Last week’s prison break in Benghazi is just the latest indicator that Libya, and Benghazi in particular, is sliding deeper into chaos and sectarian violence. Between the prison breaks, riots, bombings, and shootings, there is something else that has gone overlooked. While much of the violence appears to be tribal in nature (with Libya roughly divided into three regions, East, West, and South), or conflict between the moderates and Islamists, or even a liquidation of Gaddafi era officials, there is also another player on the scene. One that is keeping a much lower profile.
Our first indication that something was up came in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi on 9/11/12. The details of the attack itself are laid out in Benghazi: The Definitive Report, which I wrote with Brandon Webb. But here is an additional piece of information not in the book. When Ambassador Chris Stevens was lost in the smoke caused by a fire lit by the Ansar Al-Sharia militia, a Diplomatic Security Service member made several valiant attempts to go back into the fire to find him. Eventually, he had to break off his search due to smoke inhalation. The last time I inquired about this individual, I was told that he was still in the hospital due to the smoke inhalation he suffered. Ty Woods then arrived at the annex with his Global Response Staff element and they fought off Ansar Al-Sharia, recovered the remains of Sean Smith, and saved the other Americans. But Stevens was nowhere to be found and Ty’s element had to retreat back to the annex with the other Americans.
Recall the video of the Ansar Al-Sharia terrorists dragging out the body of Chris Stevens at the consulate as they shouted “allah akbar.” As the fire died down, the terrorists were able to retrieve Chris Stevens’ remains. Contrary to other claims, he was almost certainly deceased at this point. The body was then transported to a hospital controlled by Ansar Al-Sharia, which was also confirmed by acting Ambassador Gregory Hicks in his testimony to Congress.
This is where it gets interesting. Elements of the United States and European governments initiated crisis planning. With a U.S. ambassador now missing in action, a counter-terrorist force was spun up at Ft. Bragg to stage for a hostage rescue mission in Libya. Elements of the 75th Ranger Regiment were placed on standby as well. Assets that should have been oriented towards the Mediterranean in the days prior to the anniversary of 9/11 in anticipation of escalating violence were now shuffled around the chess board. Yes, there was an AC-130 gunship. In Italy. Several days after the attack on the consulate. In the immediate aftermath of Benghazi, planners were bracing themselves for Libya to become a major theater of war which would look like “Iraq in 2007.”
The recovery of Ambassador Stevens was now top priority. The combined GRS, DSS, and State Department element from the annex and the consulate were preparing to fly out of Benghazi. Although two JSOC operators had flown in that night along with Glen Doherty, their team had taken significant casualties. When Ty Woods and Glen Doherty were killed, one of the operators took charge and led them out of the city to the airport. This was undoubtedly the right decision, but Stevens was still out there somewhere, and if you’ve been keeping score, the U.S. Government had poor situational awareness on the ground and were not making many decisions at a higher level.
Meanwhile, at a safe house a composite U.S. Special Operations team had been in country for a while already working their own mission profile. When the attack on the consulate happened, the two JSOC members of the team decided to go and look for Ambassador Stevens. This was done in the absence of orders and on their own initiative. Driving into Benghazi that night, they were able to locate Steven’s remains at the Ansar Al-Sharia controlled hospital. Sources indicate that there was an exchange of gunfire between the operators and the militia during the course of this recovery operation.
These gentlemen are quiet professionals. We have heard very little if anything about JSOC’s presence in Benghazi that night. They were there and went above and beyond their normal responsibilities. It it highly unlikely you will hear anything about these individuals elsewhere, they do not seek individual recognition for their actions. However, we are now left with the larger question of what this second team was doing in Libya and why they were there in the first place.
“Interior Minister Mohamed Sheikh said that the assassinations in Benghazi seem to be systematic,” reports the Libya Herald on July 26th 2013. With a weak transitional government, there have been assassinations inside Libya just about every day. As noted above, much of it has been reported in the press as tribal violence or a settling of old scores. However, there is another actor involved in assassinations. This would be U.S. Special Operations working in a low-visibility capacity inside Libya. The Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures used for some of the assassinations in Libya are identical to those used by certain Special Operations units in Iraq around 2005, 2006, and 2007.
In one instance a sniper tried to take out Ben Qumu, the leader of Ansar Al-Sharia. A sniper did successfully kill an activist named Abdelsalam al-Mismari about a week ago in Benghazi. These mysterious assassinations are happening all over Eastern Libya which is largely out of government control. Without a doubt, many really are tribal violence but that tribal conflict also provides the perfect cover for US sponsored targeted killings. This program had been underway before the Benghazi attacks and has continued after it.
While the media and the conspiracy theorists have focused on weapons trafficking from Libya to Syria as a source of mystery, the weapons trafficking into Libya by the United States has slipped under the radar. Special Operations often works by, with, and through host nation counter-parts. In Libya, we are talking about a friendly militia. Someone made the decision to arm this militia with U.S. weapons. In order to skirt around U.S. and international law, six containers of weapons parts were flown into Libya along with two armorers. In this manner the law was not broken because guns were not flown into Libya, just gun parts. The weapons were then assembled in country and issued to the militia.
The targeted killings continue, with the rationale that they will slow down the Islamic radicals and prevent and “Iraq in 2007” type situation from ever coming into existence. The larger issue is that Libya is being used as a laboratory to test ground level architecture for assassination. JSOC has done a lot of man hunting, from Noriega in Panama, to numerous attempts to assassinate Pablo Escobar in Colombia, to the hunt for Bosnian war criminals in the Balkins. The evolutionary cycle kicked into high gear during the war on terror as Special Operations perfected the process in many ways.
Compare this to the rather crass methodology used by CIA drones in Yemen and Pakistan that come with high levels of collateral damage. And publicity… The CIA’s assassination program is a major point of controversy and strains international relations. Meanwhile, Special Operation’s up close and personal style of assassination has gone unnoticed, and stayed out of the hair of policy makers. If you were the President and had to choose one of these two programs to utilize as counter-terrorism goes global, which would you choose?