Pentagon Helps Out As Americans Evacuate Libya

Over the weekend, the United States decided to close out their embassy in Tripoli, Libya. The remaining personnel were then taken by truck convoy overland to Tunisia. The Pentagon helped escort the vehicles on their five hour journey. I wrote a short piece on the operation for War is Boring as details were still unfolding, but most of the informed speculation turned out to be correct.

MV-22B Ospreys from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response sit on the ramp at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy as Task Force Tripoli prepares to depart for a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation in the early hours of 26 July 2014.

MV-22B Ospreys from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response sit on the ramp at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy as Task Force Tripoli prepares to depart for a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation in the early hours of 26 July 2014.

The force for this Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) consisted of an airborne quick reaction force provided by Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR), three F-16 fighters, and an unspecified number of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.

The SPMAGTF-CR contingent, reportedly called Task Force Tripoli, consisted of twenty-four troops in two MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotors, supported by KC-130J Hercules tankers. This task force should not be confused with the Marine task force that took part in the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Back in May, the Marines had been forward deployed to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy for just this sort of contingency. SPMAGTF-CR was created in the aftermath of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 for exactly these sort of operations. The Marines shadowed the convoy in order to respond to any attacks. Some eighty additional armed Marines were in the vehicles as part of the embassy contingent, which totaled over one hundred and fifty people. The Marines were likely Embassy Security Guards and members of Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams (FAST).

Less information is available on the F-16s and ISR assets. The F-16s reportedly flew from Aviano Air Base in Italy. The aircraft were likely from one of the squadrons of the 31st Fighter Wing based there. The jets also received support from KC-135R tankers, no doubt also operating from USAF bases in Europe. An unspecified number of unmanned aerial vehicles – which could include the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, or RQ-4 Global Hawk – also kept an eye over the entire operation. The USAF has unmanned ISR platforms based in Europe and in neighboring Niger. There has also been an eyewitness image of a Navy EP-3E spy plane, likely from US Sixth Fleet, flying over Tripoli during the operation.

The Department of State has described the evacuation as a “temporary staff relocation” and said repeatedly that it hopes to return to Libya at the earliest possible convenience. However, the embassy in Tripoli had already been working with a reduced staff after the 2012 Benghazi incident. Libya has been wracked by violence since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, with the central government exercising little, if any control over a plethora of militias. Islamist terrorist groups have also taken advantage of the instability in the country.

Recently, militia infighting forced the closure of Tripoli’s airport and destroyed almost a dozen planes on the tarmac. This skirmish no doubt influenced the decision to close the diplomatic mission. Separately, militias allied with General Khalifa Hifter have essentially laid siege to Benghazi in hopes of routing Ansar al-Sharia, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  There is no clear end to the violence in sight.

Some tidbits about US Airlift in Africa

Last week, a CASA 212 light transport reportedly full of United States special operations forces was forced to land on a strip of road in Uganda, less than 100 miles from the capital Kampala. The plane had reportedly developed a undefined technical fault on its way to Juba, South Sudan and had to turn back. Unfortunately, the crew had to set the aircraft down outside of Kiwawu after running out of fuel. Thankfully, no one was hurt, though a local NTV Uganda television spot showed how the Americans held up traffic until their transport could be moved.

Soldiers from the East Africa Response Force load on a C-130H from the 52nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti en route to Juba, South Sudan in December 2013.

Soldiers from the East Africa Response Force load on a C-130H from the 52nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti en route to Juba, South Sudan in December 2013.

The incident offered an opportunity to highlight the role of private contractors providing airlift services in Africa to the US military. The CASA 212 in question was identified by its civilian registration code N604AR. The owner is EP Aviation, LLC, which acts as a subsidiary for the AAR Airlift Corporation. EP Aviation is fulfilling a contract to fly members of Special Operations Command, Africa (SOCAFRICA) around central Africa, generally defined by the US military to include Uganda, as well as Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.

After doing a little digging, I found that there was a dispute between AAR and Evergreen Helicopters, which had previously held this contract. Evergreen has since started doing business with the US government as Erickson Transport, Inc, after having been bought by Erickson Aviation. Erickson’s website shows portions of the fleet of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters still bearing Evergreen’s logos. Erickson has now also disputed the award of a contract to provide rotary wing support to SOCAFRICA to AAR. You can find more of the details on in my recent piece on War is Boring.

In addition, I recently contacted Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa over the recent announcement that the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron had been activated at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti back in May. The 75th EAS joins the 81st and 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadrons assigned to the 449th Air Expeditionary Group at America’s east African hub. The 449th AEG is one of three AEGs assigned to US Air Forces Africa (AFAFRICA).

