In our coverage of foreign Special Operations units, there is one country which is easily overlooked. When we think of SOF in the Western world, it is Rangers, SEALs, SAS, KSK, or somewhat more obscure units like SOG or FSK that come to mind. In a conversation about international Special Operations units, few would mention Switzerland’s DRA-10. In a country famous for neutrality and chocolate, fewer still would be aware of the Swiss hostage rescue mission that almost got off the ground in Libya several years ago.
Even before Hillary Clinton and Silvio Berlusconi unfriended Omar Gaddafi on Facebook in 2011, relations had begun to sour between Libya and Switzerland as early as 2008. The trouble began when Swiss police arrested the Libyan dictator’s son, Hannibal Gaddafi, in Geneva for allegedly mistreating his house staff. Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife were later released, but the damage had been done, and Omar Gaddafi carried out a series of retaliations against Switzerland.
Flights from Switzerland to Libya were halted, Gaddafi threatened to stop oil shipments, Swiss businesses were forced to close their doors in Libya, and most notably, two Swiss businessmen named Max Göldi and Rachid Hamdani were held on house arrest in Libya, kept as de facto hostages and political bargaining chips to be used against the Swiss government. The two Swiss nationals were initially allowed to stay in the Swiss embassy but were not permitted to leave Libya. Then, in 2009 when diplomatic negotiations broke down, the two Swiss nationals were kidnapped and disappeared and were not returned for over a month.
Negotiations over the fate of Max and Rachid continued to grind away. Both were convicted in a Libyan court of visa violations. The dispute went from being a Swiss problem to being a European problem when Gaddafi then refused to issue visas to any European Union citizens. When Max Göldi was imprisoned, the Swiss government secretly paid Hannibal Gaddafi 1.5 million francs to try to smooth things over and normalize relations with Libya.
While the falling out between Switzerland and Libya was being reported in the European media, what was not reported was the quiet deployment of Swiss counter-terrorist operators to the Swiss embassy. Planning for a high-risk hostage rescue operation began, as the Swiss commandos started working to recover Max and Rachid. In Bern, frustrations were growing with Gaddafi’s bluster.
DRA-10 was stood up in 2003, under the command of Major Daniel Stoll, to recover Swiss nationals like those in Libya being held under duress. Initially, the unit had as few as 30 soldiers, but DRA-10 is now suspected to number at about 40 operators. The unit is said to be structured along the same lines as 22SAS and to have received initial training from other foreign SOF units. Because of Switzerland’s policy of neutrality, they have not benefited from the war time learning experiences that neighboring NATO nations have had in Afghanistan, but exchanges are conducted with France and Belgium to help Swiss soldiers understand what Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures are working in combat.
While Switzerland is a sovereign nation, it contains at least three distinct cultures— German, French and Italian. Many Swiss nationals hold dual citizenship, including the DRA-10 operators who were deployed to Libya using their second passport.
The plans that DRA-10 drafted to carry out the hostage rescue mission were delivered to André Blattmann, the head of the Army. Other recipients were Pitteloud Jacques, a former intelligence officer who became leader of the political secretariat of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, which deals with hostage rescues and nuclear proliferation, as well as the Army Chief of Staff who issues orders to DRA-10.
What was dubbed Operation SAKR went through three different iterations as military planners had to adjust to changing circumstances.
The first effort took place in December of 2008, in which two DRA-10 operators worked hand in hand with Swiss Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud in Algeria. Since Max and Rachid were allowed to move around Libya on their own at this point, but not exit the country, DRA-10 arranged to work with the Algerians to meet Max and Rachid at the UNESCO world heritage site of Ghadames, an ancient city which they could plausibly visit as tourists. Unfortunately, this plan fell apart due to the unacceptable terms the Algerian government demanded for their cooperation, the extradition of Islamic Salvation Front terrorists living in Switzerland. Compliance would be a blow to Swiss neutrality, a policy issue which affects Switzerland’s international relations across the world.
Shortly after the cancellation of SAKR I, preparations were made for SAKR II. The second plan would be similar to the first but would use Niger as an intermediary rather than Algeria. Negotiations were conducted with the Tuaregs. On January 9th, DRA-10 was ready to execute the operation when it was discovered that they had already been compromised. The Swiss signals intercept program known as Onyx picked up Libyan communications indicating that they were aware of DRA-10’s exfiltration plan since at least December 18th. Needless to say, this mission had to be scrubbed as well.
From late May to early June of 2009, the planning for the third attempt was underway. This time DRA-10 engaged in some unconventional thinking to engineer a very unique method of extracting the Swiss hostages from Libya. Through clandestine means, Max and Rachid were instructed to begin going for a daily swim at the beach about an hour outside of Tripoli. The reason for this was to desensitize the guards watching over the hostages and inoculate them to a daily routine which would play into the hands of the DRA-10 operation.
Wearing civilian clothes, the Swiss operators would rent a yacht and sail down the Libyan coast. When the two Swiss citizens were taking their daily swim, they would meet with an unfortunate accident, drowning in the Mediterranean ocean, or at least this is what the guards would be led to believe. In reality, the two hostages would be recovered underwater by DRA-10 combat divers. The hostages would be provided with SCUBA equipment and then would conduct a sub-surface swim back to the yacht.
The rescue would be kept completely secret until the hostages were safely returned to Switzerland.
DRA-10 was standing by, but this mission also had to be canceled. While Max was prepared to do his part and follow through with the plan, Rachid was incapable. Reports state that he suffered from low morale, but he may have had a health issue which prevented him from participating, or he may have lost his nerve. The exact circumstances are unknown.
While the military option was never carried out, diplomacy (and a hefty payment in francs) did eventually smooth over relations between Libya and Switzerland, allowing both hostages to be returned home in 2010.
The postscript to Operation SAKR is the fallout that the Swiss government, and DRA-10 in particular, faced simply for planning to rescue Swiss citizens when the details leaked to the press. To understand why some members of the Swiss government were outraged, it is important to understand the importance of Switzerland’s policy of neutrality.
Switzerland has been permanently neutral in all foreign affairs for nearly 200 years, since 1815. The history of Europe has largely been a history of conflict and a small nation like Switzerland cannot afford to choose sides. Neutrality has kept Switzerland safe through two world wars and any policies or action which can be viewed as an erosion of neutrality will be fiercely opposed by most Swiss citizens.
This is why people such as former Justice Minister Christoph Blocher make statements about DRA-10 like, “It’s a military unit specially designed for interventions abroad. At the beginning we were told that it was just a unit to rescue Swiss taken hostage by terrorists. But we now see it’s a dangerous instrument…The plans were drawn up by amateurs and the consequences could have been catastrophic. We are calling for a stop to any [Swiss] military action abroad and the end of the DRA 10.”
In the wake of the Operation SAKR revelations in the press, both left wing and right wing members of the Swiss parliament were calling for the disbanding of DRA-10, others saying it should be merged into conventional Swiss military forces and that all military intervention aboard should be banned.
It seems that Switzerland’s most elite military unit has dodged the bullet this time and avoided being disbanded. However, even those who support the military are asking the question of why Switzerland has an expensive, highly-trained unit if the government is not allowed to use it?