Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgency Strategy in the Dhofar Rebellion

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 2:10am

A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article

Counterinsurgency Strategy in the Dhofar Rebellion

Alexander Schade

Tactics and Reform  

With modest beginnings as a minor tribal conflict between the southern Dhofari tribes and the Omani government in 1957, the rebellion in Dhofar rapidly escalated into a twenty-year insurgency fueled by external competitors, which would come to reshape the government, borders, and future of Southern Arabia. The campaign waged by British SAS and the Sultan’s Armed Forces eradicated the communist uprising, and cemented the legitimacy of Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The conflict was resolved due to tailored counterinsurgency tactics coupled with progressive reforms, which formed a comprehensive strategy that succeeded in separating the communist rebels from supplies, population, and legitimacy. The wide-ranging reforms implemented by the Sultanate addressed nearly every grievance held by the insurgents, while the British responded with a campaign backed by strong military measures. The campaign developed by the SAS evolved from the lessons learned in previous British counterinsurgency efforts and implemented several “effective” changes in recurring counterinsurgency tactics which directly impacted the success of the campaign.[1]

Counterinsurgency efforts waged in the post-colonial period generally lagged in efficiency due to the counterinsurgents’ inability to quell rebellions with large military footprints and without the use of tactics such as population relocation, torture, and brutality.[2] Counterinsurgency campaigns in Algeria, Malaya, Kenya, Vietnam, and Cambodia demonstrated the inability of large conventional forces to quell an insurgency without resorting to extreme measures.[3] These measures impacted the ability to maintain popular support and were the tactics that Special Air Service (SAS) Commander Brigadier Ferguson Semple sought to avoid when he proposed bringing the SAS to Oman in August of 1970.[4] His campaign deployed small advise and assist teams called British Army Training Teams (BATT) to Dhofar, recruited and established a Dhofari defense force from surrendering fighters, and promoted the governmental reforms devised by the Sultan, to include veterinary, medical, and employment programs.[5] The covert role that the SAS played in the campaign helped promote the competence of the Sultan’s forces and aspired confidence amongst the population that the Sultanate would defeat the Dhofari rebellion.[6] The campaign illustrates the effectiveness of tying military, political, and social objectives into a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy to secure the legitimacy of the state and eliminate the dissidence of a rebel population.

The Sultanate of Oman and its Challenges

Oman during the 1950s was divided tribally, isolated politically, and led by a sultan who ruled with irrational suspicion and harsh brutality. Sultan Said bin Taimur inherited a kingdom fractured by duplicitous tribes, who saw it in their own interest to defy a Muscat governate and instead rule their regions locally. His rule was harsh, and his “distrust of other Omanis led to a personal government totally unsuited to a modern state.”[7] The common assumption is that he was ill suited to rule a country, and was unable to address development and security needs appropriately, but it is important to note that the impact of “years of bankruptcy” and instability in neighboring states influenced his decision making.[8] Regardless of the reasons behind his ineptitude, the tribes within Oman expressed increasing resentment at seeing growth and development in the Gulf, and the Sultan’s refusal to allow any development within the tribal regions of the country.[9]

These tribes lived in the heights of the Jebel al Akhdar to the west of Muscat and in the low valleys of the Dhofar region in the south, eking out an agrarian lifestyle and fiercely defending their livestock and families from threats. Years of civil war between these tribes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries ended under a peace agreement signed by Sultan Said bin Taimur’s father, and it was in this fragile balance that Sultan Said bin Taimur juggled competing tribal loyalties and external pressures.

While the Sultan was arbiter to the tribal sheikhs, he was a vassal to the sole foreign power with a resident embassy: the British. Britain had consistently lent military support to Muscat during tribal insurrections, and the British had established itself for over 300 years as part of the Sultanate, by serving as advisors, political secretaries, and military commanders. Britain aimed to protect its oil companies working in the region, maintain tight control of the Indian Ocean shipping routes, and protect communications lines with their military assets in Asia.

