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Released Afghan POW Bowe Bergdahl Completes Treatment, Takes New Army Post

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive for five years in Afghanistan until he was traded May 31 for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo, has completed his U.S. military-led reintegration and has been assigned to an army unit in Texas to continue his military service.

Senior Pentagon officials told McClatchy that Bergdahl, who was promoted from private first class to sergeant during his captivity, has been assigned to Army North headquarters at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Houston in Texas. The posting will allow him to remain near the military doctors who’ve treated him through his reintegration process at San Antonio Military Medical Center.

He is likely to receive some leave time during his new assignment, the officials said.

His new assignment will be his first opportunity to work alongside his fellow soldiers, some of whom have accused him of desertion, claiming he left his post in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009 and that troops died searching for him after he was taken prisoner. His trade for the five Taliban, who had been in Guantanamo for more than a decade, also brought angry denunciations from some members of Congress who opposed their release.

By now, Bergdahl likely is aware of the controversy that swirled around his release, though details of how he was introduced to events that took place during his captivity have not yet emerged. He has been in an outpatient program at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Houston since June 22 and has been seen at restaurants and shops around San Antonio, often accompanied by members of his medical team, who specialize on helping prisoners of war reintegrate into society.

Doctors treating him have said they allowed him to pick where to go on such trips to help him regain confidence in making his own decisions after years of life as a Taliban hostage.

As part of his reintegration, Bergdahl has spoken to other soldiers about his experiences while a Taliban prisoner, but the U.S. military has not provided any details of the circumstances behind his capture, citing an ongoing investigation led by Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl. Bergdahl has not yet been interviewed by Dahl.

Doctors who treated Bergdahl, citing patient confidentiality, have not shared with Dahl the contents of their conversations with Bergdahl.

The military has not said what role Bergdahl’s parents, who led the public campaign for his release, have played in his treatment. In the early weeks after his release, the military said he had not spoken to his parents. It was unclear if that was because he was not ready to speak to them or had chosen not to.

According to a 2012 Rolling Stone piece, Berghdal sent an email to his parents in the days before his capture expressing his disdain and disillusionment with his military commanders, saying he longer believed in the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.

“The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting,” the Hailey, Idaho, native wrote his family, according to the Rolling Stone piece.

U.S. Seized Benghazi Suspect During Fierce Fighting Between Libyan Militias

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military seized a Libyan extremist accused in the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sunday as the terror group he once led was locked in fierce combat with forces loyal to a renegade Libyan general who once lived in the United States.

Knowledgeable officials said the arrest of Ahmed Abu Khattala had not been coordinated with forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a longtime Virginia resident who has been conducting a campaign to rid Benghazi of Ansar al Shariah. But the fighting proved to be a distraction that the Americans were able to take advantage of as they executed a long planned operation to seize Khatalla. The officials spoke on the condition that they not be identified.

At least 57 people were killed and 72 wounded in the Sunday battle between Khattala’s Ansar al Shariah and Hifter’s forces, according to an account of the fighting published by the Libyan Herald, an English-language website based in Tripoli, Libya’s capital.

Since the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Khattala had remained a prominent player in Ansar al Shariah. He was part of a delegation 10 days ago that sought to open reconciliation talks with Hifter and his forces, according to the Herald. Those talks failed, the news site reported.

Hifter lived in northern Virginia for more than two decades after he defected from Moammar Gadhafi’s army in the 1980s. He returned to Libya in 2011 and has remained there since. While his campaign against Ansar al Shariah has been denounced by Libya’s government, it’s received support from key parts of the Libyan armed forces, including the air force.

U.S. officials declined Tuesday to reveal where precisely Khattala was captured but it was apparently not at his home in the al Laithi district of Benghazi. Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said he was arrested near Benghazi and that no civilians had been injured in the action.

All Americans involved in the capture left Libya safely, Kirby said, and Khattala is on his way to the United States, where he faces criminal charges filed in federal court in Washington. Libyan authorities apparently were not told in advance of the operation and did not take part in Khattala’s capture, U.S. officials said. It was not clear whether Libyan authorities had learned that Khattala had been snatched before news broke of his arrest on Tuesday.

Khattala’s seizure marks the first time U.S. forces have detained any of the scores of suspects in the September 2012 attacks, which have been the source of congressional investigations and angry recriminations.

