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Beyond Top Secret: Undercover With Canadian Special Operations Forces In Jamaica

A CSOR member oversees pistol shooting on the range. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

A CSOR member oversees pistol shooting on the range.

They don’t much like the James Bond characterization, these undercover Canadian soldiers. In fact, they reject it.

But then you kind of expect that they would.

If they were the kind of people to revel in the drama of covert operations, well, they probably wouldn’t be in the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR), discreetly deployed to Jamaica to help train a special operations unit of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF).

Regardless, the cloak-and-dagger aspect can’t be ignored: a plain synopsis of what they do sounds like it’s lifted straight from a Hollywood script.

If you’ve ever seen a movie where fit-looking westerners dash across chaotic foreign lands on mysterious business then you get the picture. To put it simply: they travel around in a fairly secretive way doing secretive things. “It doesn’t really play much in our minds,” says a member of CSOR about whom you can know very little other than he is a master corporal on his second rotation through Jamaica. “When you first join it might by kind of cool, but to us by now it’s pretty normal.”

Of course, the soldier does go on to tell a story from his pre-CSOR days—when he was serving with a foreign special operations unit outside of Canada—that tells you a little of what life can be like in such a unit. He tells of how his sister discovered him scraping residue off his boot. “What are you doing?” his sister asked.

“Trying to get this explosive paste off my boots,” he answered. “She just smiled and said, ‘That’s so James Bond.’”

And so despite the protestations of the operators, the mission is markedly different in nature than most other Canadian Forces operations. For example, almost nobody in Jamaica knows who they are—at least not officially. If the CSOR operators see any of the other Canadian Forces soldiers who frequently pass through their hotel on other business with the JDF, the operators just duck their heads and keep to themselves. They don’t want anyone to know they’re soldiers.

The Jamaican special operations unit moves into place (top and middle) during a staged assault on a compound where they captured a CSOR member (bottom). [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

The Jamaican special operations unit moves into place (top and middle) during a staged assault on a compound where they captured a CSOR member (bottom).

There are several reasons for this. One is the natural tendency of special operations forces to keep a low profile, but the second and more important reason is that Jamaica is actually quite a dangerous environment and the unit they’re training has made more than a few enemies among the various gangsters and drug runners that it goes after.

“We try not to advertise the fact that we’re here,” said the master corporal. “We take precautions. We do recognize the potential for something to go wrong.”

The unit CSOR is in Jamaica to help train is the Jamaica Defence Force’s highest level special operations unit—a national-level counterterrorist force which would be the hierarchical equivalent of a Tier One special operations unit in the Canadian or American forces (although the Jamaicans are as yet not trained to the same degree nor in possession of the same capabilities.) In the pantheon of NATO special operations units, Tier One is pretty much as high as it gets. The Canadian version, Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2), exists permanently in the shadows; the American equivalent is, well, maybe a unit called the Delta Force, but it’s hard to say because even the names of these units are often closely held secrets.

Indeed, the name of the special Jamaican unit is officially secret. While you can sometimes find the unit’s acronym incongruously stencilled onto orange water coolers and various plywood boards around the training areas, every effort has been made to keep the unit’s designation from reaching the public mind. What can be said though is that it is a good name, as far as names for covert organizations go. It is the kind of name that not only rolls off the tongue but that has a peculiarly evocative power. Just hearing it brings to mind black-clad and highly skilled men stealthily assaulting a compound in the dead of night, which is pretty much exactly what these guys do.

CSOR’s assistance to the unit began in 2008. The teams from CSOR—based on a detachment of about six operators—rotate in and out of Jamaica, staying for about a month, give or take.

A Jamaican senior NCO conducts training in the kill house. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

A Jamaican senior NCO conducts training in the kill house.

The whole program is funded through the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), managed by the Department of National Defence’s Military Training Assistance Program (MTAP) and implemented by the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) and CSOR.

The soldiers are based in the sprawling capital of Kingston and most of the training takes place in and around the city. Though known primarily in Canada as a tourist hotspot, Jamaica, and Kingston in particular, has a violent underside. Not only are there criminal gangs and international drug runners, but Jamaica has a remarkably high murder rate, so high that a few years back a BBC story declared it ‘the murder capital of the world.’

“It was an eye-opener for myself,” said the CSOR team leader, a warrant officer. “I’ve always known Jamaica for its tourist industry and I had no idea how desperate things can be in certain areas of the country.”