The U.K. commanded and trained the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF), which consisted of the Muscat and Oman Field Force (MOFF), the Muscat Infantry, the Batinah Force, the Dhofar Force, and the Headquarters element. By 1954 the total number within the SAF was 1,100 men, all of whom had less than two years of military service. The British supplemented these ranks with their own NCOs and Officers, but both the Sultan and the British Defense Secretary recognized the limited capacity in which these units could be used.[10] The Sultan insisted on the policy of filling the ranks with mixed tribes and nationalities, and thus the units, down to the platoon level, were comprised of Baluch, Northern Omani, Dhofari, Indian, and British soldiers.[11] The result was a small, poorly trained, British led fighting force that couldn’t communicate due to language issues, and resented each other due to tribal and ethnic tensions.[12] The timing of the formation and training of the SAF coincided with the outbreak of a revolt against the Sultanate that set the stage for the Dhofar Rebellion.

The Roots of Dissidence      

The revolt against the Sultanate in 1955 was led by the newly elected Imam, Sheikh Ghalib bin Ali, who was supported and funded by the Saudi government. He was to lead a secession of the Jebel al Akhdar region to secure autonomy for the tribes, and allow Saudi oil exploration in the Buraimi Oasis. Over the course of four years, the Sultan would struggle to combat the Saudi and Imamate threat that had grown in the northern mountains, ultimately relying on British troops stationed in the Trucial States to come in and relieve the SAF. The Trucial Scouts, along with British air and artillery support, went on to secure the Jebel al Akhdar in a conventional air and land campaign. By the end of 1958, the British had established a perimeter around the entire mountain range and conducted artillery and air strikes at villages deemed hostile by the Sultan. The last tribes surrendered in Nizwa in 1959, and the Imam fled to Saudi Arabia to evade the Sultan’s retribution. The end of the war diminished any opportunity for the Imamate to continue, although the dissidence against the Sultan grew deeper.[13]

The Dhofar Rebellion

Four years after the end of the Jebel War, the remnants of the Imamate tribes had covertly rallied under the leadership of Mussalim bin Nafl, a wealthy tribal sheikh who opposed the Sultan’s unification efforts and treatment of rural tribes.[14] Funded yet again by the Saudi monarchy, dissident troops set out to conduct sabotage attacks against oil vehicles, government outposts, and British air bases. Nafl named the organization the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) in southern Oman.

The DLF set out with approximately 70 well trained rebels in 1963, organized into small raiding teams and a headquarters core, and expanded over the next seven years to approximately 5,000 regulars, with close to half residing in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).[15] The DLF employed “small arms including light machine guns … radio communications, 2 inch, 3 inch, and 81mm mortars,57mm recoilless rifles, and land mines.”[16] By 1968, the DLF had secured major routes within Dhofar and began excising taxes and recruiting tribal youth. The Dhofar tribesmen and youth wanted development and social reform that the Sultan was unwilling to consider, and they saw the DLF as means to rid themselves from the failing Sultanate. The DLF exploited the grievances of the tribes against the government, and utilized the population for food, shelter, and recruiting.[17]

Riding the wave of popular anti-protectorate rebellion of the early 1960’s, Nafl’s group began to attack the Sultan’s military assets in Salalah and were met with no effective opposition. The first battle of the Dhofar insurgency occurred in May of 1968, when the Sultan’s Armed Forces sent a battalion to the western town of Deefa in Dhofar to attack rebel positions. Within hours, the rebels defeated the entire battalion and basked in a significant public relations victory.[18] Following their tactical success, the DLF received increased support from Saudi Arabia, South Yemen, and China.[19] Their members began training in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at Chinese irregular warfare schools, and Soviet weapons began making their way towards Dhofar from the Soviet-supplied People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Within four years, the DLF had transformed from an underground tribal resistance to an active insurgency in the southern Dhofar region. The DLF established a political congress, who met to decide on military targets, as well as shape the direction of the group. Their first announcement decreed that their movement was a peasant uprising, and they named themselves the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG).[20]  