Khattala was in “U.S. custody in a secure location,” Kirby said. A criminal complaint filed last July but unsealed only Tuesday charges him with three crimes, including “killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility.”

An audience at the TechShop in Pittsburgh, Pa., burst into applause as President Barack Obama veered from his prepared remarks on manufacturing to hail Khattala’s capture.

“It’s important for us to send a message to the world that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice,” Obama said at the start of a speech on manufacturing. “That’s the message I said the day after it happened and regardless how long it takes, we will find you. I want to make sure everyone around the world hears that message very clearly.”

Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that Khattala might face additional charges and that other attackers might be prosecuted.

“Our nation’s memory is long and our reach is far,” Holder said. “The arrest of Ahmed Abu Khattala represents a significant milestone in our efforts to ensure justice is served for the heinous and cowardly attack on our facilities in Benghazi.”

The decision, however, to try Khattala in a civilian court immediately created more controversy over Obama’s plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center for terrorism suspects. Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., demanded that he be sent to Guantanamo and treated as an “enemy combatant.”

Rubio’s statement said intelligence could be best gathered by questioning Khattala at Guantanamo. “In order to locate all individuals associated with the attacks that led to the deaths of four Americans, we need intelligence,” Rubio said. “That intelligence is often obtained through an interrogation process.”

But Democrats said Khattala’s case would be better dealt with in civilian federal court, which have prosecuted hundreds of terrorist cases successfully.

“I always prefer the federal court to a military commission, because a federal court has had a remarkable record of achievement,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. “We convicted close to 500 terrorists in federal court, and very few in military commissions.”

The Obama administration said there was no possibility that Khatalla would be sent to Guantanamo, which hasn’t received a new prisoner since Obama became president.

“Let me rule that out from the start,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. “The administration’s policy is clear on this issue: We have not added a single person to the GTMO population since President Obama took office, and we have had substantial success delivering swift justice to terrorists through our federal court system.”

In a similar case, Abu Anas al Libi, a Libyan al-Qaida operative tied to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, was snatched from outside his home in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, last October. He was kept aboard a U.S. Navy ship for several days before being transferred to New York for prosecution.

The attacks in Benghazi took place on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The first was an assault by as many as 70 men who stormed the U.S. special mission in Benghazi, and set it ablaze, killing Stevens and State Department computer specialist Sean Smith. The second began in the wee hours of Sept. 12 at a separate CIA compound about a mile away, where a mortar barrage killed security contractors Tyrone Wood and Glen Doherty.

Khattala’s name emerged as a suspect within hours of the attack. In interviews with journalists, Khattala said he went to the compound site after the attack began but did not lead it. All the while, he boasted that he moved around Benghazi without fear of arrest.

According to two U.S. officials, the raid was the result of months of planning, but few other details were known. In a briefing with reporters Tuesday, Kirby declined to say which U.S. force conducted the raid, how long that force was on the ground in Libya, whether U.S. officials had notified the Libyan government before or after the raid, or where Khattala was captured.

The Washington Post, which said it had learned about the capture on Monday but agreed to a request from the White House to delay publishing a story because of security concerns, reported that U.S. Special Operations Forces captured Khattala.

Kirby’s statement said that “on Sunday, June 15, the U.S. military, in cooperation with law enforcement personnel,” captured Khattala. It added, “There were no civilian casualties related to this operation, and all U.S. personnel involved in the operation have safely departed Libya.”

The Benghazi attacks became one of the biggest controversies to confront the Obama administration. Republicans have charged that the administration covered up details of what took place when it claimed for nearly a week afterward that the storming of the compound was prompted by a protest over a video that satirized the Prophet Muhammad. That version turned out not to be true, however.

Khattala had remained at large for nearly two years, even after witnesses placed him at the consulate during the assault, directing fighters. A commander in Benghazi’s largest revolutionary brigade, the Libyan Shield, told McClatchy two months after the attack that people were frustrated that Khattala was still allowed to openly operate in Benghazi, boasting about his freedom of movement even as he denied participating in the attack.

“Who is going to arrest him? Who is going to question him? It’s the consequences that we fear,” the commander said. “If we arrest someone, a member of his forces will get him out.”

