May 5 marked the 41st anniversary of the end of the siege of Iran’s embassy in London. On that day in 1980, British Special Air Service’s (SAS) counterterrorism team members executed a lightning raid, killing all but one of six terrorists who had held embassy staff and visitors hostage for nearly six days.
The assault, code-named Operation Nimrod, has become a textbook case of a successful hostage rescue operation. It also further enhanced the international prestige of the SAS, which already had an impressive reputation dating back to World War II.
The embassy seizure has been the subject of books, documentaries and two feature films – “Who Dares Wins” in 1982, and, more recently, the Netflix film “6 Days.” It has also inspired several video games, including “Counter-Strike” and Tom Clancy’s “Rainbow Six” series.
Although military historians and others have pored over the events for more than four decades, on May 4, the eve of the 41st anniversary, the Iranian state news outlet Press TV published an article alleging the episode was shrouded “in mystery” and “unanswered questions.” The article implied the seizure may somehow have been engineered by the U.K. as a slight against Iran, possibly to burnish the SAS’s reputation.
Calling the embassy seizure “an event with multiple hidden dimensions, and one which the U.K. is deeply reluctant to illuminate,” the article states:
“While the six-day siege – April 30 to May 5 1980 – was a tragedy for Iran – as demonstrated by the cold blooded killing of two embassy workers – by contrast the incident proved to be a bonanza for the U.K.’s Special Air Service (SAS), which subsequently cashed in on the incident by exporting its services and expertise to special forces around the world.”
The article concludes: “More than four decades later, we are none the wiser as to what precisely motivated the embassy seizure and who were the ultimate controllers of the terrorist gang.”
The claim that motivations of the terrorists are a mystery and the insinuation that the U.K. might have been involved are false.
“According to conventional wisdom the six terrorists were Iranian Arab separatists employed by Baathist-era Iraqi intelligence services,” the article states. “Using Iraqi passports the majority of the terrorists arrived in London in late March 1980 and rented a flat in the wealthy district of Earl’s Court, West London.”
The article accurately notes that the suspects were known to come home to their rented apartment drunk or with prostitutes.
“The British Security Service (MI5) prides itself in its ability to detect and disrupt clandestine activity of the most sophisticated kind,” the article states. “So the question remains as to why MI5 and its partners in Special Branch were not able to detect the terrorist planning and intent of a group of amateurish terrorists who made little to no effort to not attract attention to themselves.”
In fact, it was a busy time for terror in London during that period.
In 1980, the U.K. was still in the midst of a bombing campaign by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the previous decade had seen dozens of IRA bombings or attempted bombings in London. Targets included the House of Parliament and the Tower of London, as well as military facilities and public places in the British capital. (Four years after the Iranian embassy incident, IRA operatives carried out a bombing in the city of Brighton that nearly killed then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.)
The 1970s saw multiple high-profile attacks carried out by Middle East terrorist groups, many of them connected with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Black September, another Palestinian group operating across Europe. In 1973, a PFLP-trained Venezuelan terrorist, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, shot Joseph Sieff, chairman of the retailer Marks & Spencer and vice president of the British Zionist Federation, at his London home. Sieff survived the assassination attempt.
In 1978, a PFLP gunman carried out an attack on a bus carrying flight crew from Israel’s El-Al Airlines.
In the case of Iran’s embassy, there is no mystery or doubt about the motives or identities of the terrorists. Press TV attempts to cast doubt on the idea that the men could have been connected to Iraqi intelligence due to their amateurish behavior before the attack, but in fact such reckless behavior was not unknown among terrorists operating abroad then.
The embassy attackers were essentially proxies belonging to an insurgent organization called the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA). While it is known that they received support from Iraqi intelligence, their group was also very young, founded in 1979 when it initially supported the Iranian Islamic revolution but soon turned against the new regime. The group’s goal was independence for the majority-Arab province of Khuzestan in Western Iran. Iraq, then ruled by Saddam Hussein and his pan-Arabist Ba’ath party, saw Arab separatists as natural allies against Tehran, and the region became a major battleground when Iraqi forces invaded Iran later in 1980.
The Press TV article implies something suspicious about the way one of the hostage-takers, Fowzi Nejad, was taken alive.
“The story gets even more bizarre when – despite the gravity of his crimes – Fowzi Nejad was released from prison in 2008 and allowed to settle in the U.K., despite the British authorities’ right to deport him,” the article states. “This has inevitably raised difficult questions about the true identity and role of Fowzi Nejad. A lingering suspicion that refuses to go away is the possibility of Fowzi Nejad having been a British agent all along tasked with infiltrating an ostensibly Iraqi-directed terrorist group.”
That is false. Nejad was sentenced to life in prison but was paroled in 2008. Although the British government denied him asylum, it was prohibited from deporting him under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids deporting individuals to countries where they would face torture or execution.
The Press TV article concludes with the assertion: “The U.K. has yet to formally apologize to Iran for failing in its duty to protect its embassy in London.”
That is misleading. First, the Iranian government publicly thanked the British police for their actions during the siege. Secondly, Britain subsequently worked out a deal to compensate Iran for damage to the embassy caused by the raid. (According to the BBC, as part of the deal Iran also compensated Britain for damage to the U.K. embassy in Tehran during the Islamic uprising.)
As for the heightened prestige of the SAS following the raid, that is not extraordinary given that such counterterrorism operations were relatively novel in those days, and the successful SAS operation at the Iranian embassy was seen on TV worldwide.
So, contrary to Press TV’s assertions, the supposed “questions” about the incident – the terrorists, the raid and the aftermath – were answered long ago.