The British were watching the entire debacle unfold while their hands were tied, because they could not act without the Sultan’s approval. The Dhofar Battalion, comprised of 60 Dhofari and Baluchi soldiers who were charged with protecting the entire Dhofar region, attempted to assassinate the Sultan when he visited the region in 1968. The Sultan subsequently locked himself in his palace in Salalah and never made a public appearance following the assassination attempt.[21] By 1970, the SAF was meeting fierce resistance in cave complexes and valleys in Dhofar; their casualties were rising and they lost territory to the PFLOAG. The Sultan’s government was losing rapidly, and the British were forced to make changes based on their ministers’ recommendations.[22]

One such recommendation came in the form of the Sultan’s son. Qaboos bin Said had returned from Germany where he was serving in the British army with the 1st Cameroonians. A Sandhurst educated young officer, he was approached by the British Consul General in 1969 and made aware of the British desire for him to assume the throne immediately.[23] On 23 July 1970, Qaboos bin Said ordered soldiers to arrest his father and immediately ordered troops to begin deployment to Salalah. The bloodless coup was short, and the new Sultan immediately departed for Muscat to set in motion a plan he had been working on with the Defense Secretary and the British Consul-General.[24] The new Sultan subsequently cabled London, approving the British plan to send the SAS to train a royal bodyguard and assist in training the SAF to combat the adoo.[25] Following the approval of the British commando deployment, the Sultan issued a full amnesty to Dhofari prisoners and a “moratorium on all offensive operations in Dhofar.”[26] This political maneuver signaled the intentions of the new Sultan to the Dhofari tribesmen but also gave the SAF breathing room to begin reconsolidation, recruiting, and retraining. The announcement of the moratorium and amnesty spread quickly throughout the region; within 6 months, over 300 individuals had surrendered, including the originator of the rebellion, Mussalim al Nafl. Upon surrendering, he declared “there was no need for Dhofaris to go on fighting, as the new Sultan was willing to give them even more than they demanded.”[27] By September of 1970, the BATT arrived in Dhofar and the counterinsurgency campaign aimed at ousting the adoo was underway.

The Implementation of the Counterinsurgency Strategy

The primary effort of the campaign was codenamed Operation Storm. This incorporated a five-point plan that aimed to address the specific weaknesses that the adoo had: weak popular support, limited cash flow, and an atheist ideological cause. Operation Storm’s five-point plan was:[28]

  1. “Create an effective intelligence system
  2. Encourage dissident jabbalis to surrender then re-equip them and send them back into the fight against their colleagues[29]
  3. Institute a veterinary effort to improve farm stock, as well as increase the supply of fresh water
  4. Provide medical assistance for the jabbali population and especially for the population of the coastal town (will show benefit [sic] of the government and also provide intelligence)
  5. Institute a ‘psyops’ propaganda campaign to win the minds of the population using leaflets and radio. “

The second point led to the creation of the firqat units, which were comprised of Dhofaris who had surrendered and opted to fight on behalf of the Sultan. To keep costs down and reduce the adoo’s capabilities, the British offered bonus pay to those Dhofaris who surrendered with their weapons.[30] The firqats would be utilized in irregular offensive attacks against the adoo supply operations or cache sites, and would also be used to capture adoo held towns along the Oman and PDRY border. A unique series of “prefabricated towns, to include a mosque, clinic, and government school” were flown into areas held by the firqat and then handed over to local tribesmen to live in, which gave the firqat unit invaluable human intelligence during their continued patrols in the region.[31]

By 1971 the British planners had divided the war into four phases:[32]

  1. “Preventing the Front from Winning[33]
  2. Preparing for Offensive Operations by the SAF
  3. Conducting Offensive Operations on the Jebel
  4. Consolidating territory won, Rehabilitating the people, and deepening legitimacy of the Sultanate”

