[Dehai-WN] (Reuters): Special report: The secret plan to take Tripoli

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Thu Sep 08 2011 - 13:14:43 EDT

Special report: The secret plan to take Tripoli

Samia Nakhoul

TRIPOLI | Tue Sep 6, 2011 10:00am EDT

(Reuters) - Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime was delivered by a caterer, on
a memory stick.

Abdel Majid Mlegta ran the companies that supplied meals to Libyan
government departments including the interior ministry. The job was "easy,"
he told Reuters last week. "I built good relations with officers. I wanted
to serve my country."

But in the first few weeks of the uprising, he secretly began to work for
the rebels. He recruited sympathizers at the nerve center of the Gaddafi
government, pinpointed its weak links and its command-and-control strength
in Tripoli, and passed that information onto the rebel leadership on a
series of flash memory cards.

The first was handed to him, he says, by Gaddafi military intelligence and
security officers. It contained information about seven key operations rooms
in the capital, including internal security, the Gaddafi revolutionary
committees, the popular guards -- as Gaddafi's voluntary armed militia was
known -- and military intelligence.

The data included names of the commanders of those units, how many people
worked in each center and how they worked, as well as crucial details like
the number plates of their cars, and how each unit communicated with the
central command led by intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi and Gaddafi's
second son Saif al-Islam.

That memory card -- which Mlegta later handed to officials at the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) -- provided the basis of a sophisticated
plan to topple the Libyan dictator and seize Tripoli. The operation, which
took months of planning, involved secretly arming rebel units inside the
capital. Those units would help NATO destroy strategic targets in the city
-- operation rooms, safe houses, military barracks, police stations, armored
cars, radars and telephone centers. At an agreed time, the units would then
rise up as rebels attacked from all sides.

The rebels called the plan Operation Dawn Mermaid. This is the inside story
-- much of it never before told -- of how that plan unfolded.

The rebels were not alone. British operatives infiltrated Tripoli and
planted radio equipment to help target air strikes and avoid killing
civilians, according to U.S. and allied sources. The French supplied
training and transport for new weapons. Washington helped at a critical late
point by adding two extra Predator drones to the skies over Tripoli,
improving NATO's ability to strike. Also vital, say western and rebel
officials, was the covert support of Arab states such as the United Arab
Emirates and Qatar. Doha gave weapons, military training and money to the

By the time the rebels were ready for the final assault, they were so
confident of success that they openly named the date and time of the attack:
Saturday, August 20, at 8 p.m., just after most people in Tripoli broke
their Ramadan fast.

"We didn't make it a secret," said Mohammed Gula, who led a pro-rebel
political cell in central Tripoli and spoke to Reuters as rebels first
entered Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziyah compound. "We said it out on the street.
People didn't believe us. They believe us now."


Planning began in April, two months into the uprising. Rebel leader Mahmoud
Jibril and three other senior insurgents met in the Tunisian city of Djerba,
according to both Mlegta and another senior official from the National
Transitional Council (NTC), as the alternative rebel government calls

The three were Mlegta, who by then had fled Tripoli and joined the rebels as
the head of a brigade; Ahmed Mustafa al-Majbary, who was head of logistics
and supplies; and Othman Abdel-Jalil, a scientist who became coordinator of
the Tripoli plan.

Before he fled, Mlegta had spent just under two months working inside the
regime, building up a network of sympathizers. At first, 14 of Gaddafi's
officers were prepared to help. By the end there were 72, Mlegta says. "We
used to meet at my house and sometimes at the houses of two other
officers... We preserved the secrecy of our work and it was in coordination
with the NTC executive committee."

Brigadier General Abdulsalam Alhasi, commander of the rebels' main operation
center in Benghazi, said those secretly helping the rebels were "police,
security, military, even some people from the cabinet; many, many people.
They gave us information and gave instructions to the people working with
them, somehow to support the revolution."

One of those was al-Barani Ashkal, commander-in-chief of the guard at
Gaddafi's military compound in the suburbs of Tripoli. Like many, Ashkal
wanted to defect, but was asked by the NTC to remain in his post where,
Alhasi says, he would become instrumental in helping the rebels enter the

The rebel planning committee -- another four men would join later, making
seven in all -- knew that the targets on the memory sticks were the key to
crippling Gaddafi's forces. The men included Hisham abu Hajar, chief
commander of the Tripoli Brigade, Usama Abu Ras, who liaised with some cells
inside Tripoli, and Rashed Suwan, who helped financially and coordinated
with the tribes of Tripoli to ease the rebels' entry.

According to Mlegta and to Hisham Buhagiar, a rebel colonel and the
committee's seventh member, the group initially drew up a list of 120 sites
for NATO to target in the days leading up to their attack.

Rebel leaders discussed their idea with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at
a meeting at the Elysee Palace on April 20.

