Reconnaissance / RECCE Operations
I wrote this a few years ago while training a security force from a West African Government who were active in counter terrorist operations. I was personally taught and employed covert reconnaissance (recce) while in the British Army over 28 years ago in numerous environments. Since then I have taught and employed it while operating commercially in Europe, Latin America and Africa.
Personally from what I have seen over the years recce training and operations are often neglected, I think because people would sooner focus on more exciting “direct action” training and operations. But without recce operations, accurate intelligence and proper pre-planning “direct action” operations usually fail.
Reconnaissance (recce) operations are a necessity in all tactical operations as they provide pre-operations intelligence on locations, terrorists and can verify or deny a local source’s information.
All recce operations need to be done covertly, the terrorists/criminals should not know you’re in their area or what you are doing. Recce operations in hostile areas should be done in plain clothes and civilian vehicles, you need to blend in with the environment and population. Nothing tactical should be carried and if armed try to go with no government issue weapons. When I was working with vigilantes in West Africa in 2012 we detained a guy who we had spotted watching and following us while on a regular patrol. He was from a cultist gang and the clear give away he was a criminal doing surveillance on us was that he had nothing on him; no money, no ID, no phone, nothing; Just the clothes he was wearing. I take it he had the misconception the vigilantes would have stolen his possessions... Moral of the story, when trying to blend in with the local population don’t overdo it or under do it!
Things that could need to be recced include areas for arrest operations, terrorist/criminal safe houses, camps, meeting locations, routes, ambush locations etc. in urban and rural areas.
For example, if recceing an area for an arrest operation some of the things to be considered would be:
Team drop off locations
Team’s surveillance / cut off / snatch team positions
Possible location to put in remote surveillance cameras
Communications dead spots
Vehicle and pedestrian traffic
Any terrorist/criminal surveillance or security in the area
Friendliness of civilians to the terrorists/criminals; would they intervene to protect them
Safe arcs of fire and no fire areas
Any CCTV that is in the area
Escape and exfiltration routes
Some things to considered if conducting a close target recce on a terrorist/criminal safe house could include:
Surveillance and remote camera locations
Communications dead spots
Routes for walk by recce’s
Terrorist/criminal surveillance and security
Lines of communications to the safe house
Any visible security or defensive measures
Any vacant buildings in the area
What vehicles are in or near the safe house
Does the building have electricity, if yes what’s the source?
Where are the phone lines and is there Wi-Fi?
Where are the water sources and supplies?
Does the building have air conditioning?
What type of roof does the building have and can you access it?
How could you enter the building?
Types of doors and windows?
Form up positions for an attack team and cut off positions
Possible terrorist escape routes from the building and area
If terrorists are seen are they armed, how are they dresses and are they alert?
Maximum use should be made of video and stills cameras on all recce operations, these days with cameras in cell phones there is no excuse for not getting good video and photos. Video and photos should always be analyzed after the operation as they could have picked up an important detail that you had initially missed. Pictures speak a thousand words so get good video and photos!
You have two ways of conducting physical recce operations; static observation posts (OP) and close target reconnaissance (CTR). An OP operation would usually take the form of an operative taking a position in a vehicle, covert hide or even a café and watching a location or area. These days this usually includes the use of monitored or unmonitored surveillance cameras. Over the last decade unmanned aerial drones have been used effectively for intelligence gathering and direct action operations. As technology develops and prices fall drones should be an option in all recce operations.
CTR operations take the form of operatives walking or driving past a location and getting as much information as possible on each pass or infiltrating a terrorist/criminal location. You must be careful not to use the same vehicles or operatives to often on CTR’s as they could be compromised. All operatives should have a believable and checkable cover story for being in the area, how detailed you go depends on the operation. Very few operations are perfect and you need to get the most information possible without compromising the operatives and potential future operations.
The basic principles of recce operations apply to both urban and rural areas. In say a rural environment a static observation location could take the form of a camouflaged OP in a ditch, a bush or dug underground etc. Where as in an urban environment a derelict building, roof top or garbage skip/area could provide you with a concealed observation position.
Observation Post Operations
Covert observation posts (OP’s) can be put in place for a few hours or a few weeks. Operatives conducting OP’s need to be very self-disciplined, be able to keep quiet, handle extreme boredom and very uncomfortable conditions for extended periods of time. The general size of the OP team would depend on the task; usually they are between two to four operatives.
The equipment required for the OP would depend on the environment and the length of the operation. Once in position the OP team would keep their noise and movement to a minimum, so that will mean they will need to carry in with them everything they need for the operation; food, water, communications and spare batteries etc. In hostile areas re-supply can be risky but on extended operations it will be needed, generally supplies will be dropped off and picked up a distance away from the OP.