The British assessed that they were in the second phase by 1970, after determining that the adoo lost opportunity to achieve a military victory. Therefore, the priority effort from 1970 until 1971 was securing the air base in Salalah and port in Raysut, and preparing the SAF to conduct offensive operation. It was imperative for the SAF to operate out of fixed bases, as opposed to roving patrol bases, due primarily to logistical requirements, terrain, and the monsoon season. The British trainers re-fitted and re-equipped the SAF during the moratorium on offensive operations at the end of 1970, and by 1971 they were ready to re-engage the adoo along with the firqats.[34] The British incorporated various tactical disciplines into the re-training regiment, even opening a forward-air observer school offshore of Yas Island for the brand new Omani Airforce.[35]

The SAF resumed operations in the beginning of 1971, successfully pushing back rebel defense positions held by the adoo. The SAF simultaneously began constructing fixed patrol bases atop ridge lines, connecting 20-mile-long concertina wire barriers that stretched from the coast to the mountains. These positions became known as the Hornbeam Line and the Damavand Line, and were terrain control measures the British used to isolate adoo supply routes and monitor all movement along vast expanses of terrain.[36] By 1973, the adoo were isolated geographically, unable to maintain supply lines or find refuge in villages; they shifted their tactics to offensive maneuvers and were decimated by a smaller, better-equipped SAF.[37]

The BATT teams had significant success with the veterinary and medical clinics.

BATT and SAF medical personnel hosted clinics for livestock and villagers, which were combined with recruitment and information operation efforts. Within a few months, the BATT increased village support in the region significantly.[38] BATT efforts to establish the medical facilities, schools, mosques, and infrastructure detailed in the Sultan’s reform announcements were underway and successfully being implemented. The BATT even utilized military assets to move 1500 head of cattle by helicopter from Samhan mountain, and 700 goats by armored vehicle convoy to the markets in Salalah to show goodwill to the tribesmen. Coupled with free transistor radios, and a continuous broadcast of the Muscat news service from BATT relay antennas, the British were winning over the support of the population.[39]

In 1971, the SAF would launch two operations which would turn the momentum of the war in their favor. In October of 1971, they launched Operation JAGUAR and fought to take the eastern portion of Samhan mountain. This terrain provided the SAF with a base from which they could launch ‘fix and destroy’ operations against enemy supply movements. The firqat subsequently initiated Operation SIMBA, targeting the town of Sarfayt, in the early morning of 16 April 1972. Naval gunships off the coast laid down harassing fires on the adoo base in Rakhyut, while military helicopters airdropped supplies into Sarfayt for the firqat irregulars, who had ascended the steep slopes of the Sarfayt mountains. The position would remain a tactically useless outpost for the duration of the conflict, but the political significance reverberated throughout the region.[40] The establishment of an Omani military outpost on the border of the PDRY garnered the attention of King Hussein of Jordan, who offered 31 Hawk Hunter aircraft, 5.5 inch artillery guns, and engineers in support, as well as a pledge of troops from Iran, who deployed the Imperial Iranian Task Force in 1974 to assist Sultan Qaboos in securing his territorial gains after the conflict had ended.[41]

By 1972, the adoo were unable to maintain the support of the population. Coupled with territorial loss and a stagnation in material support from external patrons, the PFLOAG were faced with a large and impregnable force of nearly 4000 SAF, to include Omani Air Force assets, helicopter transport, and an increase in external support from Arab partners.[42] The SAF successes of Operation JAGUAR and Operation SIMBA alarmed the adoo so much that they decided a “large-scale dramatic action was necessary to restore its credibility.”[43] They opted to target the BATT house in Mirbat, sending approximately 300 fighters in the early hours of 19 July 1972 to attack the nine-man SAS team. After four hours of fighting, eighty-six adoo had been killed, and nearly fifty were wounded. The SAS, in comparison, lost one soldier, and three wounded. The factors contributing to the failure by the adoo include launching the attack too late, unexpected loss of cloud cover, and loss of the element of surprise when they woke the firqat units outside of the city before reaching their objective.[44] The loss would spell a crippling blow for the insurgency, as the PFLOAG splintered and resorted to infighting. From 1972 to 1974, the SAF, along with foreign support from Iran and Jordan, conducted “innumerable day-to-day contacts, which gradually broke down insurgent resistance” and ended the conflict.[45]

