Three years after the attack on the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, which claimed the lives of two CIA contractors and two State Department officials—including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens—there are still just as many questions surrounding the events that happened on the night of September 11th, 2012, as there are answers.
Congressman Trey Gowdy’s Special Committee on Benghazi is a positive development, one which should have happened from the very beginning. The problem with previous committees was that they did not have jurisdictions that allowed them to probe into the activities of all the agencies and organizations involved in the events surrounding the terrorist attack in Benghazi. The House Armed Services Committee only has purview over the military, while the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence only has jurisdiction over the intelligence services, and so on. Gowdy’s committee can draw upon the State Department, the military, the CIA, and any other relevant actors.
Still, what will come from the Special Committee on Benghazi remains to be seen. The fulcrum of the Benghazi incident rests upon U.S.-led covert operations that were taking place prior to the Benghazi attack. Both Republicans and Democrats were read on to these operations in the intelligence committee, although it was only the heads of that committee that were informed about said operations. This creates a type of mutually assured destruction for both political parties as they investigate Benghazi, and ensures that neither side wants to probe into JSOC and CIA activities that may have kicked the hornet’s nest and led to the attacks.
In February of 2011, President Obama signed off on the first intelligence finding, which covered covert activities in Libya during the onset of the civil war that led to the ousting of Gaddafi. This allowed the CIA to begin undermining the regime and supporting the rebels. SOFREP reported at the time that JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) advisors were flown into Libya, deployed as “analysts” to begin teaching the rebels about weapons employment and tactics. In 2012, a second intelligence finding was signed—this one to deal with Islamist threats in Libya.
The way these covert operations were run, while technically legal, was irregular. Operational activities were being reported directly to two White House officials. The first, John Brennan, was Obama’s deputy national security advisor for homeland security and counterterrorism. He’s currently the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The second was Tom Donilon—Obama’s national security advisor.
Brennan and Donilon, working under Obama, had authorization to conduct blended operations that utilized military and CIA resources thanks to Obama’s intelligence finding on Libya, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), while JSOC was able to operate in-country while conducting operational preparation of the environment (OPE). OPE is described in a previous article as the following:
OPE setting the conditions for success prior to the initiation of open military hostilities between two belligerent nations who plan to go to war. More specifically, OPE entails sending in intelligence service personnel to recruit rings of spies, burying caches of weapons and equipment, and developing targeting information for people and critical infrastructure. Operational preparation of the environment could even include assassinating key personalities in order to remove them prior to D-Day in a war that hasn’t happened yet.
With this in mind, JSOC was able to conduct operations under the auspices of the CIA’s Title 50 covert action authorities. What exactly happened in the run up to the Benghazi attack has been extremely difficult to penetrate, as perhaps as few as 50 people in the entire world were read on to these classified, compartmentalized operations. However, SOFREP reported early on in our coverage of Benghazi that a JSOC operation was launched with intent to target Iranian-born al-Qaeda operative Abu Khalid al-Suri shortly before the U.S. consulate came under attack. The operation did not kill the actual target, but managed to stir the hornet’s nest of Islamists in Libya.
In the run up to the Benghazi attack, Brennan and Donilon knew that trouble was brewing, but failed to take appropriate action, which would have included warning America’s ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.
The Islamists struck back against the United States. The jihadis cannot, or don’t care to, distinguish between different bureaucracies belonging to the United States government. They knew they had been attacked by Americans and were determined to get revenge against the Americans. The under-protected consulate in Benghazi was a ripe target. The results were the September 11th, 2012 attack that left CIA GRS contractors Ty Woods and Glen Doherty dead, along with Ambassador Stevens and State Department Information Management Officer Sean Smith.
Over the course of the following three years, the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East has shifted in several dramatic ways. With the rise of the Islamic State, al-Suri was dispatched by al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri to Syria to negotiate for peace between ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra. He was killed in in Syria by a suicide bomber in 2014. Another Islamist leader behind the attack was Ahmed Abu Khattala, captured in a well-executed Delta Force operation in Libya, also in 2014. Another mastermind behind the attack, former Gitmo inmate Ben Qumu, remains at large. At last report, he was alleged to be hiding in another Islamist hotbed in Libya: the city of Derna.
For John Brennan’s part, SOFREP is told that he seeks to make amends not just for the deaths of the two CIA contractors killed in Benghazi, but for the deaths of dozens of contractors who have died in service to the agency going back to the 1980s. While he has pushed for financial compensation for the families, these payments have yet to be made.
As for the covert operations that precipitated the attacks in Benghazi, we are unlikely to ever know the full story.
(Featured image: AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)