On OP operations over 24 hours’ team members would need to work out a rotation system for who is observing and who is resting, one operative would need to be awake at all times. If there is limited cover the OP can be split with an observation and supporting location, if the operatives are moving between both, extreme care needs to be taken not to be spotted. Operatives need to be dressed, armed, with important equipment packed and at hand at all times. If the OP is compromised the team would need to flee the location, they will not be equipped or have the strength in numbers to engage a large terrorist/criminal force in a firefight.
To avoid detection an OP needs to be perfectly camouflaged using such things as scrim netting and in a rural environment local foliage. Any foliage used needs to be replaced regularly as dead foliage would give away the OP position. Noise must be kept to a minimum, even a poncho providing overhead cover can make noise that’s unfamiliar in the bush and can alert locals to your presence. Another potential problem are smells coming from the OP team such as body waste and food, which will usually be eaten cold due to the smell from cooking and the weight of cooking equipment. Body waste would need to be stored in airtight plastic bags, bottles and carried away with the team when they leave the position. The OP team cannot leave any ground sign of their presence as it can jeopardize any future operations.
OP’s can be for logging and reporting or reactionary purposes. A logging and reporting OP will do nothing but gather intelligence on a target. A reactionary OP can call in direct action forces or perform direct action operation themselves. It all depends on the task at hand and the resources available.
When working in West Africa we deployed logging and reporting OP’s into suspected cultist and criminal areas to initially determine the extent of illegal activity, the terrorist/criminal routes and meeting locations etc. In Latin America while working with tactical police units we have had operatives go undercover as beggars in high crime urban areas on reactionary tasking while surveilling narco and whore houses. The basic rule is there are no rules, use your imagination and remember that flexibility of action is essential for all counter terrorist/criminal operations.
Close Target Recce Operations
Close target recce (CTR) operations are extremely important and supplies the intelligence that is the basis for all successful direct action operations. CTR’s are where operatives will get close to or infiltrate a target area or compound to gain real time intelligence. This requires the CTR operators to be extremely stealthy and devious to be able to get close to the terrorist/criminal locations without being detected and compromised. If they are making an undercover overt penetration they must have believable cover stories, look the part and be able to speak the local accents etc.
The size of a CTR team will depend on the task. Our usual CTR team is two operatives with others in a support position. I will advise the use two operatives for a CTR team as they can move a lot more stealthily than a large team and can assist each other in an emergency. In a lot of situations it is a lot more effective for a lone operative to get close to or infiltrate a targeted location, it goes without saying that the operative should be trained and experienced!
The equipment carried by the CTR team should be minimal, their job is to gather information, not to get into fights. Everything carried by the CTR operatives must be able to be accounted for in a cover story. Items such as voice recorders, high end communications equipment and cameras will immediately draw suspicion of security forces and terrorists/criminals alike if the operatives are searched. In many places high end equipment will just end up being stolen by corrupt security forces if it doesn’t get you detained, which can cost you money and heighten the risk of compromising operations!
CTR operatives need to travel as light as possible and be able to move cautiously and quickly, if compromised by the terrorists/criminals they would exit the area with maximum speed and not engage the enemy. If pushed to action they must be able to end confrontations quickly and efficiently without civilian casualties, which can be detrimental to future operations.
Over the years we have worked with teams employing CTR’s on meetings in 5 star hotels, rural safe houses and numerous urban and rural terrorist/criminal locations. Commercially we have employed CTR’s in Eastern Europe on suspected locations of counterfeiting operations, in Central America while working with tactical police teams we conducted the infiltration of whore houses looking for drug activity, underage sex workers and gathering intelligence for future raids. When working with vigilantes in West Africa the main targets for recce’s and infiltrations were drug houses, kidnapper’s locations in the bush, and when the raids were organized the politics started, but such is Africa... Such things help you to see whose side people are on and who might need look at in the future...
Where time, manpower and the situation allows several CTR’s should be run on a location by separate teams to ensure the operatives are seeing the same things! Inexperienced operatives can over exaggerate what they saw because they are nervous or they want to impress the operations commanders. Facts need to be reported, not suspicions, opinions or predictions. Operational security must be understood by everyone involved, nothing about operations should be discussed with anyone not directly involved; lose lips, sinks ships!
The basic recce principles apply to all situations but the core requirement is having disciplined and well trained recce teams. Reece operations are essential and required to ensure successful direct action operations.
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