Militarism examinedUK Special Forces

Defending the Realm: a historical overview of UK Special Forces involvement in domestic counterterrorism (Pt. 1) 

On the evening of the 5th of May, 1980, two SAS teams abseiled onto a balcony in South Kensington and, with the aid of explosive frame charges and sledgehammers, stormed into the Iranian Embassy and, simultaneously, the imaginations of the British public. In seventeen minutes, thirty-five members of B Squadron, the 22nd Special Air Service, swept through four floors, killed five armed gunmen, and rescued nineteen hostages held captive in the embassy for six days. [1] A media spotlight had been shone on the Regiment from Hereford, and its operators, clad in black Nomex flight suits and respirators, became in an instance synonymous with the British government’s growing battle against terrorism. 

The responsibilities of United Kingdom Special Forces – the Strategic Command directorate which houses Britain’s special operations forces including the SAS, Special Boat Service, and Special Reconnaissance Regiment – can be broken into two broad operational mandates. For simplicity, these can be referred to as the ‘green’ and ‘black’ remits.

‘Green’ tasking refers to overseas engagements that fall under the three primary special operations roles outlined by NATO. These include military assistance or the provision of training, education, and advisory support to partner-nation security forces; special reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering tasks in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments that require specialised equipment and techniques; and direct action, short-duration strikes to achieve specific military or political objectives. [2]

The ‘black’ mission-set encompasses UKSF’s domestic counterterrorism role, governed by the doctrine of Military Aid to Civil Authorities which provides a legal foundation for Ministry of Defence assistance to civilian leaders. [3] SAS involvement in the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege remains the most famous instance of the ‘black’ remit in action, but the UKSF role in counterterrorism and anti-hijacking operations on British soil extends far beyond the actions of B Squadron on that balcony in Princes Gate. 

Terrorism Goes Global 

Terrorism as a strategy is historically linked to the 19th century concept of the ‘propaganda of the deed’, a belief that violence was not an end in itself but a tool to educate, inspire, and rally the masses behind specific political, social, or economic aims. [4] It was arguably only in the 1970s, however, that terrorism became a truly global phenomenon; throughout that decade there were an average of 400 yearly fatalities in Europe alone. [5] Whether stemming from nationalist groups such as the Irish Republican Army and Basque ETA or left-wing extremist organisations like the German Red Army Faction, terrorism in the 1970s largely centred around six basic tactics: assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, armed assaults, barricaded hostage takings, and airline hijackings. Despite this, the tactical resolution of these incidents remained beyond the capabilities of most European states, at least until the 1972 Munich Massacre which resulted in the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer Olympics, nine of them following a failed West German rescue attempt. While many European governments turned to their police, gendarmerie, or interior ministries to create dedicated counterterrorism and hostage rescue units, the United Kingdom elected a different path. 

The British security apparatus’ experience following the Second World War was largely built around low intensity conflicts in colonial territories. Facing highly determined substate adversaries whose danger and organisation often exceeded the capabilities of civilian police services, British leaders turned to the military’s special operations forces to achieve their military goals. From long-range reconnaissance patrols against the Malayan National Liberation Army to assisting the Sultan of Oman in ending a burgeoning rebellion on the Jebel Akhdar mountain range, the Army’s Special Air Service (SAS) quickly forged a reputation as a vital tool for countering revolutionary warfare. [6] Similarly, the majority-Royal Marines of the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) grew increasingly active in theatres such as Northern Ireland, conducting submarine-based missions against suspected arms traffickers and assisting the Army’s 14th Intelligence Company in its undercover surveillance of suspected IRA members. [7]

Both the SAS and SBS had, in fact, foreseen the need for a dedicated counterterrorism and anti-hijacking force within the United Kingdom. Captain Andrew Massey, the adjutant of 22 SAS Commanding Officer Peter de la Billière, drafted a policy paper recommending the formation of a specialist hostage rescue element soon after Lt Col de la Billière assumed command of the Regiment. [8] On the Royal Marines’ side, Colonel John Mottram, an SBS officer and staff member for the corps’ Commandant General, similarly wrote his unit into a report aimed at raising support for the creation of a military counterterrorism organisation. [9] 

