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Fri 17 September 2021

The department has refused to disclose the location of Operation Catallo – while British Army publications have shared details of it

Two British Army Regiments have published the location of a military operation deemed by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to be too secret to be revealed, an investigation has found.

The countries where the mission is being conducted – codenamed Operation Catallo – were deemed so sensitive that their publication “could provide a tactical advantage to (the UK’s) enemies”.

Despite such concerns, the location of one country where Catallo is being conducted is in the public domain, published in British Army magazines. In response to the breach, the MOD has said that “it is not possible to remove all regimental magazines from circulation”.

The MOD published a list in July of operations that were eligible for free postage as part of the Enduring Families Free Mail Service. The list contained 31 military operations, including a number of well-known armed forces engagements whereby service personnel can get letters and parcels sent for free. These included Operation Shader – the six-year US-led coalition campaign to destroy ISIS – alongside other operations such as Kingpin, Veritas, Vogul and Elgin.

Overall, the operations matched public reports of the British military either currently, or having had recent operations, in 20 different countries or regions. Of these, UK special forces such as the Special Air Services (SAS) have been reported in nine operational locations: the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Chad, Somali, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan

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Threat to National Security

The Government has a “longstanding policy” of not commenting on where UK special forces are fighting – a tradition born, it appears, shortly after the infamous SAS shootings of three IRA suspects in Gibraltar in 1988.

As such, these nine operations in the listings appear to offer rare supporting evidence of specific UK special ops overseas activities.

The list, however, cites four operations not found in news reports: Operations Cattalo, Corded, Tramal and Recompose. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Action on Armed Violence to the MOD revealed that these took place in Malawi/Zambia, Tunisia and Colombia respectively. 

Revealing the location of Operation Cattalo, however, was rejected on the grounds that “the public interest is best served in not releasing any details on the exact geographical locations or activities being undertaken” on that mission. 

The MOD found that such disclosure “could prejudice the security of UK personnel serving abroad and could provide a tactical advantage to our enemies. In addition, this could undermine diplomatic relationships between the UK and other states, putting UK interests abroad at risk”. A FOI challenge to this rejection was also denied.

Despite such a refusal, a search of regular forces’ regimental magazines found that details of Operation Cattalo were already in the public domain, published by two well-known Army regiments or corps. The location of the operation was revealed alongside photographs.   

The MOD, in response to being informed of these publications, stated that regimental magazines “are issued with the knowledge of MOD but the department does not exercise complete editorial control over their contents”.

It also stated that “any unauthorised disclosure of information presents a threat to operational security and does not change the department’s stance on releasing the requested information under the Act”.

It appears, then, that the Army’s own accessible publications, with regards to Operation Cattalo, may present a threat to operational security.

In addition, a contractor for the British military also posted on his LinkedIn profile another country where Operation Cattalo was engaged – a different location from the one published above. This suggests that the operation appears to have been undertaken in at least two countries.

This report has decided not to name the locations of the operation, but notes that the desire for covert military capabilities has been well-documented amongst the UK armed forces’ leadership. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the Telegraph he hoped that he could “free up special forces units for more discreet missions”.

The MOD’s discussion of the ‘grey zone’ – typically inter-state conflict that falls below the threshold of war – has also been very apparent in recent months, particularly leading up to the UK Defence Command paper. From that review, it appears that the Government is absorbing more military operations under the banner of ‘special forces’ – thereby camouflaging them from accountability and oversight.

For the Ministry of Defence to now refuse to say where regular troops are operational, however, is a rare and concerning development. It promises even more opacity in overseas military engagement – even when, as in this case, it appears that some regiments may have not got the ‘Top Secret’ directive of the mission.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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