Evaluating the Counterinsurgency Operation

The success of the Sultanate was a result of both the tactics adapted from previous counterinsurgency experiences and the effective reforms proposed by the Sultan.

The strategy did not incorporate large scale patrolling, and instead focused on strategically important targets and basing out of the population centers. Much like the experience in Malaya, the “firm bases” in Dhofar were the towns and villages, and the unregulated terrain was divided up by the Hornbeam and Damavand lines, which allowed the counterinsurgent forces to maintain control of the population without resorting to forced villagization or direct population control measures.[46]  Once the SAF had sufficiently built up after 1970, it went on the offensive and remain stationed in mountain patrol bases throughout the year. The arrival of Agusta Bell helicopters in 1971 allowed for troop rotation from distant patrol bases, while fixed wing aircraft increased supply drops to these remote bases. And while the advancement in technological capabilities was immense, the heart of the war was fought in small engagements which were pivotal in “sparing the population from violence” and demonstrated the skill that “these soldiers- of different ethnicities and nationalities- fought long campaigns of close contact in hard conditions and fought well.”[47]

The improvement of the lives of jabbalis became a primary mission for the BATT, and they emphasized the medical and veterinary initiatives, which led to the civil-development efforts and reverberated the reform projects decreed by the Sultan. This tactic was adapted from the Malaya campaign, and modelled by the SAS to mirror the civil-infrastructure projects the Sultan aimed to develop in Dhofar.[48] These reforms signaled an end to exclusionary policies by Muscat towards the external provinces, and incorporated the tribes in a path to modernity and prosperity. By focusing on inexpensive and achievable modern necessities such as schools, wells, and veterinary centers, and linking the south of Oman with the North, the reform strategy encouraged tribal leaders to garner the support of their tribes and oppose the violent goals of the PFLOAG. The simultaneous demonstration of these reforms by the highly mobile BATT units meant that villagers saw some semblance of promises being fulfilled by the government at a rapid rate.

In consideration of the reforms, technological advancements, the use of cheap plastic radios, the veterinary services, and the firqat units, it should be noted that these were all part of one cohesive effort. The SAS conducted vital raids against targets in the mountains, and led the path for training the irregular recruits in 1970, but the successful outcome of the war is a ‘sum of its parts’ that required years of combat by “10,000 members of the Sultan’s Armed Forces, backed by other British, Jordanian, and Iranian units, as well as artillery, air, and defensive support”[49]

While the Dhofar Insurgency demonstrates effective counterinsurgency strategy, it only provides a cloudy lens in which to observe the waging of a successful insurgency. The PFLOAG had only attained the initial stages of insurgency, and it rapidly failed to win or sustain support throughout the target populations after Sultan Qaboos came to power.[50] The population was alienated due to anti-Islamic tendencies, and as mounting defections affected the manpower of the PFLOAG, the momentum shifted to the SAF.

The common critique concerning the study of the conflict is whether the insurgency would have ended regardless of counterinsurgent actions due to the gradual collapse of the Cold War power support. Another argument is that the PFLOAG never had a credible chance in defeating the Omani government, and that their campaign was rudimentary and underfunded.[51] While the Dhofar insurgents received external support and fought a grueling campaign against the government forces, their effort to gain popular support, establish political leadership, and conduct subversive actions against the Sultanate failed. What is certain is that the grievances expressed by the tribes prior to the start of the insurgency were compelling enough for tribal leaders to gain popular support and revolt against Sultan bin Taimur, and that the decline in insurgent success happened in 1970, well before the U.S.S.R. and China pulled external support.[52]   

The combined tactical and political measures incorporated into the strategy to defeat the communists in the Dhofar Rebellion was successful and established the legitimacy of Sultan Qaboos’ government for 46 years. The relations between Britain and Oman continue to be incredibly close, and the impact of waging a flexible and tailored campaign brought development and quelled the grievances of a rebellious population.