CSOR’s basic mission is to train the Jamaican unit to the high standard of planning, shooting and tactics necessary to conduct all manner of close-quarter battle and special operations. In addition, they also lend training assistance in first aid, leadership and basic military skills like how to run a range.

Members of DFAIT, CSOR and CANSOFCOM watch activities in the kill house from above. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Members of DFAIT, CSOR and CANSOFCOM watch activities in the kill house from above.

Special operations forces like the unit CSOR is training in Jamaica are designed to answer rare but critically important questions: What do you do when terrorists seize an embassy? What do you do if well-organized criminals threaten whole communities and intimidate the police force? Who do you send to rescue hostages held on a plane by a deranged gunman?

Just such an event occurred in Montego Bay, Jamaica, this April when a gunman boarded a CanJet aircraft carrying more than 150 Canadian vacationers. “Jamaican troops storm hijacked Canadian jet; free 6 crew members,” read a headline on April 20th.

As is now widely known, the Jamaican soldiers that somehow managed to clamber into the jet through the cockpit windows were the exact same soldiers CSOR has been training for a good part of the last year.

When governments need a unit like this, they need it very badly. When they don’t, however, there is a tendency to forget that they might.

The Jamaicans are building one of these complicated, expensive units basically from scratch. The essential mission of the Jamaican unit is to provide assistance to Jamaican law enforcement in whatever way they are asked. “We’re not asked to assist with every task,” said the former commander of the Jamaican unit who’s now in charge of its parent unit. “We’re called to assist when the police are scared. I pull no punches. I tell the guys, ‘when you’re called to deploy, you’re going to a gunfight.’”

The bad guys they most commonly go after—kingpins, as they were referred to more than once—have the means and the desire to extract revenge. These are guys who run drugs internationally, gang leaders, hardcore villains of the sort that we don’t see in Canada too often anymore.

Scarily enough, there are stories of revenge killings against members of the Jamaican unit. The very idea strikes fear into everyone’s heart—the idea that a kingpin’s brutal henchmen will smash their way into a soldier’s house and murder his wife and children.

Because of this threat the Jamaican soldiers are highly wary of reporters with cameras. Or perhaps something beyond wary, which is entirely understandable.

In contrast to the menacing look of the Jamaican soldiers, the Canadian operators, as a group, look pretty much exactly like a group of NHL hockey players several months deep into the off-season, which is to say that they have an obvious and rare level of physical fitness combined with the slight shagginess and individualistic swagger of highly-valued athletes. And this is pretty much what they are, actually.

CSOR’s operators are chosen specifically because they have the ability and initiative to act independently, to adapt to challenging situations and overcome them. It’s largely because of these characteristics that the role of training friendly foreign militaries has long been passed down to specialist units like CSOR. “There are classically two sides, in historical terms, to special operations forces assistance to indigenous militaries,” explained Colonel Mike Day, CANSOFCOM’s commander. While Day noted that while the first role was to conduct behind-the-lines campaigns, the second was “working with a government in place to shore up the rule of law and effective governance.

“Where special operations forces go in they provide very specialized training packages that allow [the indigenous forces] to set certain things up, allow them to strengthen those government-level mechanisms. That is actually Jamaica, right there.

“It’s a small team of guys bringing these [indigenous] organizations to the battle, I don’t mean the kinetic battle, but the worldwide battle—the fight for good—to use your powers for good and not for evil. That’s really the genesis of [special operations forces foreign training.]”

In Jamaica, much of this training takes place on an abandoned beach outside of Kingston, among ruins both historical and way more recent.

Just off the beach, in the shelter of a small mountain, a ‘kill house’ has been constructed to facilitate the training. The structure allows the operators to practice live fire room-clearing assaults while instructors watch from catwalks.

On this particular rotation, the emphasis was largely on training the Jamaican senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in the art of training their own people—training the trainer.

Most of the activity in the kill house was being run by Jamaicans, with the Canadians watching over things and offering advice wherever they saw fit. “Two to the body, one to the head,” a Jamaican NCO said to his students in a heavy accent. “And you can’t miss because if you kill a child it will undo everything you ever did.”

“The training has come along over the past couple of visits and our focus is changing now onto more advanced development,” said the CSOR team leader. “The guys have built up that basic skill set, the hands and feet skills for shooting and close-quarter battle and now we’re able to focus more on the train-the-trainer concept with their NCOs. We’re developing them so they can carry on what we’ve shown them to a high standard.”

