After Benghazi, Specialized Crisis Response Teams Are Now the ‘New Normal’

In the wake of the Benghazi attack, the Pentagon realized it a needed smaller, more agile footprint in North Africa and the Middle East.

This photo taken on September 11, 2012 shows a vehicle and surrounding buildings smoldering after they were set on fire inside the US mission compound in Benghazi.
National Journal
May 21, 2014, 6:58 a.m.

[Eds. Note: An earli­er ver­sion of this story re­por­ted the Mar­ine Air Ground Task Force based in Spain re­sponds to hot­spots in North Africa and the Middle East. The MAGTF area of re­spons­ib­il­ity does not ex­tend to the Middle East.]

As un­rest spreads in Libya, a team of 250 Mar­ines is on standby in nearby Italy to evac­u­ate Amer­ic­ans at the U.S.em­bassy in Tripoli if ne­ces­sary. These small quick-re­ac­tion forces, based in Mor­on, Spain, can re­spond rap­idly to hot­spots in North Africa. And now, they’re part of what the Pentagon calls the “new nor­mal,” aimed at pre­vent­ing an­oth­er Benghazi-like at­tack.

“One of the things that we learned from Benghazi was the need to have an agile foot­print that you can move quickly to ad­dress just these kinds of is­sues in North Africa,” said Pentagon spokes­man Rear Adm. John Kirby at a brief­ing with re­port­ers Tues­day at the Pentagon. “This is part of what we con­sider the new nor­mal.”

The Mar­ine Air-Ground Task Force, or MAGTF, along with sev­en Os­prey heli­copters and three C-130 planes are wait­ing nearby to swoop in. Kirby called the po­s­i­tion­ing a “pre­cau­tion” that al­lows the U.S.”to be able to be in a pos­ture and in a loc­a­tion that, should they be needed in North Africa, spe­cific­ally Libya.”

“We’re watch­ing the situ­ation very closely and we urge, as, I think, every­body in the U.S. gov­ern­ment has been ur­ging, all parties to take a step back from the vi­ol­ence and work through these is­sues peace­fully,” Kirby said. “It’s cer­tainly un­set­tling. And quite frankly, that’s why we made the de­cision to move those Mar­ines to Si­cily, and they’re ready to go if they’re needed.”

(Re­lated: Why Libya Is So Hard To Gov­ern)

The Mar­ines and air­craft shif­ted to Italy as part of an East Africa Re­sponse Force with­in U.S. Africa Com­mand called the Spe­cial Pur­pose Mar­ine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Re­sponse unit. It was cre­ated in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2012, at­tack on a U.S. com­pound in Benghazi that killed four Amer­ic­ans, in­clud­ing Am­bas­sad­or Chris Stevens.

In Janu­ary, the unit de­ployed to Juba, South Su­dan, to evac­u­ate 20 U.S. em­bassy staffers. And last May it was in Sigon­ella, Italy, while dip­lo­mats evac­u­ated Tripoli when a car bomb killed 10 people in Benghazi.

The re­cent vi­ol­ence in Libya cen­ters on Khal­ifa Haf­tar, a former gen­er­al who has fielded his own self-de­clared Liby­an Na­tion­al Army in the se­cur­ity va­cu­um left by Muham­mar Gad­dafi’s toppled re­gime. Haf­tar’s men at­tacked Is­lam­ist mi­li­tia bases in Benghazi on Fri­day, killing 75 people Haf­tar viewed as sup­port­ive of Libya’s in­ter­im gov­ern­ment. Mi­li­tia­men countered on Sunday with an at­tack on the par­lia­ment in Tripoli, and on Tues­day, the par­lia­ment was forced to shift its op­er­a­tions to a nearby hotel and pushed up a new par­lia­ment vote as it tries to main­tain some semb­lance of le­git­im­acy.

“They’ve gone through quite a trans­ition over the last sev­er­al years,” said State De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Jen Psaki on Tues­day. “We don’t con­done or sup­port [Haf­tar’s] activ­it­ies, nor have we as­sisted with his ac­tions.”

For now, the U.S. Em­bassy in Tripoli re­mains open, she said.

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