Lack of strike force im­peded Beng­hazi re­sponse

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

As U.S. Africa Com­mand waited for any or­der to res­cue Amer­i­cans on Sept. 11 at the be­sieged con­sulate and CIA an­nex in Beng­hazi, Libya, it was miss­ing a key unit that the Pen­tagon gives ev­ery re­gional four-star com­man­der — an emer­gency strike force.

The new com­mand’s lack of such a unit is an­other piece in the un­fold­ing Beng­hazi time­line that shows an over­rid­ing theme: As rad­i­cal Is­lamic ex­trem­ism swelled in the chaotic coastal city, U.S. se­cu­rity as­sets in Libya di­min­ished.

From the State Depart­ment’s de­nial of diplo­mats’ re­quests for more se­cu­rity in Libya to Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials re­peat­edly say­ing the mil­i­tary-style at­tack on the con­sulate re­sulted from “spon­ta­neous” protests, the events be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the Beng­hazi as­sault re­flect the po­lit­i­cal, diplo­matic and mil­i­tary con­fu­sion that is post-Gad­hafi Libya.

Each U.S. ge­o­graphic com­bat­ant com­mand, whether it be in the Mid­dle East, the Pa­cific or, in this case, Africa, is en­ti­tled to a spe­cial op­er­a­tions rapid-re­sponse team — a group of Green Berets to per­form in­stant com­bat in sit­u­a­tions like the Is­lamist mil­i­tants’ at­tack on the U.S. Con­sulate.

But on that day, AfriCom, the Pen­tagon’s new­est ge­o­graphic com­bat­ant com­mand, which is still in the build­ing phase, lacked what is called the “com­man­der in-ex­tremis force,” said a se­nior spe­cial op­er­a­tions of­fi­cial.

“All ge­o­graphic com­bat­ant com­mands have one al­lo­cated to them, ex­cept AfriCom,” the se­nior of­fi­cial said. “AfriCom’s is in the process of be­ing es­tab­lished.”

The gap shows that while North Africa has be­come a grow­ing bat­tle­ground for Is­lamic ex­trem­ists, the U.S. re­gional com­mand in charge of op­er­a­tions there is still not at full strength.

“We can­not dis­cuss the avail­abil­ity of spe­cific ca­pa­bil­i­ties in or­der to pro­tect our op­er­a­tional se­cu­rity,” AfriCom spokesman Ben­jamin Ben­son said.

Rep. Ja­son Chaf­fetz, Utah Repub­li­can and chair­man of the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form sub­com­mit­tee on na­tional se­cu­rity, told Fox News that Army Gen. Carter Ham, who heads AfriCom, re­ceived no re­quest from any gov­ern­ment en­tity to in­ter­vene in Beng­hazi dur­ing the seven- to eight-hour fight.

As it turns out, some spe­cial op­er­a­tions troops, likely from U.S. Euro­pean Com­mand, were moved to a naval air sta­tion at Sigonella, Si­cily, but were never or­dered to go far­ther. The Pen­tagon has de­clined to say ex­actly at what hour they ar­rived in Si­cily or whether the bat­tle was over by then.

Per­haps most im­por­tant is not the lack of troops go­ing into Beng­hazi, but what se­cu­rity forces the State Depart­ment pulled out of Libya a month be­fore the at­tack that killed U.S. Am­bas­sador J. Christo­pher Stevens, his in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer, and two for­mer Navy SEALs.

Signs of trou­ble in Beng­hazi

The story be­gins last win­ter, when the U.S. Em­bassy in Tripoli be­gan re­port­ing to Wash­ing­ton about the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in Beng­hazi.

Mr. Stevens chose to spend much time there, the cra­dle of the pop­u­lar up­ris­ing that ousted and ul­ti­mately killed long­time dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi.

As pro-Western Libyans tried to form a fledg­ling democ­racy, al Qaeda-linked mil­i­tant groups, as they have done in Afghanistan, Iraq and Ye­men, be­gan emerg­ing to ex­ploit the power vac­uum.

“Their pres­ence grows ev­ery day,” Army Na­tional Guard Lt. Col. An­drew Wood would later tell the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee. “They are cer­tainly more es­tab­lished than we are.”

That win­ter, Col. Wood com­manded a 16-mem­ber site se­cu­rity team of Army Green Berets based in Tripoli. His men were in coun­try be­cause they wielded the kind of high-cal­iber fire­power needed to com­bat mil­i­tants armed with grenade launch­ers and mor­tars.

“Su­pe­rior weapons and su­pe­rior tac­tics,” Col. Wood said. “That’s what the [site se­cu­rity team] brought to the ta­ble. Those were the qual­i­ties and at­tributes and the bol­ster­ing ef­fect that they added.”

Also trou­bling for the State Depart­ment’s Libyan sta­tions: Nei­ther the em­bassy nor the Beng­hazi com­pound met ba­sic con­struc­tion stan­dards to pro­tect diplo­mats.

