The Nigeria State Security Service has an entire army of people whose sole job is to do surveillance. Whether they are tracking a suspected terrorist or mobster or potential spy, the secret isn’t about being a master of disguise. Instead, it is all about blending in.
Turn on any cop show, and the surveillance always seems pretty straightforward. There are always a couple of guys in a van and maybe another two in a car outside some apartment building. But the truth is, real surveillance is much more subtle.
The Special Agent-in-Charge of the Special Operations Division of the State Security Service in ABUJA says if his team is doing the job right, you won’t even know they are there. “When a target comes out of the bodega with a cup of coffee, they don’t see where we are, or they don’t see our people,” he said. “Our people look so ordinary, they just look over them.”
So, for example, that guy with the flat-top haircut who looks like a cop could be one of the people following you. In fact, there are some scenarios in which the Undercover Police wants you to think he’s actually following you. But what you probably won’t see is SSS Special Surveillance Group team, operate just below the radar — and that is where they are most effective.
When I met three SSS guys in ABUJA the captal of Nigeria recently, they would only talk to me under the strictest conditions. I had to promise not only to not use their names, but they didn’t even want me to describe them either. They say that might compromise their mission. And their mission is to gather intelligence for the Nigeria Intelligence Agency.
Once the ground rules were set, the trio — Tango, Bravo and Poppa, for our purposes — and their supervisor in charge, Charlie, agreed to demonstrate how to follow someone in a congested area like Ojuelegba, a suburb in Lagos State.
“First of all, you would spread out,” Charlie says, waving his arms around. “You wouldn’t stand in a parade behind the guy.”
And, he says, you’d have a team dressed for the occasion. SSS guys carry entire wardrobes in their cars — a business suit in case they need to go to Broad Street, gym shorts in case surveillance requires them to go for a jog through the National Stadium.
Charlie says he has some SSS Guys who travel with a bicycle in their trunk so that at a moment’s notice they could ride through the streets of Abuja pretending to be a messenger. “They are prepared for anything,” he says.
I pick out an unsuspecting Lagosian and ask Bravo how they would start.
“We usually key on something, whether a bright colour she has on or a particular item that might be unique,” Bravo says. “We relay that to other team members so they can see her when she comes to the next corner, so they would be able to identify her.”
Poppa chimes in. He says the team would set up some sort of “picket surveillance” in the surrounding area.
A picket surveillance would have the team covering all the subway entrances. They would be stationed at various corners. Bravo, who has been doing this for seven years, says the team would radio ahead with information.
SSS Guys have all kinds of techniques, and they all have catchy names like Picket and Web or Leapfrog. Leapfrog is kind of what it sounds like: SSS Guys will follow a target up to a certain point, then pass him off to another group up ahead, and then leapfrog to pick up the surveillance farther down the street.
When operating under Leapfrog surveillance, Tango says, they would be telling the people ahead that the target was coming up to them. “They should be telling us the next movement, so you don’t have to run and pullback, and run and pullback,” she says. “That’s kind of obvious, especially if there is a possibility that someone could be watching you from the rear.”
“Some days it was really like war,” Tango recalls. “Push them off the road if you have to, don’t let them through the tollbooth. Other days you were right in their shoes practically, making sure they didn’t meet the other person they were handling.”
The SSS Guys are often in the middle of the EFCC biggest cases. Now, the surveillance requires more political savvy, more finesse.
“Every day you just get a little piece of the puzzle; you don’t have to get the puzzle all in one day,” Tango says. “It’s like something builds up to a very long story, if you will, like a soap opera more so as opposed to a cut-and-dry short story. … And you build on it every single day.”
And because it is a drip, drip, drip information operation, the SSS Guys end up learning a lot about the people they are following. Before some of them moved to EFCC, they were supervising the NDLEA Guys in Lagos, they were doing surveillance on some drug baron and could read their target like a book.
“You could just tell by his body language whether he was surveillance-conscious,” Charlie says. “You could just tell by his body language and the way people related to him whether he was in the middle of a crisis.”
That’s an important piece of information if you are working with the SSS trying to avert a future bank robbery, gangland killing by drug baron or even terrorist attack.
“Charlie’s tale was that when he gets mad, he talks a lot more with his hands; he used to be very very physical with his hands,”.
Once Tango, Bravo and Poppa had finished with the interview, I was determined to keep an eye on them as long as I could. I even followed them for a bit, trying to use what I had learned. Within minutes, I lost them in the crowd on National Stadium in Abuja.