On October 7, Mr Key surprised New Zealand by making a sudden, unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital Baghdad and to New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel working at Camp Taji.
Prime Minister John Key has now visited Iraq as many times as US President Barack Obama, and using many of the same security procedures. While any head of state’s trip to a warzone is dangerous, the importance and timing of these visits often outweigh the risks. They serve to highlight a country’s commitment to a defence programme, help a leader gain a personal understanding of the theatre and encourage a country’s own troops.
However, the inherent risks of sending leaders to unsecured countries such as Iraq compels the prime minister’s protection team to shroud the visit in unusual and high levels of security. To those unfamiliar with government procedures, this practice appears as unnecessary secrecy. Leaders are acutely aware of this juxtaposition, but understand the need to balance a transparency with the realities of international security.
A press release about Mr Key’s surprise two-day stopover says he also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and President Fuad Masum in Baghdad to discuss the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (IS). New Zealand’s contribution includes 143 NZDF personnel based at Camp Taji, deployed to train Iraqi troops as part of a joint Building Partner Capacity mission with Australia. New Zealand is working with 60 other countries to reinforce the Iraqi state.
“Our soldiers have a world-class reputation and are carrying out their training mission brilliantly, in tough conditions…New Zealand cannot and should not fight Iraqis’ battles for them but we are making a valuable contribution,” Mr Key says.
Although the New Zealand public only discovered Mr Key’s Iraq trip after he landed at Baghdad International Airport (BIA), his close protection team would have been planning it for months.
The specific arrangements of his arrival would have begun in earnest during the prior three to five days. The trip details required coordination with New Zealand’s diplomatic staff in Iraq, the NZDF and other government agencies. The detour from a publicised overseas trip to New York, where Mr Key attended the recent UN General Assembly, increased the operational security of his visit to Iraq.
Generally, any time a prime minister flies internationally they use a modified Boeing 757 as a VIP transport. The New Zealand Air Force presently has two of these aircraft, fully outfitted with communications gear and defensive systems. A C-130 military transport aircraft is also available for shorter flight distances, as in Mr Key’s flight between BIA and Dubai International Airport in the UAE.
Mr Key’s transport aircraft is likely equipped with countermeasures meant to defeat heat-seeking and radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) which IS militants may be using. The Islamic State possesses an unknown number and type of advanced weaponry.
The countermeasures include decoy flares of pyrophoric (igniting on contact with oxygen) elements which burn hotter than an aircraft’s exhaust, laser systems to redirect the heat-seeking SAMs away from the aircraft and metal strips that discharge from the fuselage to confuse radar-guided SAMs.
The immediate minutes during an aircraft’s approach and those immediately following take-off – before the aircraft reaches cruising speed and altitude – are the most dangerous. Flying over a warzone this risk is magnified, with Mr Key’s pilots performing a series of evasive manoeuvres such as a “corkscrew” designed to further spoil any SAM attacks.
Once on the ground, a large security operation is built to protect the prime minister. While Baghdad is in many respects a functioning city, it has suffered hundreds of IS attacks this year. Moving between secure locations requires more flight time in helicopters, equipped with similar countermeasures, and likely performing even more drastic stomach-churning manoeuvres.
Reporters travelling with the prime minister say the helicopters were US Army Chinook models. These 30 metre-long, slow, twin-engine aircraft can carry between 33-55 troops. They were necessary because travelling on roads would be out of the question due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and militant attacks.
The helicopter flights between Mr Key’s ground visits are the most dangerous parts of the trip. While these would last only 10-15 minutes, the helicopters would have flown low and fast over the landscape to minimise exposure to weapons.
The prime minister’s close protection team, usually specially-trained New Zealand police, would have shared their role with members of the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) during Mr Key’s stay in Iraq. The soldiers are responsible for Mr Key’s safety while on the ground, and very likely had a number of contingency plans to ferry him back to Baghdad in case of emergency.
These plans would be formed and updated over a period of months prior to the visit and an up-to-date assessment of the security environment in both Baghdad and Camp Taji during the 72 hours before the prime minister’s arrival. An armoured motorcade may also have been available to evacuate Mr Key in an emergency.
During Mr Key’s visit, the NZSAS would have been at the centre of security operations, with support from Iraqi military and police units. Depending on the size of the protection team available, NZSAS countersniper teams, a quick-response force (QRF) and other specialised units will secure the perimeter.
According to press photos, Mr Key’s close protection team provided concentric rings of security during his meetings with Iraqi and NZDF forces. Again, depending on the manpower available and the perceived risk, a technical team will have been present to provide hazardous material response and check for IEDs in the area. These units would also require coordination.
The security situation on the ground in Iraq is highly dangerous. This reality requires an increased level of secrecy surrounding Mr Key’s travel plans in and out of the country. According to reporters, the planning appears to have been compartmentalised to enhance operational security with a specific requirement for secrecy. They were told not to reveal any of the limited knowledge of the overall travel plans they might possess.
This compartmentalisation allows the close protection team a certain level of confidence that details and timing of the prime minister’s visit would not be leaked while he was in Iraq. The death of a foreign leader would be of incredible value for IS, especially a member of the coalition. It is therefore standard procedure to limit media exposure of such a visit to avoid giving militants time to prepare attacks.
During other conflicts where New Zealand leaders visited troops – such as William Massey in World War I and Peter Fraser in World War II – the overall security situation was different. The threat of death to the leader was realistic, but unlikely given the nature of the two wars. Militancy and insurgency inject a high level of uncertainty to a conflict zone, far more than in a conventional war.
Former prime minister Helen Clark also performed a surprise visit to NZDF personnel in Afghanistan in 2003. The security situation there was equally dangerous after the removal of the Taliban-led government caused Taliban forces to splinter and adopt guerrilla tactics. Many of the procedures used in Mr Key’s Iraq visit would have been enacted for Ms Clark.
While these measures might appear to be a public relations victory for IS – having “forced” the leader of a foreign country to secretly enter a country – that is only half the story. The flipside is that it shows how even the leader of a small country such as New Zealand can travel anywhere he or she wishes in Iraq, regardless of how much control the militants boast. It is a public relations win for Baghdad.
Dust storms near the capital delayed Mr Key’s final departure by almost a day. During this time, the Iraqi government released images of his visit while he was still in the country. Whether this slip resulted from a miscommunication about his exact departure time, or a larger blunder, is unknown. But it highlights the importance of operational security and the necessity for increased government secrecy during dangerous state visits.