End Notes

[1] Rigden, I. A. The British Approach to Counterinsurgency: Myths, Realities, and Strategic Challenges. Strategic Studies Institute, 2010: 26

[2] Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. PSI Classics of the Counterinsurgency Era. Westport, CT. Praeger Security International. 1964: 83

[3] Ibid. 78-9

[4] Peterson, J. E. Oman's Insurgencies. London. Saqi. 2007: 246

[5] Ordeman, Thomas. "Strategic Lessons from the Dhofar Rebellion". University of Aberdeen. 2011: 17

[6] Jeapes, Tony. SAS Secret War. Harper Collins. UK, 1996: 11

[7] McKeown, John. "Britain and Oman: The Dhofar War and its Significance." University of Cambridge. 1981: 18

[8] Ibid. 19

[9] Ibid. 19

[10] Peterson:64-65.

[11] Ibid. 66

[12] Ibid. 45

[13] Ibid. 63, 112-15

[14] Ibid. 193.

[15] Ibid. 196, 217

[16] Ibid. 222

[17] McKeown. 34

[18] Petersen. 223-225

[19] McKeown. 36

[20] Ordeman. 16

[21] Ibid. 15

[22] Peterson. 227-232

[23] Ibid. 232-3

[24] Ibid. 239

[25] Adoo- Arabic for enemy, this term was adopted by the British elements working with their Omani counterparts as a common term to describe the insurgents from the DLF, PFLOAG, NDFLOAG, and PFLO

[26] Peterson. 249

[27] Ibid. 245 At this point, Nafl had been relegated to the sidelines as more hard core communist leaders assumed control of the PFLOAG.

[28] Ibid. 229.

[29] Jabbalis- Omani tribesmen who live in the mountains.

[30] Ordeman, 17.

[31] Ibid. 17.

[32] Peterson. 249.

[33] At the time of drafting these phases in 1970, the British had determined they were already at Phase 2.

[34] Peterson. 256.

[35] Hoffman and B. R. British Air Power in Peripheral Conflict, 1919-1976: 99

[36] Ordeman. 17-18.

[37] Gardiner, Ian. In the Service of the Sultan. Pen and Sword Books. 2015: 77-8.

[38] Ibid. 266.

[39] McKeown. 53.

[40] Peterson. 255.

[41] Ordeman. 75.

[42] Peterson. 296.

[43] Ibid. 297

[44] Ibid. 302.

[45] Ibid. 303.

[46] Galula. 78.

[47] Peterso.n. 414.

[48] Peterson. 413.

[49] Ibid. 414-5

[50] Ibid. 413.

[51] Peterson. 419.

[52] Ibid. 414.


About the Author(s)

Captain Alexander Schade, U.S. Army, is a Foreign Area Officer with concentration in the Middle East, North Africa region. He holds a B.A. from The Citadel in South Carolina and is pursuing an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. During his career, CPT Schade served with the 3rd Squadron, 4th US Cavalry, the 10th Mountain Division, and in the Office of Security Cooperation at the US Embassy in Rabat, Morocco. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a foreign military advisor and small unit leader.



Fri, 04/21/2017 - 6:53am

This 'Small War' largely fought out of public view is covered by a small Forum thread, with 49k views and has a number of other references cited, plus comments. See:

One day hopefully someone will write in English, or translate from Arabic, an account from the "other side of the hill". One gap I see is any real explanation how a local rebellion in Dhofar with support and a base in South Yemen (PDRY after 1967) with a regime that steadily became more Marxist / Communist continued to persuade many to fight in Dhofar.