Hundreds of missions helped establish a ‘pattern of life’
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Jan. 14, 2014, USS Elrod left her home port in Norfolk, Virginia for what, to outsiders, might have seemed like a routine six-month trip to the Mediterranean.
Carrying a detachment of four MQ-8B Fire Scout drone helicopters, the nearly 30-year-old frigate would visit various ports and train with America’s allies, according to an official press release.
Elrod’s mission was to “advance national security interests in Europe and Africa,” the U.S. Navy explained when it retired the aged warship a year later.
While off the coast of North Africa, Elrod’s crew kept an eye out for pirates, escorted the oil tanker Morning Glory back to Libya after Navy SEALs freed the vessel from militant hijackers and helped rescue a group of refugees trying to make it to Europe in small boats.
What the sailing branch didn’t say was that Elrod also sent its pilotless choppers on a high-stakes search for a top terrorist.
“Detachment Two successfully completed more than 300 overland … sorties … developing [a] pattern of life for U.S. Africa Command’s number-one target,” officials from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 60 wrote in their annual report for 2014.
War Is Boring obtained a copy of the historical review via the Freedom of Information Act.
At the time, the squadron flew both SH-60 Seahawk sub-hunting choppers and the MQ-8 drones. Based in Jacksonville, Florida, the unit regularly sends teams around the world to support various missions.
The 2,000-pound Fire Scouts come equipped with a powerful infrared video camera and can also carry extra gear on small, side-mounted pylons. On average, the small choppers can fly for between four and five hours — depending on what they’re carrying — before needing to land and refuel.
The Pentagon uses the term “patterns of life” to describe common activities, routines and other factors that analysts can use to identify particular individuals, suspected terrorists and other enemy forces and track their movements. After snooping on a target for hours on end, American troops can try to strike when there is the least danger to innocent bystanders.
While aboard the Elrod, the four unmanned rotorcraft flew more than 650 “mishap-free” hours in total, including more than 500 hours over the African continent. While the sailing branch briefly grounded all of the Fire Scouts in 2012 after two crashes, the squadron’s MQ-8s seem to have performed just fine in the Mediterranean.
The 2014 deployment wasn’t the first time the Pentagon had sent the MQ-8s to hunt terrorists in Africa. In 2013, the drones flew similar missions in and around the Horn of Africa, according to documents The Intercept released as part of its “Drone Papers” investigation.
We don’t know who the Pentagon’s top target in Africa was during Elrod’s time in the Mediterranean. The annual review does not say what country or countries the choppers flew over during the operation.
“U.S. Africa Command does maintain a list of approved targets,” U.S. Army Capt. Jennifer Dyrcz, a public affairs officer at the Pentagon’s top headquarters for Africa, told War Is Boring via email. “Several operational factors go into determining when action will be taken in regards to an approved target.”
“Those factors change frequently, resulting in a fluidity of target prioritization,” Dyrcz added. “Thus, U.S. Africa Command does not truly have a ‘number one target.’”
But while the command may not cite a clear, number-one enemy, Elrod’s deployment did coincide with the capture of a particularly high-profile terror suspect — Abu Khattala. Sometime during the night of June 14 and 15, 2014, American commandos reportedly snatched Khattala from his home on the outskirts of the Libyan city of Benghazi.
Almost a year earlier, American authorities had charged Khattala with masterminding the deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012. During the attack, militants killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, as well as three other Americans.
During the raid, drones and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation worked with elite Delta Force troops, according to reports. It’s not clear whether the Fire Scouts were the unmanned aircraft on the scene. Elrod was back in Norfolk a month after the mission.
Afterward his capture, the soldiers flew Khattala to the amphibious transport ship USS New York. As the vessel sailed for the United States, Justice Department officials questioned him about the terror attack.
The Khattala’s role in the incident, along with the basic recounting of the events, remain controversial. Benghazi residents and media reports widely claimed he was a key member of the Al Qaeda-linked group Ansar Al Sharia.
However, a 2013 New York Times investigation disputed that, suggesting he was merely a local warlord with anti-American sentiments. Regardless, witnesses said Khattala had been a major player in the Benghazi assault.
“We made no secret of the fact that — that we’re going to continue to pursue those who do Americans harm, including those who were involved in the attacks in Benghazi,” then-Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on June 17, 2014, never mentioning a particular group. “I mean, if you need a tangible demonstration of our commitment, ask Abu Khattalah.”
A number of American legislators had accused the White House and the Pentagon of dragging their feet on identifying Khattala and his compatriots, as well as their links to Islamic State terror groups. Despite being the supposed ring leader of the Benghazi attack, Khattala lived in the open and gave numerous, in-person interviews to foreign journalists in the years leading up to his capture.
If they were looking for Khattala, the Fire Scouts might have observed a relatively mundane existence. “Here I am in the open, sitting in a hotel with you,” he told Reuters back in October 2012. “I’m even going to pick up my sister’s kids from school soon.”
On June 26, 2014, a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C. indicted Khattala on a single terrorism-related charge. Just under four months later, American officials slapped another 17 charges onto the indictment. In February 2016, a judge rejected Khattala’s lawyer’s motion to have the case thrown out because the Pentagon had violated his right to due process.
And whatever the truth is about Khattala’s terror links, the Pentagon’s drones like the Fire Scouts, along with manned spy planes, are definitely still hunting terrorists in Libya — maybe even still looking for that “number-one” target.