“That was the ma­jor cause of con­cern, and that was the main phys­i­cal se­cu­rity is­sue that we con­tin­ued to raise,” tes­ti­fied Eric Nord­strom, the top diplo­matic se­cu­rity of­fi­cer in Libya.

By June, the Beng­hazi com­pound con­sisted of one wall and four build­ings, and was guarded by up to five of Mr. Nord­strom’s per­son­nel, a few Libyan pri­vate se­cu­rity guards and the Libyan Fe­bru­ary 17 Mar­tyrs Bri­gade, which lived in a com­pound bar­racks and worked out of a nearby CIA an­nex.

The em­bassy watched as mil­i­tants stepped up at­tacks.

Rad­i­cal Is­lamists at­tacked the In­ter­na­tional Red Cross build­ing re­peat­edly. A ter­ror­ist placed a home­made bomb at the con­sulate wall. Even though Libyan guards saw him, his time-de­layed ex­plo­sive went off and blew a huge hole in the wall.

Next, ter­ror­ists at­tacked a con­voy trans­port­ing the British am­bas­sador. Bri­tain quickly evac­u­ated, leav­ing the U.S. as the only Western power in Beng­hazi.

“When that oc­curred, it was ap­par­ent to me that we were the last flag fly­ing in Beng­hazi,” Col. Wood said. “We were the last thing on their tar­get list to re­move from Beng­hazi.”

Se­cu­rity re­quests de­nied

The colonel and Mr. Nord­strom were fight­ing a long-dis­tance bat­tle of emails and phone calls with the State Depart­ment to main­tain a large se­cu­rity pres­ence.

But Char­lene Lamb, who was in charge of in­ter­na­tional pro­grams for the State Depart­ment’s Bureau of Diplo­matic Se­cu­rity, re­jected their re­quests. State wanted to cre­ate a pic­ture of nor­mal op­er­a­tions in Libya.

“We had the cor­rect num­ber of as­sets in Beng­hazi at the time of 9/11 for what had been agreed upon,” Ms. Lamb told the com­mit­tee, not­ing that five diplo­matic se­cu­rity of­fi­cers were in Beng­hazi, the num­ber that had been re­quested.

But fur­ther fire­power was miss­ing. On July 9, the em­bassy sent a ca­ble to State seek­ing at least a 60-day ex­ten­sion for SST and other se­cu­rity per­son­nel. It was de­nied.

By Au­gust, Col. Wood and his three site se­cu­rity teams were out of the coun­try, even though Gen. Ham, head of U.S. Africa Com­mand, agreed that they could stay as long as they were needed.

Col. Wood said those men could have ac­com­pa­nied the am­bas­sador in Beng­hazi or re­sponded from Tripoli when the as­sault oc­curred.

Also gone were three of the State Depart­ment’s mo­bile se­cu­rity teams re­quested by Mr. Nord­strom, who left Libya July 26.

Col. Wood said the State Depart­ment re­stricted of­fi­cers on the mo­bile se­cu­rity team to train­ing Libyans, not pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity. Still, their ab­sence meant a smaller pool of se­cu­rity per­son­nel able to re­spond to Beng­hazi.

Ms. Lamb tes­ti­fied that she “back­filled” to re­place team mem­bers.

“I made the best de­ci­sions I could with the in­for­ma­tion I had,” she told the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee this month.

Mr. Stevens, a ca­reer diplo­mat who con­sid­ered his mis­sion in Beng­hazi as bring­ing to­gether var­i­ous tribal fac­tions and Is­lamic groups, had been re­port­ing to State on in­creased vi­o­lence.

In June, he wrote of “Is­lamic ex­trem­ism” and al Qaeda flags pop­ping up on gov­ern­ment build­ings in eastern Libya.

On Sept. 11, in what ap­pears to be his last words to Wash­ing­ton, Mr. Stevens said Libyan se­cu­rity com­man­ders “ex­pressed grow­ing frus­tra­tion with po­lice and se­cu­rity forces” un­able to con­trol Beng­hazi.

Un­der fire

Ms. Lamb said the as­sault on the U.S. Con­sulate in Beng­hazi be­gan at 9:40 p.m. lo­cal time, or 3:40 p.m. Wash­ing­ton time.

The first mes­sages from the U.S. Em­bassy in Tripoli, which said the con­flict had be­gun just af­ter 9 p.m., reached Wash­ing­ton at 4:05 p.m. EDT, when the Pen­tagon, White House and State Depart­ment op­er­a­tion cen­ters would have been fully staffed.

“The diplo­matic mis­sion is un­der at­tack,” said the em­bassy email, which was sent to the White House Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil of­fice, as well as to the State Depart­ment. “The 17th of Fe­bru­ary mili­tia is pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity sup­port.”

Two hours later, the em­bassy re­ported that An­sar al-Shariah,

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Libyans ex­am­ine the gut­ted U.S. Con­sulate in Beng­hazi, Libya, af­ter a Sept. 11 at­tack by Is­lamic mil­i­tants that left four Amer­i­cans dead. An Africa Com­mand rapid-re­sponse force might have been able to counter the at­tack.

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