Next Assignment: Benghazi

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, your boss comes into your office or cubicle and says, “Your next assignment is to investigate the disaster that is Benghazi.” Would you flinch?

Kevin Kolbye, FBI assistant special agent in charge (ASAC) in the Dallas, Texas office, didn’t think twice. He packed his bags and was away on assignment. But, wait a minute; this is the FBI. Aren’t they a domestic law enforcement agency? Do they have duties overseas?

The answer is yes, and yes. The FBI does have efforts overseas, such as investigating the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen or working at a U.S. embassy.

Kolbye took about 30 minutes to relate his efforts to the leader of an investigative team who traveled to Libya to investigate the bombing. The team leader explained what explosives were used and how U.S. citizens were treated during and after the bombing.

In that Sept. 11, 2012 embassy attack, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed. Three other patriots perished that day: Sean Smith, information management officer, along with Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both security officers and former Navy SEALs. Their goal is not to determine who is responsible at home, but what happened abroad.

You have to understand that democracy is an unknown ideal in Libya. The people of Libya, until recently, have not known what freedom is like or what it is about. Even now, their ideas and concepts of freedom are skewed by warlords of every ilk, fighting for power.

If you’ll remember, it was Muammar Gaddafi who seized power in 1969 and controlled the country by fear for decades. During his evil siege, the economy was weakened and unemployment climbed as high as 40 percent. In February 2011, civil war gripped the nation, and in August of that year, Gaddafi was ousted from power.

Lawful conduct and security had no place in Libya. To simply fly into Libya, an airline pilot was risking the safety and security of crew and passengers, as gunfire was a constant threat to airplanes.

Kolbye met with the North Texas Crime Commission on Oct. 10 to explain his mission, or, at least what he could comfortably talk about within non-classified relevance, bringing to attention his journey to get to Benghazi and the complicated mission of investigation. Once on the ground, however, the investigation took shape as law enforcement collected and analyzed physical, photographic and video evidence.

“This took multiple hours to stage the story,” Kolbye said. “The crime scene reminded me of the remnants of a fraternity party.”

Kolbye continued, “One key difference is, in the United States, when a bomb goes off, people run from the explosion. When a bomb goes off in Libya, people run to it. It is difficult to tell who is an aggressor and who is a bystander.”

Law enforcement faced numerous challenges. Public support had to be discrete because locals didn’t want to appear as though they supported the FBI. Intelligence was spotty, and the FBI had to play a role in protecting their sources. Agents on scene found a lack of support from the host country in terms of capabilities and capacity to work an investigation. There was lack of evidence, lack of mobility and lack of willingness by some Libyans to cooperate.

When evidence was found, though, Kolbye said that it was placed in a “secure” evidence locker. FBI agents found the room that housed the locker more dangerous than the outside world because it often contained live explosives just lying around. And, they could not depend upon local police because the government, itself, was in chaos.

“The country was ruled by a president of congress,” Kolbye said. “They do a lot of talking but offer little action. There were 1,800 police in Benghazi, and there were no laws to enforce; in fact, they didn’t even know what the laws were.”

Benghazi was made up of numerous tribes and factions, so the FBI had to filter much of their work through indigenous terrorists, those seemingly still in power: radical Islamic groups, federalist groups and Libyan Shield Forces, tribes who had been recruited to be a revolutionary militia. The FBI also faced international terror groups, some of whom were operatives for al-Qa’ida, Shiite radicals (Hezbollah)—criminals who relied on kidnapping, murder, carjacking and drug smuggling traders.

“Every country is different in the Middle East,” Kolbye said. “Jordan and Saudi Arabia are more forward leaning, but Libya is still a fragile country. We also found that in building each case, it had to be done by eyewitness testimony. People there are very frightened about coming to the United States and testifying.”

Kolbye said that no one agency can fight terrorism alone as it takes federal, state and local authorities to win the war on terror.

Offering a prolific quote from former President George W. Bush, Kolbye recited, “In the war on terror, sometimes we bring people to justice, and sometimes we bring justice to the people.”

I applaud Kolbye and his associates for doing what seemed to be nearly impossible. Searching for clues in a mine field is a daunting task. Thankfully, we have men and women of courage that are equal to the mission.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Security Today.

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