The commander didn’t want to be named after being publicly identified with helping the Americans recruit members for a counterterrorism unit. Within hours of his name surfacing, he said, extremist groups operating in Benghazi threatened to kill him.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., hailed the capture and called it “long overdue,” noting that Khattala has made himself available to “multiple media outlets” in the 21 months since the deaths of four Americans, including the first U.S. ambassador killed in an attack since 1979.

“I hope that this capture brings us closer to justice and accountability,” Royce said. “We should right now be getting from him as much intelligence as possible.”

AFP Photo

U.S. Aid Won’t Solve Nigeria’s Boko Haram Troubles, Experts Say

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Amid growing international outrage, the U.S. government has sent 30 military, intelligence and law enforcement advisers to Nigeria to help find 270 teenage girls kidnapped a month ago by Boko Haram, that nation’s most feared armed faction. But in a nation where government forces are distrusted and politicians are resistant to accept help, how much can the U.S. effort help to, as the Twitter hashtag urges, bringbackourgirls?

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the United States had deployed manned fixed-wing aircraft and drones in the search for the girls, who were taken from their school April 14.

Many think the girls are being hidden in small groups deep in Nigeria’s northeastern forests, in an area the size of New England, where spotting them will be difficult even with the best technology. And once they are spotted, military officials and experts agreed, the United States must be judicious in how it shares its intelligence with Nigerian officials.

Boko Haram’s grip on Nigeria, particularly in the northeast, where the girls were snatched, is wide and thorough, running through every sector of government. A year ago Wednesday, Nigeria declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states, saying terrorists had created “fear among our citizens and a near-breakdown of law and order in parts of the country.” Since 2010, at least 300 students have been killed in attacks by Boko Haram, which loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden.” The group has said it kidnapped the girls because they needed to be married off rather than schooled.

Yet until this case, the Nigerian government was reluctant to publicly pressure Boko Haram. In February, for example, at least 29 male students were killed, many of them burned alive, after Boko Haram forces stormed their dormitory in the state of Yobe, setting it ablaze. The female students were reportedly told to leave and get married instead. In the hours before the attack, the school guards mysteriously vanished. In July, Boko Haram attacked another school in Yobe state, killing 42 people, mostly students. Both attacks spurred little response from national officials.

Five years ago, Boko Haram operated as a quasi-legitimate organization with the backing of some politicians. Since then it’s wrested control of the northeast from government forces, who either are aligned with it or don’t act against it out of fears of attacks on their families.

As one former defense official who worked on U.S. Africa Command issues explained: The U.S. “will have to be careful who it shares the intelligence with.” The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity, in order to talk freely.

Students of the country say local leaders must take the initiative to rescue the girls. But that’s also fraught with difficulty. Tribal sheikhs in the area fear Boko Haram and distrust a central government that’s done little to stop the group’s spread.

Among the recommendations the U.S. has made to the central government, the State Department said Wednesday, is urging it to develop better communications with the country’s local governments. Experts say another recommendation should be to reject a proposal from Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau to exchange the girls for imprisoned militants. He made the offer in a video released Monday that showed some of the girls.

“Put pressure on locals to find these girls because Boko Haram is among the population,” said Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boko Haram with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research and analysis firm.

That the United States chose to help three weeks after the kidnapping was a response in part to the worldwide Twitter campaign. That also presents its own challenges.

The last time the United States sought to intervene militarily in Africa was in 2011, when the Obama administration, responding to a mandate from Congress, deployed a small group of troops to central Africa to help hunt down Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Months later another Twitter hashtag campaign, Kony2012, erupted on the heels of a movie about Kony’s war crimes. The U.S. efforts to find the elusive guerrilla leader have failed, however, and Kony remains on the run.

The former defense official said the Kony mission not only failed to find him but also diverted “assets that we would have preferred to use elsewhere, to challenges that were more threatening to the United States.”

Many think the greatest help the United States could extend, beyond rescuing the girls, is to help Nigerians fight for a government that isn’t so vulnerable to the burgeoning Boko Haram influence.

“I think there is a role for the U.S here,” said retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, who led the African Command until last year. Citing the U.S. designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, Ham said the U.S. now could identify the group’s international financiers and search for links between it and al-Qaida’s North Africa affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Most importantly, the United States can press Nigeria to solve the country’s internal economic issues.

“The greatest impact we can have is to press the Nigerian government to address the pressing issues that make young men vulnerable to Boko Haram recruiting,” Ham said. “Our efforts on the non-military front can be more helpful.”

