Airstrike underscores the need for more intelligence resources in Libya

Over the weekend, the U.S. Air Force sent two F-15 fighters to drop “multiple” 500-pound bombs on the Libyan lair of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the sinister one-eyed head of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group known as the “Signed in Blood Battalion.”  The bombs hit the target and killed several terrorists, but who exactly was killed was not immediately known. 

The U.S. believes that it “likely” killed Belmokhtar in the strike.  However, “an Islamist with ties to Libyan militants” said that Belmokhtar wasn’t at the site of the bombing, and that four members of a related group were killed instead.  It’s a significant win only if Belmokhtar himself was blown up, and this uncertainty underscores the problem of our administration’s “airstrikes only” approach to terrorism.  Without American boots or at least CIA spotters on the ground to guarantee the presence of the targets, such endeavors will always have ambiguous outcomes.

Belmokhtar was a major player in the North African terror world.  His masterpiece of death was the January 2013 siege of the natural gas refinery at In-Amenas, Algeria.  Knowing that Americans were inside, Belmokhtar’s men entered the vast facility, taking hundreds of hostages, singling out the Westerners, and holding them all for four days.  Algerian security forces surrounded the complex and four days later launched a rescue mission that resulted in the deaths of 39 hostages, including three Americans, and 29 terrorists.  Belmokhtar considered it a great victory.

This terrorist leader, who might or might not be dead, strengthened the terrorist network al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (before he branched out this year and founded his own franchise) by introducing North African criminal networks into his equation.  He made a point of hiring local underworld networks to do some of the routine dirty work, such as kidnapping foreigners for ransom and recruiting local “youths” for his organization.

This attachment to non-Islamic criminal elements may have been Belmokhtar’s undoing.  Without boots or CIA officers on the ground nearby, the U.S. arranges its hits by having CIA officers recruit local agents, typically unsavory types, who have knowledge of the likely whereabouts of the target.  It is very hard to penetrate Islamic terrorist organizations themselves, so the CIA’s National Clandestine Service often has to make do with recruiting those criminals who associate with the terrorists.  That’s probably what happened here.  Some murky underworld figure looking for a quick CIA payout most likely ratted out the safe house he believed Belmokhtar to be staying at.  The information was passed up the chain of command, and the decision was made in Washington to launch the airstrike.  Whether this original information was reliable or not will be seen in the coming days if Belmokhtar resurfaces.

Whether Belmokhtar is dead or alive, the tradecraft of intelligence has always been more art than science.  Its reliability in Libya will be hindered only by the poor resources that the Obama administration has devoted to Libya.

Is Libya even important?  Just read the U.S. criminal complaint filed against Mokhtar Belmokhtar, in which he was charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.

Christopher S. Carson, a lawyer, holds a master’s in national security studies.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Air Force sent two F-15 fighters to drop “multiple” 500-pound bombs on the Libyan lair of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the sinister one-eyed head of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group known as the “Signed in Blood Battalion.”  The bombs hit the target and killed several terrorists, but who exactly was killed was not immediately known. 

The U.S. believes that it “likely” killed Belmokhtar in the strike.  However, “an Islamist with ties to Libyan militants” said that Belmokhtar wasn’t at the site of the bombing, and that four members of a related group were killed instead.  It’s a significant win only if Belmokhtar himself was blown up, and this uncertainty underscores the problem of our administration’s “airstrikes only” approach to terrorism.  Without American boots or at least CIA spotters on the ground to guarantee the presence of the targets, such endeavors will always have ambiguous outcomes.

Belmokhtar was a major player in the North African terror world.  His masterpiece of death was the January 2013 siege of the natural gas refinery at In-Amenas, Algeria.  Knowing that Americans were inside, Belmokhtar’s men entered the vast facility, taking hundreds of hostages, singling out the Westerners, and holding them all for four days.  Algerian security forces surrounded the complex and four days later launched a rescue mission that resulted in the deaths of 39 hostages, including three Americans, and 29 terrorists.  Belmokhtar considered it a great victory.

This terrorist leader, who might or might not be dead, strengthened the terrorist network al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (before he branched out this year and founded his own franchise) by introducing North African criminal networks into his equation.  He made a point of hiring local underworld networks to do some of the routine dirty work, such as kidnapping foreigners for ransom and recruiting local “youths” for his organization.

This attachment to non-Islamic criminal elements may have been Belmokhtar’s undoing.  Without boots or CIA officers on the ground nearby, the U.S. arranges its hits by having CIA officers recruit local agents, typically unsavory types, who have knowledge of the likely whereabouts of the target.  It is very hard to penetrate Islamic terrorist organizations themselves, so the CIA’s National Clandestine Service often has to make do with recruiting those criminals who associate with the terrorists.  That’s probably what happened here.  Some murky underworld figure looking for a quick CIA payout most likely ratted out the safe house he believed Belmokhtar to be staying at.  The information was passed up the chain of command, and the decision was made in Washington to launch the airstrike.  Whether this original information was reliable or not will be seen in the coming days if Belmokhtar resurfaces.

Whether Belmokhtar is dead or alive, the tradecraft of intelligence has always been more art than science.  Its reliability in Libya will be hindered only by the poor resources that the Obama administration has devoted to Libya.

Is Libya even important?  Just read the U.S. criminal complaint filed against Mokhtar Belmokhtar, in which he was charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.

Christopher S. Carson, a lawyer, holds a master’s in national security studies.