It was the SBS that began the British military’s first foray into the field of domestic counterterrorism, four months prior to the events of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Following a phone call which alleged the presence of an explosive device aboard the Queen Elizabeth II cruise liner, Lieutenant Richard Clifford and Corporal Tom Jones of the 2nd Special Boat Section were selected to mount a response. Alongside SAS Sergeant Cliff Oliver and a Royal Army Ordnance Corps Ammunition Technical Officer, Captain Robert Williams, the four men collected dry suits and parachutes before boarding a Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules bound for the vessel. Captain Williams, who had no previous military parachuting experience, received instruction during the flight, and the four men conducted a static line drop into the Atlantic Ocean where they were met by the QE2’s crew. [10] An extensive search onboard revealed no evidence of any explosives, and the call was later determined to have been a hoax. The SBS effort was, nonetheless, deemed a success, and the stage was set for growing military involvement in counterterrorism on both land and at sea. Interestingly, the May 1972 hoax was not the last SBS operation involving the Queen Elizabeth II – the following year, plainclothes SBS members accompanied more than six hundred passengers on a voyage celebrating the 25th anniversary of the state of Israel, with British newspapers announcing the presence of “armed British soldiers playing James Bond roles” aboard the vessel. [11] 

The Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing 

The 22nd Special Air Service’s involvement in counterterrorism began under the command of Lieutenant Colonel de la Billière, with the formation of a dedicated Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing. Initially comprised of a single commissioned officer tasked with monitoring trends in international terrorism, the wing’s operational remit quickly expanded in the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Massacre. Two days following the failed West German rescue attempt on the 6th of September, de la Billière received a phone call from MOD Director of Military Operations Major General Bill Scotter relaying Prime Minister Edward Heath’s inquiry regarding the Army’s capacity to respond to similar incidents on British soil. [12] Over the following month, the SAS began selecting and training personnel for its first dedicated counterterrorism and anti-hijacking unit – Pagoda Troop. Much of its initial strength was drawn from the Regimental Body-guarding Cell, whose members possessed extensive training in close-quarters marksmanship with concealed firearms, and the fledgling unit was quickly placed under the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing. [13] 

With support from Prime Minister Heath, the CRW Wing continued to expand and refine its methodology. The Wing became not only the coordination centre for SAS involvement in domestic counterterrorism but also a focal point for research and development; flash grenades and frangible ammunition in addition to much of the present-day doctrine of close-quarters battle, from room-clearing techniques to the use of explosive methods of entry, can all be traced back to the early days of the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing. [14] To ensure that the specialist skills developed within the Wing were spread throughout 22 SAS, the Regiment adopted a rotational system by 1977, with all four squadrons cycling through the domestic counterterrorism role every twelve, and later six, months. [15] 

Exercises involving both the Regiment and civilian leaders soon followed, ensuring that standard operating procedures were formulated and continually re-evaluated. Under plans established by the Working Group on Terrorist Activities, the Home Secretary was deemed the lead official in managing a domestic counterterrorism response and COBR, a shorthand for the Civil Contingencies Committee convened to handle national emergencies, designated as a command post and hub for interagency cooperation. [16] A dual-track response to terrorist incidents was devised, with a clear delineation between military and police responsibilities: the police was tasked with cordoning off the incident site with both unarmed and firearms-trained officers and conducting negotiations in the event of a hostage-taking, while the Chief Constable could, with the Home Secretary’s approval, call for SAS support under Military Aid to Civil Power legislation. The first joint COBR-MOD rehearsal took place in February of 1973, simulating the hijacking of a passenger aircraft at a UK airport. The subsequent response, in which elements of the SAS Pagoda Troop deployed to assist Home Office police services, was codenamed Operation Snowdrop and served to establish the template for managing subsequent incidents on British soil. [17] 

The Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing’s first publicised domestic deployment took place three years after the unit’s creation. On the 7th of January, 1975, the on-call Pagoda Troop was deployed to Essex’s Stansted Airport, where an Iranian male armed with a replica pistol had forced a hijacked British Airways BAC One-Eleven to land. Quickly resolved with no loss of life, the sole casualty was an SAS operator injured by a police dog while disembarking from the liberated aircraft. [18] In December of the same year, elements of 22 SAS deployed in support of the Metropolitan Police Service’s Force Firearms Unit, D11, which had cornered four members of the Irish Republican Army in a block of council flats on Balcombe Street. B Squadron, which had assumed the Regiment’s domestic counterterrorism responsibility, conducted rehearsals in London’s Regents Park Barracks; when a Metropolitan Police press conference revealed the SAS presence, the four IRA members surrendered, ending the six-day siege. [19] Members of the CRW Wing were also tasked with supporting states in developing their respective counterterrorism capabilities. In addition to liaison relationships with their Italian, French, Dutch, and American counterparts, the CRW Wing was involved in the liberation of Lufthansa Flight 181 which had been hijacked by four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and forced to land in Mogadishu in October of 1977. [20] Two SAS operators accompanied the West German rescue force, belonging to the Border Guard’s famed GSG9 unit, and provided the stun grenades used to storm the captured aircraft. 

