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Op-Ed: Covert Action to Topple Qadaffi

While Western powers have stepped in to enforce the UN Security Council's 'no fly zone' over Libya, depriving Muammar Gaddafi of his air power alone will not ensure victory for the insurgents on the ground.
Published: Saturday, April 09, 2011 9:56 PM


BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 134, March 23, 2011

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:  Covert action, conducted by intelligence operatives, can clandestinely provide the rebels with the funds, arms, communication equipment and intelligence information crucial for their success, without the need for Western forces to intervene on the ground. Such a strategy can also help unite the insurgents in order to create a unified military response to Gaddafi's army.

The arrest on March 6, 2011 of a team of eight British intelligence operatives and SAS commandos in eastern Libya provided a glimpse into the shadowy activities surrounding Western attempts to assist Libyan insurgent forces in their fight against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. The capture of the British undercover team was preceded several days earlier by the arrest of three Dutch commandos who landed clandestinely by helicopter south of Tripoli while assisting Dutch nationals to evacuate the region.

Intelligence services have long perfected the use of covert action as a tool of foreign policy. By secretly equipping and training anti-government forces, regime change can be accelerated without Western troops actually being deployed on the ground. Covert action has been used before in Iraq, Lebanon, Congo, Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan and many other countries to support indigenous uprisings by forces greatly inferior to the government in their military capabilities. Despite the enforcement of the no fly zone, Gaddafi’s army remains relatively strong and well equipped and could remain entrenched in its positions or even launch a counter-attack eastward to recapture some areas liberated over the past few weeks, even without using its air force. Covert action can be deployed in Libya to assist the insurgents in several crucial ways: to provide funds, arms, communication equipment and intelligence information to the rebels, to train them in the use of modern arms and tactics, and to mediate and coordinate between the different resistance groups.

One of Gaddafi’s main advantages is that he controls the state’s treasury and can dispense vast amounts of money to reward, bribe or buy the loyalty of large parts of the Libyan military as well as of mercenaries from neighboring African states. Despite many Western countries freezing Gaddafi’s assets, he still has at his disposal vast amounts of money. On March 4th, British border police stopped a ship carrying over $160 million in Libyan currency and impounded large containers full of cash heading for Tripoli, a clear indication of Gaddafi’s attempt to bring into Libya funds from different sources. Financial backing is crucial for the success of the anti-Gaddafi forces, not only in funding their activities but also in ensuring the commitment of local clan leaders who still ‘sit on the fence’ waiting to see which side wins. Subsidies for local leaders have been used effectively in Afghanistan and Iraq and can, at least in the short term, lower the risk of their defection to the other side.

The anti-Gaddafi rebels are armed with a myriad of small arms and antiquated light artillery, mostly looted from local army barracks and arms dumps. These arms may make impressive noise on television but lack the ability to counter Gaddafi’s most important military advantage – his heavy tanks. Though much fuss has been made over the no fly zone and curtailing the attacks of the Libyan air force, air power alone will not secure territory lost on the ground. The greater danger is Gaddafi's tanks, against which the rebel’s light arms are all but useless. In order to have any chance of stopping armored assaults on the east of the country, the rebels must be supplied with effective anti-tank weapons, for which they must receive proper instruction and training in their effective use.

The Gaddafi regime controls all communications in the country, including the national telephone network, cell phone networks and the Internet. The rebels urgently require effective communication equipment in order to connect different rebel groups across the vast Libyan desert so that they can coordinate their activities. Such communication equipment would also enable the establishment of an early warning system in case of an impending attack by Gaddafi forces, allowing for rebel mobilization and defense preparation.

Though some of the rebels are former soldiers or officers in the Libyan army, the large majority are well meaning, brave citizens with little or no military knowledge or training in modern warfare and tactics. Training is critical for military success. Western intelligence services could covertly arrange for the rapid training of key people outside of Libya, possibly in third countries, who will then return to Libya and train others. The value of even a few well trained fighters is not only a military necessity but also a key to boosting the motivation and morale of others. For example, in the 1960s, a few former British SAS officers trained thousands of tribesmen in Yemen who were then able to stop attacks by the vastly better equipped Egyptian army.

At the moment, the uprising against Gaddafi is being conducted haphazardly across different areas, driven by the sheer hatred of the regime more than by a clear and coherent vision of the potential future of the country. However, covert action could be used to mediate between the various local clan leaders, each with his own interests and agenda, in order to create a unified strategy. Bringing together the various rebel groups would greatly enhance their military capabilities, as they will be able to better plan and execute operations. It would also contribute significantly to the legitimacy and international recognition of the insurgents' leadership.

Covert action is not without its risks. Some covert operatives may be killed or captured by pro-Gaddafi forces. Those captured will no doubt be paraded in front of the Western media as proof of the West’s nefarious intensions in Libya. But the potential value of covert action far outweighs the risks if Libya is to rid itself of a cruel dictator who has enslaved its people for four decades. The motto of the British SAS commandos, forged in the same deserts of Libya 70 years ago when SAS troops clandestinely sabotaged Rommel’s bombers and fuel depots, is ‘Who dares wins’. This aptly presents the attitude that should govern covert action in Libya if the country is to be freed again from a deadly despot.