As British elite forces (SAS) troopers prepared to raid a house in one of the most dangerous parts of Baghdad in the early hours of Thursday morning, they were not certain that they would find what they were looking for on the other side of the door. The location was correct, but there remained some doubt about how accurate the tip-off was.
As soon as they burst in, they got the answer they wanted: There, bound but unharmed, they found Norman Kember and his fellow hostages, Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden. After 118 days in captivity, their ordeal was over. Their kidnappers, however, were missing.
"We are assuming they buggered off out the back when they heard the soldiers coming," one intelligence source said.
When news of the successful rescue operation broke back home, it came completely out of the blue. Since the men were snatched in Baghdad on Nov. 26 last year while working for Christian Peacemaker Teams, there had been few communications from the kidnappers and hopes for their release had slowly faded. Two weeks ago, their fellow captive, Tom Fox, a 52-year-old American, was found murdered, intensifying fears that it was only a matter of time before the other three were killed.
But it is now known that Thursday's military operation, involving Iraqi troops and US and Canadian special forces as well as the SAS, was merely the culmination of months of surveillance and undercover work, all conducted far from the media spotlight. Dubbed a "rolling operation" by John Reid, it involved British intelligence officers, diplomats and military based inside Baghdad's green zone.
In the aftermath of the kidnapping, the strategy was to box in the kidnappers by encouraging prominent Muslims in the UK and the Middle East, some of them radical, to urge the gang not to murder avowed peace activists in the name of Islam. The British team hoped this would make at least buy some time by making them think twice about killing the hostages
In a tandem operation, other members of the team in Baghdad sifted information, some of it trivial, some of it fantasy, a few snippets genuine.
"An awful lot of intelligence work was involved," an official said. For the first three months they had little success. Then, in the last few weeks, their luck changed.
On the hostage video, the kidnappers claimed to be from a previously unknown group called the Sword of Truth. But intelligence officers had identified them as members of a Sunni insurgency group, either Jaish al-Mujahideen or al-Jabha al-Islamiya. From intelligence information, they were able to begin making arrests of suspects.
The major breakthrough came on Wednesday night, according to US Major-General Rick Lynch. Coalition forces picked up two people, one of whom "knew where the hostages were and provided that information."
What he did not say is that the two detainees are also suspected of being members of the kidnap gang.
It was at this point that the SAS team went into action. Backed with logistical support from US and Iraqi forces, they moved into position around the house. British officials on Thursday would only give the location as western Baghdad, but the Iraqi interior ministry was more specific, saying it was in the sprawling rural outskirts of the city, between Abu Ghraib and Mishahda, about 32km from the city center.