AFP Photo/Robert MacPherson

U.S. Aid Won’t Solve Nigeria’s Boko Haram Troubles, Experts Say

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Amid growing international outrage, the U.S. government has sent 30 military, intelligence and law enforcement advisers to Nigeria to help find 270 teenage girls kidnapped a month ago by Boko Haram, that nation’s most feared armed faction. But in a nation where government forces are distrusted and politicians are resistant to accept help, how much can the U.S. effort help to, as the Twitter hashtag urges, #bringbackourgirls?

Boko Haram’s grip on Nigeria, particularly in the northeast, where the girls were snatched, is wide and thorough, running through every sector of government. A year ago Wednesday, Nigeria declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states, saying terrorists had created “fear among our citizens and a near-breakdown of law and order in parts of the country.” Since 2010, at least 300 students have been killed in attacks by Boko Haram, which loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden.” The group has said it kidnapped the girls because they needed to be married off rather than schooled.

Yet until this case, the Nigerian government was reluctant to publicly pressure Boko Haram. In February, for example, at least 29 male students were killed, many of them burned alive, after Boko Haram forces stormed their dormitory in the state of Yobe, setting it ablaze. The female students were reportedly told to leave and get married instead. In the hours before the attack, the school guards mysteriously vanished. In July, Boko Haram attacked another school in Yobe state, killing 42 people, mostly students. Both attacks spurred little response from national officials.

Five years ago, Boko Haram operated as a quasi-legitimate organization with the backing of some politicians. Since then it’s wrested control of the northeast from government forces, who either are aligned with it or don’t act against it out of fears of attacks on their families.

As one former defense official who worked on U.S. Africa Command issues explained: The U.S. “will have to be careful who it shares the intelligence with.” The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity, in order to talk freely.

Students of the country say local leaders must take the initiative to rescue the girls. But that’s also fraught with difficulty. Tribal sheikhs in the area fear Boko Haram and distrust a central government that’s done little to stop the group’s spread.

Among the recommendations the U.S. has made to the central government, the State Department said Wednesday, is urging it to develop better communications with the country’s local governments. Experts say another recommendation should be to reject a proposal from Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau to exchange the girls for imprisoned militants. He made the offer in a video released Monday that showed some of the girls.

“Put pressure on locals to find these girls because Boko Haram is among the population,” said Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boko Haram with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research and analysis firm.

Many think the greatest help the United States could extend, beyond rescuing the girls, is to help Nigerians fight for a government that isn’t so vulnerable to the burgeoning Boko Haram influence.

“I think there is a role for the U.S here,” said retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, who led the African Command until last year. Citing the U.S. designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, Ham said the U.S. now could identify the group’s international financiers and search for links between it and al-Qaida’s North Africa affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Most importantly, the United States can press Nigeria to solve the country’s internal economic issues.

“The greatest impact we can have is to press the Nigerian government to address the pressing issues that make young men vulnerable to Boko Haram recruiting,” Ham said. “Our efforts on the non-military front can be more helpful.”

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AFP Photo/Robert MacPherson

After U.S. Helped Topple Gadhafi, Congress Showed Little Interest In Libya, Until Benghazi

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time — 16 months ago to be exact — when Congress showed very little interest in Libya.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted along party lines, 232-186, to convene a select committee to investigate the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens. Republicans said creation of the panel was necessary for Congress to carry out its oversight role into how the attack happened and whether the Obama administration purposely obscured facts afterward.

But the new Benghazi probe is unlikely to tackle another topic that some argue is just as critical to understanding what went wrong in Libya — Congress’ own failure to call attention to the deteriorating security situation in that country in the months after the NATO-assisted toppling of its longtime leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

Even after Congress approved the U.S. military joining a NATO mission in May 2011 whose efforts contributed Gadhafi’s fall and death, neither the House nor the Senate ever held a hearing about Libya and what the NATO-led effort had left behind. After four decades of living under Gadhafi, all with no real security force or order, Libya struggled to maintain security, its economy failed to recover and the weak government in Tripoli was powerless to fend off extremists who took control of the restive country.

Republicans were front and center in the failure to explore what was happening in Libya. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a harsh critic of the Obama administration over its handling of the Benghazi attacks, met with Stevens during a July 2012 visit to Libya, just two months before Stevens’ death. A month earlier, unknown attackers in Benghazi had attempted to assassinate the British ambassador to Libya.