C-130 airlifters and crews will rotate through deployments to the 75th EAS. The planes are responsible for a variety of logistics missions in east and central Africa. The 75th EAS also completely replaced the previous 52nd EAS, which had been activated in October 2013. The 52nd EAS was the first ever expeditionary airlift squadron to be assigned directly to AFAFRICA. This creation of a formal military airlift presence on the continent is significant in the context of the reliance on contractor-flown airlift already mentioned here. I provided some additional details on the 75th EAS and its mission in another piece on War is Boring today.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

Its also worth noting that the US Marine Corps has identified similar airlift requirements for its missions on the continent. This aircraft needs are clearly part of the reason why both the security assistance-focused Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Africa (SPMAGTF-Africa) and the contingency Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) both have organic KC-130 aircraft. There was also a report earlier in the year that Marine Transport Squadron One (VMR-1) was supporting the movement of SPMAGTF-CR elements with their C-9B Skytrain and UC-35D Citation aircraft. It was unclear, however, whether this involved movement to and from countries in Africa. SPMAGTF-CR, while Africa focused, is based in Europe and has forward deployed contingents to countries like Italy and Romania this year.

US Army Led Annual Western Accord Exercise Last Month

Last month, US Army Africa (USARAF) led the annual Western Accord Exercise in Dakar, Senegal. Marines from Company I, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment also joined Army soldiers for the event. Western Accord 14 centered around developing partner abilities to plan, deploy, employ, sustain, and redeploy a rapid deployment force in response to a regional crisis.

Senegalese troops train with US forces during Western Accord 14 in June 2014.

Senegalese troops train with US forces during Western Accord 14 in June 2014.

Western Accord is designed to enhance American military partnerships with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). There are currently fifteen ECOWAS members:  Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. Gambia and Guinea Bissau did not participate in Western Accord 14. Forces from France and the Netherlands.

Representatives of the United Nations were also present at the exercise. Western Accord 14 was the first iteration of the exercise to incorporate UN personnel and non-governmental organizations to better simulate complex peacekeeping operations in the region. ECOWAS members such as Nigeria are regular contributors to UN and African Union peacekeeping efforts across the continent and around the world.

In addition, this particular training event is part of a series of exercises run every year by USARAF. The other exercises in the series include Northern Accord, Southern Accord, and Eastern Accord. Also, a regular exercise in central Africa, focusing on airdrop capabilities, was renamed Central Accord this year, bringing it in line with the rest of the Accord Series exercises.

New Reports Suggest U.S. Had Military Precense in Somalia Since 2007

Last week, Reuters reported that rotations of military advisors have been deploying to Somalia since at least 2007. The news agency quoted anonymous US government officials. These revelations come after the Pentagon admitted to a formal advisory mission at the beginning of the year. The official statement was that only three military personnel were in Moghadishu and had been there since October 2013, when they had established a Military Coordination Cell to liaise with Somali authorities and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

AMISOM troops stand on top of a WZ551 armored personnel carrier on the outskirts of Burubow in the Gedo region of Somalia in March, shortly after it was liberated from Al Shabaab control.

AMISOM troops stand on top of a WZ551 armored personnel carrier on the outskirts of Burubow in the Gedo region of Somalia in March 2014, shortly after it was liberated from Al Shabaab control.

These newly uncovered deployments consisted of up to one hundred and twenty special operations forces at a time and were timed to provide a persistent presence, according to Reuters. If these details are correct, these special operators might have participated in the targeting process for a string of air strikes and drone attacks, as well as various commando raids since 2007. US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which is currently responsible for operations in Somalia, disputed this, saying that the deployments were smaller and apparently only for specific missions.

The Central Intelligence Agency was largely believed to be in charge of US supported paramilitary activity inside of Somalia until recently. It appears that the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and specifically the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), may have also been directly involved in this covert effort. The Pentagon and AFRICOM have also clearly stepped up their overt activities in the restive east African nation since the beginning of 2013. AFRICOM has declined requests to elaborate on these missions beyond saying they are working closely with the Somali government and other African partners to combat the militant group Al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab came into existence in 2007 after Ethiopian troops and Somali militia routed the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a fundamentalist Islamist organization that had taken control of significant portions of the country. Al Shabaab, formed from the remnants of the ICU’s military wing, has continued to fight pro-government forces and international peacekeepers, now operating under the AMISOM title. Al Shabaab assassinated Somali parliamentarian Ahmed Mohamud ‘Hayd’ just last week and killed four people with a car bomb outside the parliament building in Mogadishu yesterday. These attacks are simply the latest in a string of increasingly aggressive responses to AMISOM’s latest offensive. The situation in the country remains complex and fluid.

US Forces Capture Individual Linked to Benghazi Attack

Yesterday, the Pentagon announced that US military and law enforcement personnel cooperated to capture Ahmed Abu Khatallah in Libya. Khatallah is said to be a key figure in the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. Few details have been offered in regards to the operation. Reports have suggested that 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta, better known as Delta Force, and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hostage Rescue Team performed the raid. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said that no casualties of any kind were sustained on either side or among innocent bystanders and categorized the mission as a “success.” Rear Admiral Kirby declined to go into any further details on the capture itself.

US Special Forces "interdict a target vehicle" during training at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 2012.

US Special Forces “interdict a target vehicle” during training at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 2012.

Khatallah was then reportedly whisked out of Benghazi, Libya where he was captured and placed in Department of Justice custody. The Pentagon declined to say where Khatallah was being held, but said he would be tried in a US court over the 2012 attack. Khatallah is described as being central to the attack on US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi on 11-12 September 2012. During the attack, US Ambassador to Libya J. Christoper Stevens and three other Americans were killed. The circumstances of the incident and the US military’s response, codenamed Operation Jukebox Lotus, continue to be controversial among certain domestic political factions.