Finally, on the 5th of May, 1980, the CRW Wing’s decade of training and operational experience culminated in Operation Nimrod, the SAS response to the Iranian Embassy Siege in London’s Princes Gate district. Following six days of failed negotiations, the embassy’s Chief Press Officer, Abbas Lavasani, was executed, and the Metropolitan Police incident commander authorised the transfer of operational control to 22 SAS. Making entry with explosives and sledgehammers, the thirty-five members of B Squadron employed stun grenades to further disorient the hostage-takers and cleared the building’s four floors in seventeen minutes. Four of the gunmen were quickly killed while another was shot after trying to escape alongside the hostages and removing a concealed hand grenade when confronted. The sole survivor among the hostage-takers, Fowzi Nejad, was transferred to the Metropolitan Police Service and later sentenced to life imprisonment. [21] Televised on a bank holiday, Operation Nimrod was a defining moment in British history, propelling the 22nd Special Air Service from relative obscurity into the spotlight of public fascination. Applications to join the SAS’ two reserve components, the 21st and 23rd Special Air Service Regiments, streamed into Army Reserve centres, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared that the Regiment’s actions had made the country “proud to be British”. [22] For their part, the men of the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing melted back into their Hereford garrison, remaining on stand-by as the British government’s force of choice for no-fail, domestic counterterrorism operations.  

M Squadron 

As the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing developed its response to hostage-takings and hijackings on the British mainland, the UK government shifted its focus towards addressing a new threat – terrorism at sea. In addition to ships and coastal installations, the explosion of oil and gas platform construction offered extremist groups a series of new, high-profile economic and symbolic targets. The Ministry of Defence argued that the CRW Wing’s on-call Pagoda Troop was too small to conduct both land-based and maritime interventions, while the Home Office insisted that police constabularies lacked the resources needed to forcibly retake a seized offshore installation. [23] Finally, in 1975, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins resolved the debate by assigning responsibility for the UK’s maritime counterterrorism capability to the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Squadron. [24] 

The complex nature of operations against vessels, maritime installations, and oil platforms necessitated the formation of a force dedicated solely to offshore tactical resolutions; thus, the SBS elected to forgo the SAS’ rotational system and centred its initial contribution to the domestic counterterrorism mission around a single section based in Poole, 1SBS. [25] As the number of potential targets increased, the force’s footprint steadily expanded. Between 1979 and 1980, the Royal Marines’ Comacchio Company was formed to provide support to the SBS in addition to a permanent force protection unit for the UK’s nuclear deterrent. An additional SBS section, 5SBS, was detached from the unit to work alongside Comacchio Company, and, by 1987, 1SBS and 5SBS were amalgamated. M Squadron was born. [26] 

While the land-based interventions of the SAS’ CRW Wing and the maritime counterterrorism mission of M Squadron required similar foundational skills such as precision marksmanship and close-quarters battle, SBS planners faced an additional obstacle – getting to the target. Insertion methods such as fast-roping from Royal Navy helicopters and parachuting from Royal Air Force C-130s with inflatable Geminis were practised, but subsurface infiltrations remained the preferred option. Royal Navy submarines were equipped with special exit/re-entry chambers which allowed up to five SBS operators to exit the vessel while submerged and release their weapons, equipment, and inflatable craft from containers on the submarine’s outer casing before surfacing. This approach proved both excessively hazardous, with two SBS divers drowning during a training accident in Scotland, and inconvenient, given that only three Royal Navy submarines possessed the exit/re-entry chambers. [27] Within 14 months, however, the unit overcame this by designing a new breathing apparatus attached to the top of a submarine’s hull, allowing a fourteen-man SBS assault force to ride the submerged vessel to within close proximity of a hijacked target before detaching and proceeding with a final equipment-laden swim. [28] From there, teams would hook a leash onto one of the oil platform’s legs and employ specialist equipment to climb onto the lower spider decks. Only then could the assault begin.  

M Squadron continued to perfect its maritime counterterrorism capability throughout the 1980s and 1990s. New equipment was constantly tested, and a dedicated swimmer delivery vehicle troop, tasked with operating battery powered submersibles to transport SBS personnel to a target, was developed. In addition to Purple Oyster interdepartmental wargames involving political leaders at COBR, Home Office police services, and the MOD, helicopter assault and submarine infiltration exercises, codenamed Prawn Salad and Pink Mussel respectively, were frequently held. [29] The sensitive nature of the tactics and equipment employed, however, in addition to the geographically isolated nature of the incidents M Squadron was tasked to respond to mean that most of the unit’s operational engagements remain classified.  