Yet McCain made no mention publicly of the deteriorating security situation — the British had closed their consulate in Benghazi in response to the attack — and instead issued a news release that effusively praised the progress Libya was making toward democracy.

Asked this week about his visit with Stevens, McCain said that the ambassador had discussed the security situation with him. Pressed for details, McCain said he could not remember the specifics of the conversation. Asked whether he brought any security concerns to the attention of his fellow members of Congress or officials at the State Department when he returned from Libya, McCain said he could not recall. A review of Senate records found nothing to indicate that he had.

McCain acknowledged he didn’t probe. “I didn’t ask him questions,” he said. “It was part of the conversation. He said he relayed that information back to the State Department.”

McCain is not alone. Before the Benghazi attack, Congress showed little interest in developments in Libya after the collapse of the Gadhafi government, even though the civil war there was fueled in no small part by the U.S. decision to back NATO’s air campaign. The ramifications of that effort have had a far greater effect than many imagined when bombing began in Libya in March 2011.

Russia, which had joined the United States in supporting a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians in Libya, later accused the West of exceeding the authority the U.N. had granted it when it helped topple Gadhafi. Moscow now cites the experience as one reason it has refused to be more cooperative on halting the violence in Syria.

The looting of the Gadhafi government’s weapons stores is believed by many to have fueled the rise of al-Qaida in northern Africa, where al-Qaida-inspired terrorists nearly seized the country of Mali before French forces drove them back into the desert early last year. Libyan weapons are said to have helped the growth of al-Qaida-linked groups in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Benghazi’s airport now routinely receives passengers that officials there believe are bound for terrorist training camps set up in the countryside of eastern Libya.

Yet none of those developments have been the subject of congressional hearings in the more than 2 1/2 years since Gadhafi fell.

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AFP Photo

U.S. Forces Return Rogue Oil Tanker To Libya

By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Foreign Staff

CAIRO — U.S. Navy SEALs took control of a rogue ship illegally loaded with Libyan crude oil early Monday in Mediterranean waters off the coast of Cyprus, ending a crisis that led to the ouster of the country’s prime minister and highlighted the inability of Libya’s central government to protect its most valued assets.

It was the most overt U.S. military intervention on behalf of the fragile Libyan government since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi 2 years ago.

The Pentagon said no one was hurt in the operation, which it announced at around 2:30 a.m. in Washington.

The Pentagon said three armed men had been taken into custody aboard the vessel, the commercial tanker Morning Glory, but it was not clear whether the men had been handed over to the Libyan government. A Libyan government statement said that the ship’s crew was “safe and well” and “would be dealt with in accordance to international and national law,” but it made no mention of the armed men.

The Libyan government said its navy “and other forces” had tried to capture the ship “but faced challenges owing to bad weather and inadequate resources.”

“The government expresses its appreciation to all countries who participated in this operation which took place to enforce the sovereign will of the Libyan nation,” the statement said. “In particular, it wishes to thank the United States of America and the Republic of Cyprus.”

President Barack Obama approved the operation at 10 p.m. EDT Sunday or 4 a.m. local time Monday, the Pentagon statement said.

In the Pentagon statement, spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said the operation was undertaken at the request of both the Libyan and Cypriot governments. It referred to the Morning Glory as “stateless,” meaning it was not registered in any country, allowing the United States to move without gaining any other government’s permission.

When the Morning Glory’s presence was first noted in Libyan waters earlier this month, it was flying the North Korean flag. But after Libya complained, North Korea denied that it had been registered there legally.

“The SEAL team embarked and operated from the guided missile destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG-80),” the Pentagon statement said. “USS Roosevelt provided helicopter support and served as a command and control and support platform for the other members of the force assigned to conduct the mission.”

The statement did not specify how many Americans were involved in the early morning operation. It said a team of sailors from the USS Stout had boarded the ship and would “be supervising” its return to an unidentified Libyan port.

The tanker episode marked the biggest crisis to strike Libya’s central government since Gadhafi’s overthrow and was the latest sign of the ongoing hostility between that government and the militias that came together to battle Gadhafi in 2011.

Since then, the militias have refused all entreaties to surrender their weapons, and the central government has proved incapable of asserting its authority over them.

AFP Photo/Robert Fluegel