The Pentagon’s Timeline of Its Latest Libya Intervention Just Doesn’t Line Up
Planning and strikes predate recent requests
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Aug. 1, U.S. Air Force drones and U.S. Marine Corps helicopter gunships attacked Islamic State fighters near Sirte, Libya. With the air strikes, the Pentagon opened up its latest front in the war against the brutal terrorist group.
Washington stressed that these strikes came at the behest of Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord, or GNA. In the absence of Congress passing a specific law authorizing the attacks, the Pentagon pointed to this request as an important justification for its actions.
“There will be specific requests each time,” U.S. Defense Department press secretary Peter Cook told reporters after announcing the attacks. “We’ll be rigorously looking at each and every strike with the GNA.”
As of Aug. 7, there had been a total of 20 separate strikes. Flying from the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, Marine AV-8B Harrier jump jets had joined in on the attacks.
But according to Military Times, this mission was the final part of a three-step plan. The strikes were the final part, nicknamed Operation Odyssey Lightning.
“The first element of this three-phase plan is Operation Odyssey Resolve, consisting of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights designed to counter violent extremism in Libya,” the report explained. “The second phase, Operation Junction Serpent, provided targeting information.”
If this is true, according to information War Is Boring previously obtained, Washington has been preparing for strikes in Libya since at least 2014. Since this would predate the GNA itself, the Pentagon’s timeline for this latest Libya intervention — and the associated justifications — just doesn’t line up.
Libya has lurched from one crisis to another since rebels overthrew long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi with NATO’s help in 2011. Afterwards, militias and terrorist groups exploited the power vacuum and terrorized everyday citizens.
By August 2014, two rival governments had taken root in the North African nation. An unrecognized Islamist regime occupied the internationally recognized capital Tripoli, while the country’s internationally recognized government — and allied militias — fled to Tobruk.
On March 30, GNA prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj and other members of his new government arrived in Tripoli to finally assume power. Three months in the making, the United Nations proposed the arrangement to finally try and unify the country again under a single, central government.
Unfortunately, Islamic State quickly became a threat to Libya’s authorities. In May, the U.S. State Department dubbed the group’s franchise in the country a terrorist group. Ostensibly, the Pentagon’s strikes in Sirte were a response to recent gains by the Sunni extremists.
But in September 2014, War Is Boring had submitted Freedom of Information Act to the Pentagon’s top headquarters for operations in Africa. The request asked for a complete list of all “named” operations the command was responsible for at the time.
Three months later, received a list of 16 active military missions in and around the continent. We did not request, and did not receive, any descriptions of any of the operations’ goals.
One of the entries that we couldn’t otherwise identify through other sources was Junction Serpent. Odyssey Resolve wasn’t on the 2014 list.
In an Aug. 5 email, a public affairs officer at U.S. Africa Command declined to provide any details about Junction Serpent or how it might have changed over nearly two years, citing operational security. In addition, the officer couldn’t say when this particular mission officially actually kicked off.
The public affairs official added that there was no direct connection between Operation Odyssey Resolve in Libya and Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon’s top headquarters for the Middle East confirmed it had no involvement in the North Africa strikes.
What we know for sure is that for at least 20 months beforehand, American troops had been looking at possible, unspecified “targets” in Libya. At least initially, this mission seems to have been focused on Al Qaeda-linked militants or other groups, rather than members of Islamic State.
In 2014, a group of U.S. Navy MQ-8 Fire Scouts alone spent more than 500 hours over North Africa, according to an official report. The annual review said at least some of the missions were part of Junction Serpent.
The drone choppers were hunting for “U.S. Africa Command’s number-one target.” This individual may have been Abu Khattala, a Libyan militia commander linked to the infamous 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. In June 2014, American commandos captured Khattala and returned him to the United States for trial.
On top of that, residents of that Eastern Libyan city regularly look up to see at least one secretive U.S. Army spy plane flying overhead. In May, the BBC published a detailed report on American aerial spooks flying over North Africa from a secluded base on the Italian island of Pantelleria.
On Nov. 14, 2015, the surveillance translated into an attack an attack on Abu Nabil. The Pentagon said this strike as the first specifically against a member of Islamic State and described Nabil as both “a longtime Al Qaeda operative and the senior ISIL leader in Libya.”
The Pentagon seems to have included Nabil’s Al-Qaeda connection as a legal justification for the strike. Washington has repeatedly claimed that Congress’ 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force gives American troops the right to attack any terrorist associated with the group.
The Pentagon would likely have used that reasoning to start Junction Serpent in the first place. There seems to be less of an argument for tapping the mission to spy on Islamic State.
But when American jets pounded an Islamic State training camp near Sabratha on Feb. 19, nearly six months before the official aerial campaign against the group in Libyan, Cook made no mention of Al Qaeda. If it was still ongoing at that point, Junction Serpent had started targeting a separate group not clearly covered under the 2001 law.
However, on Aug. 1 Cook stated that the old legislation was still the underpinning for the new campaign. “The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force similar to our previous airstrikes in Libya,” he told a reporter who asked for the legal basis behind the strikes on Sirte.
These complex and potentially conflicting timelines and justifications are unlikely to help the White House convince critics of American military actions. Since 2008, Congress has repeatedly failed to drum up support for a debate and vote on giving Pres. Barack Obama new authority to wage war on terrorists abroad.
But “the War Powers Resolution correctly recognized that congressional silence, inaction or even implicit authorization was insufficient to authorize the president to engage in warfare,” Jules Lobel, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, told members of the House of Representatives in April 2008. “Presidents simply ignored it, Congress had an insufficient interest in enforcing it and the courts responded by saying that if Congress did nothing, why should we?”
Signed into law in 1973, the resolution gives Congress the right order the executive branch to stop any fighting that the president started without their go ahead after 60 days. Many legislators and legal experts see the War Powers law as expressly preventing American troops from heading into combat — including from the air — in the first place, unless the United States is under direct threat.
Not everyone sees it that way. In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press on Aug. 8, senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine slammed his fellow lawmakers on the issue. “I don’t think the current legal authorities are sufficient to wage this war again ISIL,” Kaine said. “Congress should do its job instead of hiding under their desks, and have a debate and have a vote on military action.”
“If we do that, I’m confident that Congress would support military action,” the Virginia legislator added.
But in the meantime, no doubt seeing no other choice, the Pentagon will continue to bend and twist existing operations such as Junction Serpent to fit new — and possibly unforeseen — threats.