to a pharmaceutical magnate testing psychosis-inducing drugs on active soldiers. Then again, he wasn’t passing off his tale as fact.
Early one morning I fly to Edinburgh to meet another author who purports to blend fiction with real-life experience. “Nicholas Anderson” wrote a book called NOC, short for “nonofficial cover.” Anderson says his book emerged from 19 years of working for MI6, often on deep-cover missions. “We were institutional killers in disruptive actions on the black,” the book declares. “That is to say we made illegal entries across borders to perform dirty work, then returned home.” I don’t know what Anderson looks like – his author photo shows only the back of his head – but he said he would pick me up at the airport. I told him I’d wear a Guinness cap. When I enter the arrivals hall at Edinburgh airport, an older gentleman, Alistair, approaches me and says he is a friend of Anderson’s and Anderson has asked him to fetch me. On the way to the garage he pays his ticket at an automated machine while a man in a hat struggles to get the neighbouring machine to work. After briefly fiddling with some coins the man walks away.
On the road Alistair talks about Scotland’s ongoing banking crisis and the city’s history, then announces he’ll be dropping me on the other side of a roundabout. There is a bank there, he says, and Anderson will be in the parking lot. Passing through the intersection, I see a grey car in the lot, doors open, a man inside. After Alistair pulls to the curb, I walk over. Anderson is wearing sunglasses and jeans. He’d been at the airport, he tells me with a grin, because he wanted to check me out to see if I was being followed. (He was, it turned out, the man at the other ticket machine.) That was called a “bren” – a brief encounter – he informs me. He’d followed Alistair, flashing his lights before passing to let him know to go ahead with the planned rendezvous.
We have lunch on the waterfront, stroll through the centre of town, walk around the old castle and stop to get ice cream. It is a confounding day, largely because Anderson is a confounding fellow. At times I have trouble seeing him as a spy, but at other moments he blends seamlessly into crowds. He speaks with a degree of authority and a breadth of knowledge, but he can be needlessly vague. He repeats portions of conversations verbatim, as if they are parts of a rehearsed presentation he’s forgotten. At the restaurant he pulls out handwritten notes on things he wants to say – for example, that he had a “critical” clearance level. Some people he recommends I contact say they don’t really know him or don’t want to talk about him.
His book is entertaining, though it has some scenes that go beyond fantasy, several too-neat coincidences and a general sense he was present at virtually every major event of the 1980s. Some of it is exaggerated, he allows, tarted up on the publisher’s advice, but he insists it’s based on reality. The book was intended to be a true-life memoir, but the first draft was ruled in violation of the OSA and earned Anderson a two-year prison sentence, later commuted to nine months. Names and places were subsequently changed, and it was labelled a work of fiction.
Anderson sees Americans as rash and prone to missteps: “We believe we dig you out of a lot of different holes that you dug for yourselves.” Early on he specialised in exfiltrating Soviet defectors. More recently, he claims, he was in Iraq, leading a small team of SAS commandos charged with recovering kidnapped British citizens. Before heading over he was given a stack of 50 SAS résumés and told to take 30. This was, he says, the Increment.
Oddly, for someone who, in his telling, had such a crucial responsibility, Anderson’s ideas and attitudes are hardly those of a company man. It’s surprising to hear him say that Tony Blair is a war criminal, that Flight 93 was shot down over Pennsylvania on September 11, that the West is squarely to blame for the blowback that fuelled those attacks, that America is a cultural coloniser. Toward the end of the day, as we stroll past souvenir shops flogging Scottish flags and mugs, he says the UK has ordered assassinations, though he gives no specifics. Dorril says that to his knowledge MI6 stopped assassinations in the 1960s. Knightley is not as equivocal but says if the agency were to kill someone, it would farm out the job, finding “somebody who would know somebody who would, if required, do the necessary.”
Ignatius claims the Increment has a “license to kill,” while the Commonwealth officer says the term is a misnomer, that everyone has the authority to kill in self-defence if they are operating in non-allied countries and their lives are threatened. This past summer BBC Radio 4 broadcast a three-part program on the SIS. An interviewer asked John Scarlett, the current head of MI6, if there was such a thing as a license to kill. No, Scarlett said flatly. Had there ever been? Scarlett again said no but only after a long pause.
I was mulling this over on my flight back to London. I had trouble believing what Anderson had said and what he would later write in a number of encrypted emails, but I couldn’t entirely discount it. As he said, it would be difficult to verify. In place of fact, one has to piece things together and try to stave off any incipient paranoia. I found myself wondering if anyone I’d spoken to had uttered a truthful word, if this was all a ruse, if Anderson and the man in the grey suit and the Commonwealth officer in Washington and Ignatius and everyone else were all in cahoots, sent forth to make me think I knew things I didn’t know or to think I shouldn’t believe things that were actually true.
Back in London I meet with a Foreign Office representative to talk about British foreign policy. The primary mission, the representative says, is to protect British citizens and interests at home and abroad. Yemen and Somalia are areas of concern, but the most attention is being paid to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Three quarters of all UK-based cells identified by the intelligence services have links overseas, which means SIS, MI5 and the special forces are working together more closely than in the past.
A day later I am on a train from Paddington Station to Heathrow. An intelligence contact has put me in touch with “Ed,” a British special operator who knows the world I am looking into, Larkin claimed. After trading messages for a few weeks, Ed suggests we meet in the lounge of the Sofitel Hotel adjacent to Heathrow’s terminal five.