This is at least the second raid in Libya in the last 12 months to capture a figured accused of terrorism by the US government. American commandos launched another raid last October to capture Abu Anas al Libi. Libi was wanted in connection with the 1988 Pan Am flight 103 bombing and other crimes. The Obama administration has been criticized in recent years for its reliance on targeted strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles rather than attempting to capture terror suspects. The raid last October and this operation yesterday have been cited as examples of a possible shift in policy. American drone strikes continue in other parts of the world, however, suggesting that this might not necessarily be the case.

US Marines Go to Italy as Libya Edges Toward a New Civil War

Libya appears to be teetering on the brink of a new civil war three years after an international intervention helped rebels topple Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, the country’s new authorities have been unable assert its authority and demobilize various independent militias. These armed groups have openly challenged the government on numerous occasions, kidnapping domestic and foreign officials and attempting to sell oil from their own personal fiefdoms.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

The US sent 200 Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) to Italy last week as this recent crisis began to unfold. Today it was reported that additional aircraft were deployed to bolster the force at Naval Air Station Sigonella. The Marines could use their MV-22B Ospreys and KC-130J Hercules aircraft to evacuate Americans from the embassy in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country. SPMAGTF-CR was created last year after the infamous attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012. The Marines’ focus is on being able to rapidly assist American diplomatic facilities in hotspots and evacuate personnel to safety. I wrote a longer piece about the Marines’ initial deployment for War is Boring. The US may have also been keeping an eye on Libya with manned or unmanned aircraft, including drones launched from a recently constructed facility in Niger. I have also just written a piece on Niger’s increasing importance in the region, which will only increase if Libya continues to be unstable.

This new crisis reached a head when forces reportedly loyal to General Khalifa Hifter attacked the seat of parliament. Hifter, who had lived in exile in the United States until Gadhafi’s ouster, claims he is trying to rid the country of the Muslim Brotherhood, who he accuses of being a puppet of the large international organization. Islamist political parties came to power earlier this year. The country’s previous prime minister Ali Zidan resigned in March and then his interim successor Abdullah al-Thinni, who had been defense minister, resigned in April. Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood party has in turn accused Hifter of being a reactionary in league with former members of Gadhafi regime.

The conflicting ideologies and the open violence are indicative of the trouble Libya has had in finding common ground after Gadhafi’s departure. The country’s various factions appear to be choosing sides for a broader conflict, but this does not necessarily mean those alliances will have any lasting effect. Al Qaeda aligned groups have vowed to fight Hifter’s forces, but may not necessarily join with forces aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This latest crisis has already caused delays in international efforts to try and develop a professional and objective national security force for Libya that could wrest control away from the largely autonomous militias. Libya’s international partners may also find their allegiances split. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Algeria have all shut down their embassies. American Marines in Italy could conduct their own evacuation mission at any time.

Phoenix Express 14 Features More European than African Participants

This year’s annual Phoenix Express maritime security exercise has kicked off in Greece. Naval forces from Algeria, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United States are currently conducting the in-port portion of the exercise at the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre (NMIOTC) on Souda Naval Base, near the city of Chania.

Moroccan and Libyan personnel conduct medical training with the US military at the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre in Greece during Phoenix Express 14.

Moroccan and Libyan personnel conduct medical training with the US military at the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre in Greece during Phoenix Express 14.

Six of the ten participants this year are European nations, if one includes Malta. The island nation is a member of the European Union, but is just over 200 miles from Libya and less than 200 miles from Tunisia. Phoenix Express’ focus on the Mediterranean Sea means that European nations regularly outnumber African participants in the exercise. There are only five African nations on the Sea compared to more than twice as many European nations.

However, European participation also highlights how important African security is to the bigger picture in the region, especially with regards to drug trafficking and illegal immigration. The continuing instability in Libya is particularly worrisome for nations in Southern Europe. France, Italy, and Greece have repeatedly sparred over how best to tackle the issue. As already mentioned, Greece is hosting the in-port phase of the exercise. The at-sea phase, scheduled to begin on May 24th, will be coordinated from a Combined Maritime Operations Center in Sigonella, Italy. France, who is currently engaged in a number of interventions in Africa, is conspicuously absent from this year’s exercise despite having participated in the past.

As usual, this year’s Phoenix Express exercise will focus on maritime interdiction operations (MIO) training. The training events in-port will include helicopter operations and safety, damage control and firefighting, deck seamanship, navigation, search and rescue (SAR), and small boat training. The underway component at sea will focus on further enhancing interoperability. Medical training will also be provided. The exercise is scheduled to wrap up on June 2nd.

Phoenix Express 14 will mark the eighth iteration of the exercise, which began in 2005 as a US European Command event run by US Naval Forces Europe (NAVFOREUR). After the creation of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008, the exercise changed hands and is now run by US Naval Forces Africa (NAVFORAF). The commander of NAVFORAF is dual-hatted as the commander of NAVFOREUR, making the change in responsibility in this case almost entirely administrative.