June 18, 2014

The capture of Ahmad Abu Khatallah - what took us so long?

Ahmad Abu Khatallah

Last weekend, a team of American special operations forces and FBI special agents conducted a covert mission into Bengahazi, Libya, and captured the most wanted suspected leader of the Islamist group responsible for the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate and a CIA facility in that city. Four Americans were killed in that 2012 attack.

It has taken 21 months to capture Ahmad Abu Khatallah. Yet, the media is abuzz with recriminations and accusations, decrying how long it has taken, pointing out that Abu Khattalah was available for interviews with several journalists, including CNN's Arwa Damon last year. (Disclosure: As I write this, I am a paid CNN military analyst.) Arwa is an excellent journalist, has excellent Arabic language skills, and was able to get a good interview. I listened to the interview in the original Arabic - to me, Abu Khatallah sounded arrogant and condescending.

As I sit in the CNN New York bureau, I am watching almost every network and cable outlet repeatedly point to their journalists' meetings with Abu Khatallah and ask that if it was possible for their journalists to find him, why couldn't the United States armed forces, intelligence community or FBI do the same?

The short answer is, of course, that they could - he wasn't lost. Knowing where someone is not the same as being able to seize him, transport him and then - an important point - successfully convict him.

Now for the long answer. The days of capturing illegal combatants and taking them to Guantanamo is over. The Obama Administration is trying to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, not increase the inmate population. The preferred method of bringing these types of individuals to justice is via the U.S. federal court system.

Prosecuting a case in federal court, subject to the rules of evidence and judicial procedure, requires evidence that will prove Abu Khatallah's guilt to the standard required in criminal case - beyond a reasonable doubt. Gathering that evidence in an area known to be hostile to the United States is problematic, and thus takes time.

Only when you have gathered the required evidence for a successful prosecution can you mount an operation to seize the accused. This is when the months of surveillance become critical. Knowing where someone is not the hard part; extricating him is.

Being able to arrange an interview for a journalist is not difficult when the subject is not afraid of being captured. A journalist meeting with a subject in an area that the subject controls is not a threat - it is his security, his schedule, his location. Conducting a covert special operations mission is a different matter. It is not simply a matter of taking a camera and recorder to a meeting in a coffee shop.

The essential ingredient for a successful operation is accurate intelligence. That intelligence has to be precise and specific, gathered via a variety of sources and methods - human, electronic, visual, including any information gleaned from the journalists' interviews.

Examples of the types of intelligence information required for these types of operations: where does he live, where does he work, how does he travel, does he vary his routes, does he always use the same vehicle, what is his security situation at home and work, and during the period when he travels back an forth? Are the potential locations where an operation could be mounted, what is the local security situation, will a local police force or a security organization respond, how long does that response take, are their medical issues with the subject? - the list goes on.

Developing a file on one person to this level of granularity takes time and resources. In Libya, it is complicated by the fact that there is virtually no American presence in the area.

Once you have the intelligence required to mount an operation, then you have to plan the operation itself. Who is going to do it, how many special operations personnel are required for success without creating a alerting signature? Deploying a large number of assets to an area could very well tip off the target that an operation may be in the works. How do you safely get into and out of the designated target location? What type of transportation will be required, where will helicopters or boats stage from, what are the defenses in the area, where will the subject be taken once seized, etc.? Again, the list goes on and on. The goal is to have as much of the situation controlled as possible.

I have some experience with this type of operation - I was the deputy chief of a team hunting war criminals in Bosnia. After that operation concluded years later, I wrote a book about it. Warning: unabashed plug here -
Chasing Demons - My Hunt for War Criminals in Bosnia.

Here is what I wrote about a similar situation during our successful hunt for five indicted war criminals, which took a few years:

Quote from Chasing Demons

The Hunting Party

The Hunting Party is the title of a movie made in 2007 starring Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, Jesse Eisenberg and James Brolin. According to the movie plot, three war correspondents embark on an unauthorized mission to find the most wanted war criminal in Bosnia. The villain is easily representative of Ratko Mladić. The group finds themselves in serious jeopardy when they are mistaken as a CIA hit squad and their target decides to come after them.

The movie had authentic scenery and was entertaining, but the producers could not just provide us with entertainment. No, they had to end the movie with a political statement ridiculing the actual hunt by Razorback and Buckeye bases (subject of the book).

Their ridicule was misplaced and inaccurate. I know the effort that went into hunting down these dangerous men; they do not. It is easy to make unfounded statements and shoot a movie. It is quite another thing to pick up a weapon and go forth into the fray, or as my Navy friend Tony Harper said, "where angels have second thoughts about treading."

End Quote

Bottom line

Criticizing the intelligence community, special operations forces and law enforcement agencies about the length of time it took to mount this high-risk successful operation is a cheap shot. There are valid reasons for being critical of these organizations - this is not one of them.