The Rajma Arms Dump Explosion – A Microcosmic Event
Five covert wars are underway behind Libya's front lines. One is American; one British; a third conducted by Muammar Qaddafi; a fourth, Americans versus Brits, and the fifth by Al Qaeda.
The party responsible for the March 4 explosions that destroyed the huge Rajma arms dumps near Benghazi seized by rebels from Qaddafi's troops in the third week of February has never been identified, although their origins and repercussions represent the broad spectrum of clandestine activity behind Libya's battle lines.
Above all, it predetermined the course of the Libyan contest by wiping out in one fell swoop the rebels' main ammunition store.
The explosion described as apocalyptic leveled buildings in the town of Rajma, overturned vehicles and sent flames shooting hundreds of meters into the air. The death toll, first estimated at 27, is still unknown. More bodies are certain to be buried under the mountain of gray ash which is all that remains of the arms dump.
If, before the blast, the opposition was a collection of irregular bands and individuals lacking a command structure, plan of campaign or basic training in the use of missiles, the depots' destruction left them fighting off pro-Qaddafi forces' tanks, air force, rockets and helicopters practically empty-handed.
In fact, two days later, forces loyal to Qaddafi rode its devastating momentum for a major counter-offensive which within hours, on Tuesday, March 8, turned the tide of the war in his favor.
The army he had massed at his home town of Sirte, divided into two columns that moved forward on parallel tracks along the Bay of Sidra coast to the oil town of Ras Lanuf and further south, toward Adjabia and Brega.
Both rolled forward behind a wall of fire of BM-21 Katyusha rockets and helicopters firing missiles and heavy machine guns as T-72 tanks mowed down everything in their path.
The US had three compelling reasons for blowing up the ammo dump
The opposition stood no chance of halting the pro-Qaddafi forces march on Cyrenaica or preventing him laying Benghazi, seat of its National Transitional Council, to siege.
Attempts were made after the explosion to explain its cause as mishandling by the inexperienced opposition fighters. This was soon abandoned. Military experts maintained that the series of simultaneous explosions powerful enough to reduce the entire facility's contents to rubble must have been the work of professionals.
According to a second theory, Qaddafi's people were responsible – either by air bombardment or sabotage by a team or a suicide bomber hired by Libyan intelligence. This too was ruled out after Western intelligence and explosives experts examined satellite images and surveillance teams' impressions at the scene and decided that Qaddafi did not command the high talent required to pull it off.
The third theory, and the most convincing, ascribed the Rajma operation to US Special Operations forces landed by one of the US warships anchored off the Libyan coast.
Although Washington backed the rebels, this particular operation served certain pressing American interests:
1. It was essential to keep the ammunition stores from falling into the hands of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counter-terror sources report information received in Washington that an AQIM team with pocketfuls of cash had arrived in Libya from the Sahara and Tunisia to seize a quantity of missiles and spirit them out of the country. The stores had also attracted agents of international weapons traffickers in search of pickings for the black market.
The explosion caught both groups. According to one estimate, none of the 40 people present at the scene had survived.
Washington never intended the uprising to partition Libya
2. The Rajma episode figured in the rivalry evolving behind Libyan battle lines between the US and Britain.
The Obama administration had not intended the Libyan street uprising beginning on Feb. 14 to balloon into a major armed conflict between pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces, and blamed British premier David Cameron for inflating it to major proportions so as to warrant British military intervention and a starring role.
British agents were reported by US agents and officers in the field as pumping up rebel action and hopes of a showdown with Qaddafi. The rebels believed the British were acting in concert with Washington, whereas they were in fact acting independently.
The Americans may have blown up the arms depots to deflate the conflict's dimensions.
On the day of the explosion, March 4, a British covert unit of six MI6 Secret Service agents and eight SAS Special Forces personnel landed in rebel-held territory. Opposition leaders saw nothing amiss in the arrival of another group of British advisers. They became suspicious when the new arrivals turned out to be using code names and false passports as well as trying to conceal weapons for guerrilla combat.
The rebel leaders only let them go after London threatened the next day to send a military unit to break them out of Benghazi prison, and even then they were allowed to leave Sunday only against a pledge to discontinue all covert activity in rebel-held territory.
British covert teams remain in the country, but fewer than before this episode.
3. Washington never intended the uprising it championed against Qaddafi to result in Libya's partition between rebel-held Cyrenaica in the east and Tripolitania in the west. All America needs is another Somalia on the Mediterranean, with al Qaeda gripping its jugular. It therefore became necessary to hold the rebel assault on Qaddafi in check. Blowing up their ammunitions stores served that purpose.
Qaddafi and his sophisticated spy tools
While sending his sons to command the front lines and the battles for the cities, Muammar Qaddafi himself took charge of covert operations in Tripoli and deep behind those lines.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report he has four espionage resources at his disposal – three of them very sophisticated.
One is an advanced electronic tracking system backed by air drones and surveillance aircraft. He also has a net of hidden sensors on the ground – some of them there for the last three years.
During the three weeks of fighting the insurrection against him, Qaddafi found occasion to boast that he the constant updates he received allowed him to stay on top of events in the battle field, the roads leading to them and the oil centers.
The system keeping him updated was installed by European security experts he had employed for some time. The rebels had no idea they were under surveillance. Even if they hit on a hidden camera and destroyed it, the system continued to function.
His second tool is a state of the art electronic warfare system which is capable of jamming the British – and some of the American – communications lines with the rebels. This gear is reported to have helped him preempt commando attacks on Libyan Air Force airfields and road hubs serving Qaddafi's troop movements.
The Libya ruler also claims his eavesdropping measures are effective enough to break into the networks of ordinary telephones, mobiles, coded communications and satellite phones and he has listened in to the telephone conversations among the rebels, Americans and Brits.
The recondite "National Transitional Council"
His fourth clandestine tool is a team of highly-trained assassins, who are part of his personal security guard. He used them against "foreign" agents who had set up stations in Tripoli for gathering intelligence and recruiting informants.
His hit teams were also loosed against American and British spies infiltrating the western regions and heading south to the Sahara to pick up information on Qaddafi's military structures and mark targets for attack, such as the air fields where he has deployed most of his air force.
Some of those spies died in combat with Qaddafi's agents.
The same Libyan hit teams were sent against bands of Al Qaeda interlopers from the east which made it to the northern towns of Nalut, Zawiya and Misrata.
Most of the media pooh-poohed the Libyan ruler's allegations that al Qaeda commanders and activists were fighting in rebel ranks. However Western intelligence agencies, including American undercover teams on the ground, were convinced by transmissions they picked up couched in the language and style used by AQIM.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that thanks to his sophisticated surveillance system and network, Muammar Qaddafi may be the only person who knows the identities of all 35 members of the opposition National Transitional Council running the uprising from Benghazi, Libya's second largest city.
Only eight of its members have been identified in the West, including former Libyan justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil. Therefore, the decision by France Thursday, March 10, to recognize the Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, extended recognition to a largely recondite entity.