Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: War on Any Given Day – Libya

GailForce:  War on Any Given Day - Libya

Photo Credit: Ibrahim Alaguri/AP

A couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to get a phone call inviting me to the Democratic Convention to hear President Obama give his acceptance speech.  I’m a registered independent voter and over the course of my life have voted for candidates of both parties.  Attending the convention was one of the best experiences of my life and since returning home, I have been urging my friends to put going their party’s convention on their bucket list even if they just want to go to protest a cause.

I didn’t attend the Republican Convention but was struck by how both President Obama and Governor Romney didn’t really have much to say about foreign policy.  Given the economic crisis and polls consistently showing that while the U.S. public believes foreign affairs are important their primary concerns revolve around the economy that was understandable.  In spite of that as I listened to President Obama last week I couldn’t help but think America doesn’t choose wars and crises those situations choose us.  By that I mean there are many situations simmering and it’s very difficult to determine when one will boil over.

When I first heard of the death of our Libyan Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, my mind flashed to Los Angeles, California in 1992.  When the police accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted, that city experienced 6 days of race rioting by outraged African Americans.  Dozens of people were killed and thousands injured.  The most poignant incident concerned a white truck driver, Reginald Denny.  He hadn’t been listening to news reports on the riot and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Rioters pulled him out of the car and savagely beat him.  It was later determined he had suffered more than 91 fractures in the skull.  A news helicopter was filming the incident.  A group of four African Americans watching the live coverage were horrified, and left their homes in order to risk their lives coming to his aid.

I remembered watching Oprah interview one of the rescuers, a woman.  Mr. Denny had managed to drag himself back inside his truck.  She jumped in beside him.  She said, Denny who was bleeding profusely, told her he couldn’t see to drive.  She told him:  “I’ll be your eyes.”  She and the three other good Samaritans got him through the mobs and to a hospital.  In later years, Mr. Denny refused to condemn all African Americans.  In a 2002 interview he stated:

“People seem to forget it was black folks that saved my life,” Denny said. “On one hand, there were some out there to try to kill me or do me in. On the other hand, they are trying to save me because I’m not the enemy, and believe me I am not the enemy.”

There was no excuse for the level of violence, but the situation highlighted that in spite of the success of civil rights movement, there were still a lot of unhappy people and the riots were a reflection of the dissatisfaction.

My initial knee jerk reaction when I heard of Ambassador Steven’s death was outrage.  How dare the Libyans do this?  Did we not just help them overthrow a dictator?  But then the old intelligence officer in me kicked in.  This is a fast breaking situation with details still coming in, but initial reports are indicating it was Libyans that took the Ambassador to the hospital.

My other thought was remembering the calendar I kept on my desk when I was in the military.  The major difference between it and normal calendars’ was in addition to month and date it also contained the date of past terrorist incidents and the groups that perpetrated the attacks.  On the surface, the Ambassador’s death and riots in Egypt would seem to have been the result of an offensive video on the Prophet Mohammad that early reports say was produced by an American and became an internet sensation.

I don’t doubt that the video caused an uproar, but I wonder if terrorists may have used the incident to take advantage of the situation.  I don’t believe in coincidences and found the fact these incidents began on September 11th  suspicious.  Additionally, the early reporting indicates rioters appeared organized and used anti-aircraft weapons and rocket propelled grenades.  That doesn’t sound like your average rioter to me.  Could terrorists have used the riots as a chance to advance their agenda?  A Washington Post report states:

The leader of al-Qaida confirmed the death of the group’s second-in-command, who was killed in aU.S.drone strike in northwesternPakistanin June. In a video posted late Monday on militant websites, al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri described his late lieutenant Abu Yahya al-Libi as a “lion of jihad and knowledge.” The killing of al-Libi, who was Libyan by birth, was the biggest setback to al-Qaida since the death of Osama bin Laden. Al-Zawahri also urged Libyans — al-Libi was born in the north African country — to attack Americans to avenge the late militant’s death, saying his “blood is calling, urging and inciting you to fight and kill the Crusaders.”

The security situation has been unstable in Libya, and the attack on the U.S.facility is only the most recent indicator.  According to press reports:

There had been signs of a threat earlier. On June 5, a bomb exploded outside the gates of the consulate in the first attack on an American facility since the fall of Gaddafi. No one was injured.

A jihadist group calling itself “Brigades of Imprisoned Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman” claimed responsibility, according to the Site monitoring service. The group posted a message on jihadist forums saying the attack was a response to the drone strike that killed Libi inPakistanon June 4. The group is named after the blind Egyptian sheik who is serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

On June 10, two British bodyguards were injured in an attack in Benghazi on a convoy carrying the British ambassador. The assailants used rocket-propelled grenades to attack the convoy as it was pulling out of the British Consulate.

Militants also have been blamed for attacks on the Tunisian Consulate inBenghaziand on the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya.

As I write this blog, the situation is intensifying; there are more protests in Egypt, and on the surface it appears to be as a result of the video.  There are also riots in Yemen and Iran.  I have a feeling this situation is going to get worse before it gets better.  The U.S. is sending 50 Marines to Libya and moving two tomahawk cruise missile carrying destroyers to the Libyan coast.  I can assure you this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Whenever there is a crisis that involves potential danger to U.S.  citizens, the military moves into high gear.  A great deal of planning revolves around what are called (at least in my day) non-combatant evacuations, or NEOs.  If the situation deteriorates, the military will evacuate U.S. citizens and usually work with the host government to do this.   Military forces are also moved in for what are called “show the flag” operations.  That’s the equivalent of thumping our chests and telling potential enemies to “watch out” if you continue on this course of action it’s going to get real ugly real fast.  Last, and certainly not least, military forces are prepositioned for potential combat operations.

I think I’ll end here.  I’m hosting a family reunion this weekend.  Relatives are coming in a couple of hours.  I’ll be with my family, but my heart will be with my former military intelligence comrades who will probably not get much rest until the crisis ends.  I’ll conclude by saying it is not my intent to downplay the rage caused by the offensive video but only to point out all may not be as it seems.  As always my views are my own.




Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on