The Turn of the Century 

As the 1990s progressed, the operational tempo for the CRW Wing and M Squadron did not slacken. Annual training exercises with UK police and international partners were held, with continuous advancements in the equipment and tactics employed in domestic counterterrorism. [30] Many of these innovations, particularly in the field of explosive and alternative methods of entry, would see heavy use in the subsequent decades of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Two publicised domestic operations punctuated the end of the 20th century for United Kingdom Special Forces. In November of 1992, following a year-long investigation by the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the Special Boat Service assisted the Metropolitan Police’s Specialist Firearms Command in intercepting the vessel FoxTrot Five as it sat in the River Thames. The dramatic raid, photographed by a bystander, saw black-clad SBS operators clamber aboard the boat and assist in the arrest of five crew members nearby. [31] Members of the SAS’ on-call domestic counterterrorism troop were similarly mobilised on the 6th of February, 2000, following the hijacking of an Ariana Airlines flight at Stansted Airport. Afghan nationals seeking the release of a Mujahideen leader imprisoned by the Taliban regime had taken control of the aircraft, resulting in the Regiment’s anti-hijacking team scrambling from their Hereford staging area. Plans for an immediate assault were put in place, while a deliberate rescue was prepared; before any action could be taken, however, the hijackers surrendered. [32] The 20th century, the dawn of the era of international terrorism, had ended not with a bang but a whimper for the men and women of UKSF. 

To read the second part of this two-part series go here: Defending the Realm: a historical overview of UK Special Forces involvement in domestic counterterrorism (Pt. 2)


[1] Iranian Embassy Siege, National Army Museum, 2018, 

[2] Moon, Madeleine. NATO Special Operations Forces in the Modern Security Environment (Brussels: NATO Parliamentary Assembly, 2018): 4-5. 

[3] Operations in the UK: The Defence Contribution to Resilience (Swindon: The Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, 2016): 24. 

[4] Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism (New York City: Columbia University Press, 2017): 32. 

[5] Gaub, Florence, “Trends in terrorism,” European Union Institute for Security Studies Issue Alert, 2017, 

[6] Finlan, Alistair, “The (Arrested) Development of UK Special Forces and the Global War on Terror,” Review of International Studies 35, no. 4 (2009): 975-976. 

[7] Parker, John, SBS: The Inside Story of the Special Boat Service (London: Headline Book Publishing, 1997): 217-222. 

[8] Hughes, Geraint, “Skyjackers, Jackals, and Soldiers: British Planning for International Terrorist Incidents in the 1970s,” International Affairs 90, no. 5 (2014): 9. 

[9] Parker, SBS: The Inside Story of the Special Boat Service, 196. 

[10] Draper, Stephen R. “EOD, UP!” How Explosive Ordnance Disposal Forces Can Best Support Special Operations Forces (Monterey: Naval Postgraduate School, 2006): 42-43. 

[11] Parker, SBS: The Inside Story of the Special Boat Service, 214. 

[12] Hughes, “Skyjackers, Jackals, and Soldiers”, 9. 

[13] Neville, Leigh. The SAS: 1983-2014 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2016): 17. 

[14] Ibid, 18. 

[15] Taillon, Joseph. International Co-Operation in the Use of Elite Military Forces to Counter Terrorism: The British and American Experience, with Special Reference to their Respective Experiences in the Evolution of Low-Intensity Operations (London: The London School of Economics and Political Science, 1992): 203-204. 

[16] Hughes, “Skyjackers, Jackals, and Soldiers”, 10. 

[17] Ibid, 11. 

[18] Neville, Leigh. European Counterterrorist Units 1972-2017 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2017): 49. 

[19] Moysey, Steven P. The Road to Balcombe Street: The IRA Reign of Terror in London (Philadelphia: Haworth Press, 2007): 258. 

[20] Williams, Peter, “Mogadishu Recalled,” The Guards Magazine: Journal of the Household Division, 2018, 

[21] “The Day The SAS Became Famous: Operation Nimrod And The Iranian Embassy,” Forces, 2020, 

[22] “Six Days of Fear,” BBC News, 2000, 

[23] Hughes, “Skyjackers, Jackals, and Soldiers”, 15. 

[24] Ibid. 

[25] Parker, SBS: The Inside Story of the Special Boat Service, 225. 

[26] Ibid, 227. 

[27] Falconer, Duncan. First Into Action: A Dramatic Personal Account of Life in the SBS (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2001): 214-216. 

[28] Parker, SBS: The Inside Story of the Special Boat Service, 226. 

[29] Hughes, “Skyjackers, Jackals, and Soldiers”, 16. 

[30] Leigh. The SAS: 1983-2014, 21. 

[31] “Commandos in Cocaine Raid,” The Herald, 1992, 

[32] MacAskill, Ewen, Richard Norton-Taylor, and Will Woodward, “Storm Put Hijack Jet on Path to Britain,” The Guardian, 2000,