And without a doubt, the Jamaicans are impressive shooters. A cursory examination of the posters set up on the kill house walls to represent bad guys shows that even during high-speed assaults their marksmanship is dead on.

But while the relationship between the Jamaicans and Canadians is amiable, there are still cultural stumbling blocks to overcome. “They listen to what we have to say,” said the CSOR master corporal, actively involved in the training, “but they’re Jamaican and they want everything to be relaxed.”

Beyond the cultural issues lies a second concern: funding. The Jamaican unit is far from well off, it should be noted—the kill house was made of plywood and old tires; their vehicles were literally on life support and their uniforms didn’t always match. “I must admit that before we got assistance from CSOR we were regarded in the JDF as a unit that trained more than anything else,” said the unit’s former commander. “After CSOR we were seen differently.

“We still didn’t have money, but with CSOR we got modern kit, more bullets. And now our soldiers are more confident, have greater ability on their skills and drills. But we’re not there yet. I’ll be the first to say we can be even better.”

In mid-May a monitoring team from DFAIT was on the ground to see how the money their department had allocated was being spent. Note the tortured wording of that sentence, because it hints at a larger issue.

The DFAIT staffers were genuinely nice and capable people and by all appearances they were doing their job of checking up on the status of the mission with high professionalism and a curiosity that left few questions unasked and, interestingly enough, even extended to shooting various small arms at various targets, sometimes viciously.

That aside, nothing more of what they thought, or what they did, can be written about, as it turns out that the department’s institutional communications policy demands muteness from its field employees and replaces it with tightly controlled messages from its public relations staff. If you want to know more about how your tax dollars are being spent, you have officially been advised to check the DFAIT website to get the good news.

In any case, the monetary assistance to CSOR and the JDF is a part of DFAIT’s counterterrorism capacity-building program (as can be learned on their website).

Blair Waddington, a former member of the Canadian Forces now serving as Jamaica program manager for the Military Training Assistance Program, notes that missions like CSOR’s in Jamaica have long-term benefits for Canada. “It’s all part of Canada’s strategy for the Americas,” said Waddington. “It’s the idea that these regions all have a strategic effect on Canada.”

The strategic effect he’s talking about is the general regional stability that comes from helping to create law and order in the Caribbean and trying to eliminate it as a source of international drug running, human trafficking and general criminality.

“This mission is not an altruistic idea. It helps us,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Greg Smith, CSOR’s commanding officer. “This is a national act for us to take some very highly trained people, to spend the money, to send the equipment, to go down and train the Jamaicans. This is an act of national will.”

Beyond the national interest, Smith notes that missions like the one in Jamaica are helping CSOR, which only stood up in August 2006 and is certainly one of the newest units in the Canadian Forces, slowly carve out a greater role for itself in DND’s resource-scarce environment. “This is good for the culture of CSOR as well,” he says. “We tend to send units to task forces in Afghanistan or elsewhere. But this is us leading the force. There’s nobody else to look at and say, “How have you been doing this?” It’s you and you’re learning and these newly experienced operators will come back and teach us as a unit where we need to go.”

As for where CSOR is going, the current plan is for the unit to fill a wide spectrum of special operations capabilities, everything from nearly conventional massed assaults to clandestine operations to counter-insurgencies to missions like the one in Jamaica, training foreign militaries. “It’s very important for people to actually understand what spectrum CSOR fills,” said Smith. “Because there are some people who think we just do gate-guard at special forces camps or something. No, actually we don’t do gate-guarding anymore. We go out on operations.”

And while CSOR is evolving, so too is the entire special operations forces command.

“Jamaica,” said CANSOFCOM’s Col. Day, “is a great example for me and my people to understand how we could add value to a wider government initiative and be part of a bigger whole. We don’t need to be by ourselves at all times. Too often in the past, we’ve kind of been overly secretive, too hidden, and we haven’t leveraged other opportunities. This is a real learning lesson for us.”

Back on the ground in Jamaica, it should be noted that life for Canada’s undercover soldiers is not all guns and violence. Jamaica is, after all, a tropical paradise and so swimming laps in the hotel pool and going out for an evening’s entertainment with their Jamaican counterparts probably doesn’t qualify as hardship duty. But then again, the kingpins still lurk, and they are known to watch, so everybody has to be ready. Maybe it does qualify, after all.

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