By Chris Simmons
Death came calling that warm spring evening in the form of an indicted war criminal and his entourage of 15 bodyguards.
In Bosnia as a peace-keeper, I was the Collections Chief for NATO’s intelligence battalion. I ran the alliance’s “Human Intelligence” efforts, gathering information from over 200 “sources” living throughout Bosnia and Croatia. Our collection requirements were diverse: refugee issues, Persons Indicted For War Crimes (PIFWCs) (i.e., war criminals), demilitarization of the former combatants, corruption, terrorism, etc.
Running successful espionage operations required an aggressive, hands-on approach. As a result, I was frequently in the field with my collectors helping them improve their “tradecraft,” that is, their “source” handling skills. On this particular day, my colleagues and I had just finished an extraordinarily fruitful day with our collectors in Tuzla, a 6,000-year old town in northeast Bosnia. To celebrate, we decided to go off base and have dinner in the city. As “shallow-cover” collectors, we drove unmarked civilian vehicles rather than the “Humvees” used by the rest of the peace-keepers. Military convoys were easy for the “bad guys” to spot and avoid, whereas we blended in with all the other commercial vehicles on the road.
The restaurant’s parking lot was empty when we arrived, so we spread the vehicles out to minimize attention. Everyone in our group was openly armed as we walked in. Additionally, several carried MP5-SDs (German sub-machineguns with silencers) in their innocently-appearing backpacks and carry bags.
We were early into our meal when the Specter of Death arrived. A well-known PIFWC and his bodyguards pulled into the parking lot. Recognizing him on sight, everyone drew their weapons, but kept them hidden under the table while we quickly assessed options. They had a slight edge in manpower, but we had the element of surprise – they couldn’t see us through the restaurant’s tinted windows. On the downside, our additional ammunition was outside in our vehicles.
Surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, our PIFWC remained near his vehicles while a small “advance team” approached the restaurant. Once they were through the second set of doors, we’d be face-to-face and the situation would explode. “Everybody stay cool. I’ve got this,” yelled Nick as he jumped to his feet. A Brit with extensive service in Northern Ireland, Nick was the #2 man at our Tuzla company. “You,” he commanded one of the waiters, “When I signal, you open the second set of doors and greet them.” The server did as ordered.
Weapon holstered and elbows tight by his side, Nick held his hands mid-chest with his fingers spread. Approaching from their blind side, he calmly announced “Everybody relax, we’re here to have a nice relaxing dinner just like you.” Having drawn their attention away from the rest of us, the advance team now realized they were grossly outnumbered and – with the outer doors now closed – out of contact with the rest of their group. Voice calm and reassuring, Nick continued moving slowly towards them without breaking eye contact. “Let’s call a truce for tonight. Nobody gets shot and your boss doesn’t get arrested…at least not tonight,” Nick quipped with a slight smirk. The gallows humor provoked nervous laughter from the bodyguards. “Agreed,” replied their lead man.
Calmly placing a hand on his upper arm, Nick “asked” his bodyguard counterpart “How about you go back outside and tell your boss we’ve made a deal. It’s good for tonight only and if anyone asks, none of us were ever here.” Nick’s skillful handling of the situation prompted a most welcome but unexpectedly humorous response: “As your colleagues from down under would say, no worries mate!” Turning to the remaining bodyguards, their chief told two to stay with their new found friend while one accompanied him back outside.
The two briefed the PIFWC and the rest of the protective detail. Visibly apprehensive, they become collectively calmer as reality set in. The truce was their only way out. The forces were too evenly matched for a gunfight and even if some of them survived, they knew we would never allow the PIFWC to leave the parking lot alive. Conversely, if they turned around and left, that would break the truce and trigger an immediate nationwide manhunt. Outplayed, they entered the restaurant, each man nodding as they passed our table. We nodded back and watched as they sat down at a table on the other side of the restaurant. Still terrified, the staff temporarily closed the eatery to other diners.
Ninety minutes later, our meal finished, we rose to leave. As we did, Nick strode over to their table, made eye contact with the PIFWC and then his entire detail. He calmly thanked them for accepting our invitation to a temporary truce. “There’ll be no trouble tonight,” he reassured them, before turning and walking out with the rest of us.
The meeting of my intelligence collectors and a heavily-guarded PIFWC was akin to putting together a King Cobra and a mongoose. The survival of one required the death of the other. So it was for us, collectively, that warm spring evening in Tuzla.
Nick saved everyone’s lives that day by following the 1st Rule of Human Nature: Self-Interest Trumps Everything. Our PIFWC’s self-interest – and that of his guards – focused on two complimentary goals: avoid death (immediate need) and preclude capture/arrest (long-term need). Our immediate self-interest was identical to the “bad guys:” survive tonight. Our long-term interest, however, was to see our PIFWC arrested at some point in the near future and we were absolutely confident we would accomplish that goal.
However, understanding human nature wasn’t enough to keep everyone alive. Nick’s masterful use of body gestures, personal space, and vocals (i.e., tone, pitch, voice speed & word choice) pushed the PIFWC’s assemblage to agree to a solution they were already pre-disposed to accept. Additionally, we knew the mind’s tendency towards self-deception would work to our favor. Our PIFWC certainly thought that if NATO was willing to call a truce that night, it was possible the alliance might be amenable to an arrangement that would let him avoided a war crimes trial. The key fallacy with this self-deception was that we weren’t NATO personified. We were simply a team of collectors who – while willing to die if needed — wanted to live to see another sunrise.
Thankfully, for one brief shining moment during that tension-filled evening, everyone’s immediate self-interest was fulfilled. Shortly thereafter, our PIFWC was captured and flown to The Hague for trial.