Nineteen Taliban attackers armed rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and automatic weapons breached the perimeter of Camp Bastion in a well-planned raid which shocked senior officers.
Two American Marines were killed and five aircraft damaged or destroyed five aircraft before Western soldiers led by British troops killed 18 of the attackers and took one prisoner.
The Taliban rushed to claim a propaganda victory, saying that Prince Harry, who is an Apache helicopter pilot based at Bastion, was the intended victim of the attack.
They also said they had been inspired to attack the camp, home to 28,000 personnel, by an American-made film which insults the prophet Mohammed, and which has prompted attacks on Westerm
Qari Youssef Ahmadi, the Taliban’s spokesman, said: “We attacked that base because Prince Harry was also on it and so they can know our anger. Thousands more suicide attackers are ready to give up their lives for the sake of the Prophet.”
The attack comes just days after the Taliban announced it was launching ‘Harry Operations’ aimed at killing or wounding the prince.
But the statement was dismissed by the Ministry of Defence who said it was “entirely predictable” that the Taliban would claim that the Prince was the primary target even though he was no where near the point of attack.
A senior Army officer told The Sunday Telegraph: “This was a determined attack which achieve its aim of getting global press coverage. They are masters of propaganda. But they are deluded if they really think they can storm Camp Bastion and kill or seriously injured Prince Harry. The attack was never going to succeed but in reality that was never really its aim.”
A major security review is now under way into how such an assault could be launched on a base which is surrounded by state of the art fortifications and defences.
The attack began under cover of darkness at around 10.00pm (local time) on Friday night when 19 heavily Taliban gunmen forced their way through the outer perimeter wire. One report said they had approached on Toyota pick-up trucks.
Some reports suggest that a five foot wide hole was cut through a fence when a Taliban gunman detonated an explosive suicide vest in the eastern edge of the base, close to the main runway.
The remaining fighters poured into the base firing mortars and RPGs, as well as Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic weapons.
They managed to damage or destroy up to five aircraft – none of them British – including at least one United States Marine Corps Harrier jump jet during the ensuing battle. A fuel storage tank and a helicopter maintenance tent was also damaged in the attack.
Smoke was still rising from it yesterday morning, according to footage released by the Taliban which they claimed was of the Helmand perimeter.
It is not clear at this stage whether the gunmen managed to break into the main base or were just confined to the outer perimeter.
British troops from 5 RAF Force Protection Wing (51 Squadron RAF), the RAF Regiment, were first on the scene and helped repel the insurgents in a gun battle lasting more than five hours.
Several British airmen were wounded in the firefight but none of the injuries were classed as serious.
Senior defence sources have told The Sunday Telegraph that the Taliban launched the attack after posing as farmers in a near by maize plantation.
It is understood that the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan equivalent of MI5, believe the Taliban monitored activity on the eastern side of the camp for at least two weeks before launching the suicide mission.
Sources added that a number of fighters detonated their suicide vests as British troops approached them, injuring some of the RAF Regiment troops in the process. It is understood that 18 of the 19 insurgents were killed and one was taken prisoner.
The attack is now the subject of a major investigation in which senior officers will want to know how the Taliban launched such an audacious attack against what is supposed to be one of the world’s most secure military bases.
There was deep concern yesterday over the fact the attack had even been launched.
Camp Bastion, which is currently estimated to occupy an area similar to the town of Reading, is ringed by 30ft wire fences topped with triple concertina barbed wire.
Large areas of the base are also protected by a 24 mile long, 30 ft high concrete blast wall interspersed with watch towers equipped with floodlights and manned by heavily armed, specially trained troops.
The camp is located in the central Helmand desert and is completely isolated, with the exception of a few small farms close to the eastern perimeter.
All approaches to the base are carefully monitored and the British protection force is equipped with a variety of surveillance devices and radar which should be able to identify any movement on the ground or in the air out to a range of 20 miles.
Given the high levels of security, senior commanders will now try to establish how the Taliban managed to identify and exploit a seemingly unknown vulnerable point in the camp’s defence. One theory being explored last night is that the Taliban may have been given inside information by either a member of the Afghan National Army or a one of the several thousand “locally employed civilians” who work on the base.
An MoD spokesman said: “The threat to all our service personnel is continually assessed and all measures taken to mitigate it. The deployment of Captain Wales has been long planned and the threat to him and others around him thoroughly assessed. Any risk posed by his deployment, based on the capability, opportunity and intent of the insurgency, is continually reviewed. Last night’s attack was dealt with swiftly by International Security and Assistance Force (Isaf) personnel, including UK forces, and a number of insurgents were killed.
“A clearance operation has been conducted and work to assess and investigate the incident continues.”
Captain Wales, as he is known to his colleagues, is part of the 100-strong 662 Squadron, 3 Regiment Army Air Corps. He will serve as a co-pilot gunner with the Apache unit for the duration of his four-month tour.
The Prince celebrated his 28th birthday yesterday in the hours after the attack with a message from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge who had arranged for him to receive their congratulations before they left for their tour of Asia.
Prince Harry first served in Afghanistan in 2008 as an on-ground air controller, but he was forced to cut the tour short when the news blackout, which was protecting his position on the front line, was breached.
It is understood that it will be business as usual for Harry as he comes to the end of his in-theatre training and is expected to begin taking part in operational sorties by the end of the week.
The Apache is one of the most lethal pieces of military hardware in Afghanistan. It has taken part in thousands of operation in the past six years and is often the weapon of choice for troops pinned down by Taliban fire. The helicopter carries a variety of weapons including rockets, anti-tank hell fire missiles and a 30 mm multi-barrelled chain gun. The helicopter, which affords both pilot and gunner a huge amount of protection, has also taken part in rescue operations.
Attacks have taken place inside and close to Camp Bastion in the past – although none on this scale, and none involving a direct frontal attack. A British soldier was killed in 2009 by an IED planted on a range close to the base and in April an Afghan civilian employed on the camp drove a vehicle at a plane carrying Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary.
Source: The Telegraph