Capture of Benghazi suspect thrusts U.S. special operations in Africa into spotlight again

The capture of the alleged ringleader of the terrorist attacks in Benghazi over the weekend thrusts the growing role of U.S. Special Operations Command in Africa into the spotlight again, just as the ongoing crisis in Iraq and the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan are looming.

The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung, Adam Goldman and Julie Tate reported Tuesday that U.S. special operators captured Ahmed Abu Khattala in a secret raid Sunday. He was designated a terrorist in January, with the State Department calling him a “senior leader” of the militant organization Ansar al-Sharia. The group was designated a terrorist organization and found by U.S. officials to be specifically responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, and State Department security official Sean Smith.

The raid follows other similar operations in northern Africa, including in Libya. In October, for instance, U.S. Special Operations captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al Ruqai, an alleged al-Qaeda official, outside his home in Tripoli. It marked a rare instance of U.S. military involvement in “rendition,” in which terrorism suspects are grabbed to face trial without an extradition hearing. Those operations have typically been conducted by the CIA or FBI. Ruqai was wanted for alleged involvement with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania and Kenya.

That same weekend in October, U.S. Navy SEALs launched a raid on a seaside home in Barawe, Somalia, in search of Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, an alleged senior commander of the Islamist militant group al-Shabab. The SEALs were forced to withdraw an hour later after they were spotted by a lone al-Shabab fighter, NBC News reported. The SEALs inflicted numerous casualties in a firefight that followed, U.S. officials said, but pulled away in small fast boats.

In March, SEALs launched another high-profile raid on the oil tanker Morning Glory off the coast of Cyprus, capturing the vessel without firing a shot. The mission was carried out by U.S. troops affiliated with Special Operations Command Europe, but on a ship that was seized in the Libyan port As-Sidra and carried 200,000 barrels of oil owned by the Libyan government’s National Oil Company. The mission was launched from the USS Roosevelt, a guided missile destroyer, with helicopter support overhead.

On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine highlighted other SOCOM missions in Africa in a glowing profile of Brig. Gen. James B. Linder, the commander of SOCOM Africa. It touches on ongoing training across Africa by special operators from the United States, as well as Great Britain, France and other countries.

After taking his current position in 2012, Linder boosted the fight against Joseph Kony, who is accused kidnapping tens of thousands of children to join his Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group in central Africa, the Times reported. He said Kony symptom of what happens when there are ungoverned spaces in which extremists can congregate.

“You have to find a way to motivate the U.S. to give a hoot,” Linder said at one point. “If the U.S. doesn’t give a hoot, we’re not going to be there.”

The U.S. Special Operations role the night of the 2012 attack on Benghazi also has come into clearer focus within the last year. The Washington Times reported in November that a Marine and U.S. soldier who were members of Delta Force, the Army’s elite component of Joint Special Operations Command, earned a Navy Cross and Distinguished Service Cross, respectively, for heroism while coming to the aid of Americans under attack at the CIA complex in Benghazi. The awards are one step down from the Medal of Honor in honoring combat heroism.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · June 16