Immediately after the raids in Somalia and Libya, lawmakers began throwing barbs about Benghazi, saying, “If we could capture al-Ruqai in Tripoli, why can’t we get the guys that killed our ambassador in Benghazi?” Initially, I said nothing because I actually thought we were going to get them. That the Tripoli hit was just the first one in Libya, and Ambassador Stevens’ killers were about to have their head on a spike.
Well, it’s been a week, and I’m fairly sure the window of opportunity has passed. The people responsible for Benghazi have heard all about our raids and have raised security to such a degree that we couldn’t get them now without a full-scale invasion, starting with a shock and awe air campaign. It honestly puzzles me. Why on earth did we not get those guys when we had the chance?
Some in the administration have said that Benghazi isn’t Tripoli, and that the security situation there is markedly different, so much so that our law enforcement is prevented from going there. Yea, I agree, it’s different. But that doesn’t answer the question. Do they mean that it’s so bad in Benghazi that we’re afraid of a “Blackhawk down” incident, with a bloodbath and U.S. casualties? If so, I’m flattered at the welfare shown Army Special Operations Forces. Obviously we’re not cannon fodder like the Navy, because the SEALs were thrown into the teeth of Al Shabaab and, after a firefight, were forced to retreat without accomplishing their mission. Clearly no one feared a “Mark V down” scenario, and make no mistake, the SEALs knew what they were up against. They didn’t hit the beach and say, “Holy Shit…Where did all of these bad guys come from? Intel said it was a resort town full of French sunbathers.” No, they knew the enemy disposition and had the violence of action, but somewhere they lost the speed and surprise component. No biggie. It happens. After all, the last time they visited this place, it was to slaughter an entire contingent of bad guys and rescue two hostages. The time before that was to kill Saleh Nabhan, another ringleader of the 1998 embassy bombings. The SEALs and SOCOM knew the enemy disposition, and still chose to assault, so that can’t be a reason for ignoring Benghazi. We’ve already shown a willingness to go into the teeth for a capture mission.
Maybe it’s because al-Ruqai was indicted by the FBI, and thus we had a legal foundation. But so are at least four of the Benghazi attackers, so that can’t be it.
Maybe it was a lack of intelligence. We knew where al-Ruqai was, so we got him, and we don’t know where the Benghazi four are located. I’d believe that, except the guy the FBI considers the mastermind of the Benghazi attack, Ahmed Khattala, held three different interviews for the press, including Fox News, CBS and CNN. They had no trouble finding him, so surely with our omnipotent NSA and other collection platforms, we could too. Lack of intelligence just doesn’t hold water. In fact, given that three separate American news crews were able to penetrate Benghazi to interview Khattala, I’d say the security situation wasn’t much of a factor either.
Maybe we just didn’t want to upset the new Libyan government. After all, Khattala is a Libyan citizen. But so was al-Ruqai, and we clearly didn’t seem to care about ruffling any Libyan feathers there. In fact, there’s some reporting to indicate that the Libyans have already given us tacit permission to go in and snag those guys, so that can’t be it.
Others have said that al-Ruqai was the bigger fish, as he was an operational planner for al Qaida and was cementing networks in the newly formed, fragile state of Libya. I’ll agree, but how does that square with the Somalia hit? The guy they were after was the mastermind of the Kenyan mall attack. So in the greater scheme of things it was more important to go after him – merely weeks later – for an attack against Kenya than it was to go after the men responsible for killing our diplomatic mission – over a year later? That makes no sense at all.
Al-Ruqai may have been more important strategically, but he certainly wasn’t more important politically, and this isn’t a zero sum game. You didn’t have to hit one and lose the other. You could have hit both, like I assumed would happen. In fact, it would have been much, much simpler to hit two targets in the same country than it was to hit two targets separated across a continent (which, by the way, is pretty remarkable. No other country on the planet could do what we did that night, and America should be justifiably proud). Because you gain synergies with the local nature of the targets, you wouldn’t be forced to duplicate QRF, air cover, medevac, and etcetera. So why didn’t we?
Honestly, reading the facts as reported in the press, it makes no sense to me. Some will claim it’s because this administration is cowardly, but that doesn’t bear up given the targets we did hit. The administration gave authorization to attempt a kill/capture mission by a strongpoint assault in Somalia, and authorization for a daylight snatch in Tripoli. Both very risky, and certainly not cowardly. Others will come up with some conspiracy theory that we’re in cahoots with the militias in Benghazi or the U.S. had Ambassador Stevens murdered, and capturing Khattala would reveal one or both. I won’t even bother with those.
The answer could simply be tactical. Perhaps we did intend two simultaneous hits, but the second one aborted for some reason. Maybe a helo malfunctioned. Maybe the intel for the target didn’t pan out on that specific mission profile, forcing a rollover that never went because after al-Ruqai was taken, Khattala went to ground.
Or maybe we were tracking both and then picked up intel that al-Ruqai was leaving. Maybe we got an intercept that said, “I’m sick of this city living. Headed to northern Mali to see my brothers in AQIM.” Maybe it forced our hand, either take him now, knowing Khattala would hide, or let him go and miss the chance at a big fish. Dilemmas like that happen all the time. They aren’t pretty, but then again, neither is war.
But that still doesn’t explain why we jumped like a bird on a June bug for the Somalia target, hitting it within weeks of the Nairobi attack, but have waited over a year to do anything about Benghazi. I’m sure I’ll be kindly reminded that it took over ten years to get bin Laden, and that I myself have posted blogs during the hunt, explaining how hard such operational targeting is. That’s true, but that’s all predicated on intelligence – or the lack thereof. We have the intelligence to hit Khattala. I guarantee it. If three news networks can find and interview him, I have no doubt that we have a fairly robust pattern of life on his daily routine. Hell, it’s not like he’s working very hard to hide, hanging out in swanky luxury hotels and granting interviews. So what have we been waiting for? What’s holding us back?
Perhaps the lack of intelligence isn’t where he’s located, but whether he can be proven guilty. Because the administration is hell-bent on trying all terrorists like domestic criminals, Khattala would be granted the rights of a United States citizen if captured. Maybe the administration hasn’t pulled the trigger because they know that if they bring him to trial they can’t win. We know the FBI can’t get into Benghazi, either because the Libyans won’t let them or because it’s just too dangerous, so perhaps they don’t have a very solid case. The administration was/is under pressure to produce results, and that pressure was directly transferred to the FBI. Maybe, in an effort to show progress, they took what little they had, threw it against the wall, and indicted four people.
It toned down the partisan rhetoric in the short term, but when the intelligence community or DOD came forward with a target package, saying they could get Khattala, a dilemma was presented: If he was snatched and brought to trial, he’d be found not guilty by lack of evidence. Now THAT would be embarrassing, and given the tepid conviction of the last terrorist brought to trial (acquitted on more than 280 charges, including murder), it is a real possibility, so the authority to launch is never given.
Maybe I’m wrong, but after analyzing all available facts, I’m unable come up with any other logical reason why we haven’t snatched any of the Benghazi four. It’s not a question of can’t. It’s a question of won’t.