It seems a fitting location, a transitory space where no one and everyone belongs. I find a seat that affords a view of the entrance. As I wait I try to imagine working a place like this, adopting another persona, another identity. For a time it could be enjoyable, I figure. In small ways I’d done it before – reporting in Burma, for example, while posing as a teacher. But living for too long in this opaque world of half-truths, at a remove from everyone else, would become profoundly disorienting.
Ed turns up pulling a wheeled carry-on and quickly surveys the room. His eyes settle on me an instant before he walks over. Even as he sits down, he appears ready to move quickly in any direction. “You have to understand,” he says, “if anyone knows I’m talking to you I could lose everything.” He pauses. “Everything.” Ed wants to know what I know. He orders a cappuccino and I tell him what I’m not sure about and what I think I know. He raises his eyebrows at the mention of the Increment, of my outline of what it is and what it was designed to do – special forces operatives on call to the SIS – and nods as I say all this ties in to a larger sense that covert actions are increasing in importance. He knows something about all this, he says.
He had, he begins, undergone regular military training and served in the army. He joined the SAS after completing another round of more specialised training. Then he became a member of “the unit you just mentioned.” It is no longer called what I’d called it, he says, and hasn’t been since someone printed the name in a newspaper. He isn’t going to tell me what it is called now, but he can say he was part of it for four years. He and his SAS mates aren’t “on call” to the SIS, he corrected. They are “seconded” to it, available when needed or required. There are three kinds of operations in which they might be used: white, black and grey. White operations are overt, Ed says, military campaigns and the like. Black ops are covert, counterterrorism mainly, but the government will acknowledge them if it must. Then there are grey operations. Grey means deniable. Grey means if an officer is caught he is on his own. Grey means successful missions are ones few people ever know about.
For Ed grey meant he never told his wife and family what he was doing or where he was going, just that he had something to take care of and wasn’t sure when he’d be back. In these ops, he says, you have to have a reason for being there, a backstory that makes sense and doesn’t arouse suspicion. That’s why women work with the Increment, he says. Their presence alone can deflect notice. A man and a woman in a car are less likely to set off alarms than two men in a car. The same goes for a businessman with apparently legitimate interests in the Balkans, Karachi or Moscow. The Brits have an advantage in this regard, Ed believes, because their special operators look like normal people and blend in far more than the American Disney-prince type. This helps them work in places we’d expect to find them and in others “much, much closer to home,” such as the Balkans, and even closer, where there are British interests. I take this to mean economic interests, which have been cause for spying on France and Germany.
Anywhere else I should look where some of this has been more visible than intended? He thinks for a moment. “Gibraltar is an interesting place,” he says quietly. In 1988 three members of the IRA were killed, publicly, on the isle of Gibraltar. He nods. “That was not grey enough.”
Ed retired in 2003, shortly after priorities changed and missions along with them. Northern Ireland was hard, he says, but containable. There were rules, too, of a sort; the IRA called in warnings ahead of bombings. Once the Americans blocked the funds the IRA was getting from New York and Boston – a positive outcome of 9/11, he says – they could nearly shut it down completely. There are limits to what someone like Ed can do today, where he can go. He may need to get on the ground and find others who can go deeper, who can access tribal, linguistic or cultural realms. There’s a big drive to recruit such people, Ed says, his eyes tracking a young man who has entered the lounge with his family. The man’s skin is light brown, his ethnicity unclear – possibly African, possibly south Asian. “People like him,” Ed says.
Men like this could be great assets, and Ed says spotters seek them out at universities. They might ask a promising individual to have a cup of coffee or a beer to see how they respond, to see what can be gleaned about their potential for working in the shadow worlds.
Fear is a great motivator, Ed says. Imagine a Yemeni family in Britain. The son gets into trouble with the law, and the mother and father get a visit from someone who offers to handle the problem if the family does something for them: let them know what’s being said in the community, in the mosque or back in Yemen.
Ed believes what he did served a purpose. He didn’t much think about the politics guiding the decisions. I get the sense he enjoyed it to some degree, but he doesn’t miss it. The work ended a lot of marriages, he says, because it’s hard to keep a family when a man jumps at any opportunity to disappear overseas for a while. “The people who do this are the most selfish people in the world,” always ready to leave everything else behind, he says. He’s now in the security-consulting game. He still works out of Hereford. He’s still in touch with many of his old mates and still close to their world of secrets. He sleeps well, he says.
In January 2010, a Hamas leader was assassinated in Dubai; the team of killers were apparently caught on tape and understood to be Israeli assets, some of whom used forged passports from the UK. But the caper and its apparent missteps were just the latest sign of the melding of covert and overt actions. There has been a steady stream of drone-launched missile attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan. A suicide bomber posing as an informant hit a CIA base in southern Afghanistan, killing seven agents. That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
I’d be surprised if there were no such thing as the Increment or something like it. Shouldn’t nations and peoples of such skill and resources figure out how to put together such an outfit? It’s scary to think how it could run amok, that it could overthrow Premier Mossadeq of Iran or back the invasion of Iraq because politicians wanted it to. But it might be more terrifying to think that the Increment does in fact exist in American and Israeli flavours and still cannot stop everything it needs to stop, still cannot counteract everything it is supposed to counteract. It might kill a Zarqawi now and then, but it is certain to lose other battles. Is it any wonder Brits would want there to be an Increment and Americans would want one of their own?
By Phil Zabriskie
Published in Playboy South Africa June 2012