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Rapid Intervention and Conflict Resolution: British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone 2000-2002

The British operation in Sierra Leone is regarded as a rare success for Western military intervention. In the popular narrative, British paratroopers deployed to Freetown over a weekend and, through a mix of professionalism, organisation and chutzpah, ‘[saved] the UN from disaster and [hastened] the end of an exceptionally nasty war.’

As Alex Renton later wrote for the Observer:

... the Sierra Leone intervention worked – uniquely well, in the history of modern military interventions in Africa. The rebel forces were scared away from the city, the UN got off its knees and the government army was revitalised. Eighteen months later, Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil
war was brought to an end. In the streets of Freetown at the time the graffiti read: ‘Queen Elizabeth for
king!’ ... Tony Blair remains more popular here than anywhere else on the planet.

The reality, like all realities, was more complex than the popular narrative suggests. The British presence certainly helped stabilise the situation in May 2000 when there appeared to be a high risk of a Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attack on Freetown, and equally the continuing British presence certainly contributed to the end of the war. But there was a wealth of circumstance and other factors, which even now are poorly understood, that also contributed to what remains a lasting peace. Such factors include: exhaustion after eleven brutal years of war; international pressure on Charles Taylor’s regime in Liberia, the RUF’s principal sponsor; greater regulation of the diamond trade to limit insurgent funding; highly significant regional military interventions, in particular by Nigeria and, later, Guinea; and the determination of members of the UN Security Council that the UN’s largest military mission up to that point had to succeed.

Nevertheless, the British intervention was an extraordinary achievement by any measure. Although, at its maximum, the UK deployed nearly 4 500 personnel into theatre (of whom 1 300 were ashore), most of the success was achieved by about 300-400 British personnel in Sierra Leone at any time. During two years of intervention in one of Africa’s bloodiest wars, there were two British fatalities, of which only one was in action.

Although most public attention is focused on Operation Palliser, the original intervention in May 2000, and Operation Barras, the SAS-led hostage rescue operation of September 2000, the British intervention consisted of four separate but connected operations in Sierra Leone:

  • Operation Palliser: 5 May to 15 June 2000. This was the original rapid reaction operation that was mounted in response to a deteriorating situation in Sierra Leone. It started with the evacuation of British and other non-combatants but evolved into an operation to stabilise the situation by giving confidence to the in-place UN force and the Sierra Leone Government while initiating full-scale retraining and reorganisation of Sierra Leone’s armed forces so that they could eventually defeat the RUF.
  • Operation Basilica: 15 June to 12 October 2000. This operation stood up as Palliser was wound down. It inherited the training and reorganisation mission from Palliser, but without the accompanying operational responsibilities and capabilities.
  • Operation Barras: 10 September 2000. This was the operation to rescue a number of British personnel who had been taken hostage by the West Side Boys in the Occra Hills.
  • Operation Silkman: 13 October 2000 to 31 July 2002. This was the final operation designed to coerce the RUF to surrender to the UNsponsored Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programme; it included continued development of Sierra Leone’s armed forces and design and leadership of the counter-insurgency campaign to force the RUF into peace.

It is important to understand the relationship between these four operations and the impact of each on the final outcome. Operation Palliser was necessary to prevent the fall of Freetown in May 2000 and to turn the military tide in the government’s favour. But it did no more; it did not defeat the RUF and it certainly did not end the war. Operation Basilica was the UK’s attempt to limit its exposure in Sierra Leone to a training role; but the deteriorating situation in Sierra Leone in September and October demonstrated that this approach was a mistake. Without UK leadership and coordinating machinery the counter-insurgency operation faltered. Operation Barras was a ‘one-off’.While its success is frequently credited with having a significant impact on the war, most impartial evidence suggests that its influence was much more limited than most British observers claim.

It was only during Operation Silkman that British strategy matured and an operational approach was designed that led to the ending of the war. Silkman continued the emphasis of earlier operations on building the capability of the Sierra Leonean armed forces but coupled it with the development of an effective counter-insurgency campaign plan that would wrest the initiative from the RUF and, eventually, win control of the main diamond producing areas which provided the RUF with the wherewithal to fight its war.

The popular narrative is absolutely right in one regard: British military intervention in Sierra Leone was highly successful. Why it was successful is rather more difficult to ascertain.

First, it is important to understand that the war was fought and won by Sierra Leoneans, not the British. The British helped, yes, but it was Sierra Leoneans who took the risks and made the sacrifices. And, although the Silkman campaign plan successfully forced the RUF to surrender to DDR,
it was able to do so largely because of other circumstances, such as the failure of the RUF’s invasion of Guinea at the end of 2000 and international efforts to control the sale of uncut diamonds, leading to the Kimberley Process* in 2003.

This discussion looks at each of the four British operations, how they were mounted and conducted, and assesses the impact of each. But first, it looks in some detail at the causes of the war and describes the various twists and turns of a war which was characterised not just by violent cruelty, but also by numerous spins of fortune, assorted peace treaties and outside interventions. It is only by understanding the war up to May 2000 that one can understand why British intervention at that point had the impact it did The paper attempts to explain the circumstances that allowed the British intervention to be so successful. After each chapter are a number of key insights that may assist the reader to draw appropriate lessons from the Sierra Leonean war and the British intervention.

It is a truism that no two wars are the same. It is easy, from this truism, to draw the facile conclusion that there is little point in drawing lessons from one war to apply to another. The differences between, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan are so significant that it would be a mistake to apply the lessons from the Anbar Awakening to Afghanistan, or so the argument goes. The answer, of course, lies in understanding the context and circumstance of the war in question. If we understand what worked, why, and in what circumstance, then we would be in a much better position to apply appropriate and relevant lessons to other circumstances in the future. It is hoped that this work, on a particular war and for a particular intervention, can add to that understanding.

*The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme is an international scheme designed to remove the trade in rough diamonds that might finance illegal activities while still allowing for legitimate trade.