That meeting was one of five in Paris in April and May, according to Mlegta.
Most were attended by the chiefs of staff of NATO countries involved in the
bombing campaign, which had begun in March, as well as military officials
from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

After presenting the rebels' plan "from A to Z", Mlegta handed NATO
officials three memory cards: the one packed with information about regime
strongholds in Tripoli; another with updated information on regime sites as
well as details of 65 Gaddafi officers sympathetic to the rebels who had
been secretly supplied with NATO radiophones; and a third which contained
the plot to take Tripoli.

Sarkozy expressed enthusiasm for the plan, according to Mlegta and the
senior NTC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The leaders slimmed the 120 targets down to 82 and "assigned 2,000 armed men
to go into Tripoli and 6,000 unarmed to go out (onto the streets) in the
uprising," according to rebel colonel Buhagiar. He joined the opposition
National Front for the Salvation of Libya in 1981 and has lived in the
United States and trained as a special forces operative in both Sudan and

There were already anti-Gaddafi cells in the capital that the rebels knew
they could activate. "The problem was that we needed time," the senior NTC
official said. "We feared that some units may go out into the streets in a
spontaneous way and they would be quashed. We also needed time to smuggle
weapons, fighters and boats."

In the early months of the uprising, pro-rebel fighters had slipped out of
Tripoli and made their way to the north-western city of Misrata, where they
were trained for the uprising, rebels in Misrata told Reuters in June. The
leaders of two rebel units said "hundreds" of Tripoli residents had begun
slipping back into the city by mid-July. Commander Alhasi and other rebel
officers in Benghazi said the number of infiltrators sent into Tripoli was
dozens, not hundreds.

"This was not D-Day," Alhasi told Reuters in his office.


Most of the infiltrators traveled to Tripoli by fishing trawler, according
to Alhasi. They were equipped with light weapons -- rifles and
sub-machineguns -- hand grenades, demolition charges and radios.

"We could call them and they could call each other," Alhasi said. "Most of
them were volunteers, from all parts of Libya, and Libyans from overseas.
Everybody wants to do something for the success of the revolution."

Although Tripoli was ostensibly under the control of Gaddafi loyalists,
rebels said the security system was porous: bribery or other ruses could be
used to get in and out. Small groups of men also began probing the
government's security system with nighttime attacks on checkpoints,
according to one operative who talked to Reuters in June.

It was possible to smuggle weapons into Tripoli, but it was easier and less
risky -- if far more expensive -- to buy them from Gaddafi loyalists looking
to make a profit before the regime collapsed. The going rate for a
Kalashnikov in Tripoli was $5,000 over the summer; in Misrata the same
weapon cost $3,000.

Morale got a boost when rebels broke into government communication channels
and recorded 2,000 calls between the regime's top leadership, including a
few with Gaddafi's sons, on everything from military orders to sex. The NTC
mined the taped calls for information and broadcast some of them on rebel
TV, a move that frightened the regime, according to the senior NTC source.
"They knew then that we had infiltrated and broken into their ranks."

Recordings of two of the calls were also handed to the International
Criminal Court. One featured Gaddafi's prime minister al-Baghdadi
al-Mahmoudi threatening to burn the family of Abdel Rahman Shalgham, a
one-time Libyan ambassador to the United Nations and an early defector to
the rebels. Al-Mahmoudi described Shalgham as a slave. The other was between
al-Mahmoudi and Tayeb al-Safi, minister of
<http://www.reuters.com/finance/economy> economy and trade; the pair joked
about how the Gaddafi brigades would rape the women of Zawiyah when they
entered the town.

Several allied and U.S. officials, as well as a source close to the Libyan
rebels, said that around the beginning of May, foreign military trainers
including British, French and Italian operatives, as well as representatives
from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, began to organize serious efforts
to hone the rebels into a more effective fighting force.

Most of the training happened in the rebel-held Western Mountains. But Eric
Denece, a former French intelligence operative and now Director of the
French Center for Research on Intelligence, says an elite rebel force of
fighters from the east was trained both inside and outside Libya, at NATO
bases and those of other allies. This "overseas brigade" was then dropped
back into the country. In all, estimated Denece, some 100-200 foreign
operatives were sent to Libya, where they focused on training and military
coordination. Mlegta confirms that number.


Rebel commander Alhasi insists western special forces were not involved in
combat; the main help they gave was with the bombing campaign and training.
London, Paris and Washington also say their troops were not involved in

"They complied with our (bombing) requirements, immediately sometimes,
sometimes we had a delay," said Alhasi, who has a big satellite photograph
of Tripoli on one of his walls. "We had the information on the ground about
the targets and relayed it to them."

A European official knowledgeable about such operations said "dozens" of
plain-clothes French military advisers were sent to Libya. A French official
said between 30 and 40 "military advisers" helped organize the rebels and
trained them on basic weapons and more high-tech hardware.

In May, the French began smuggling weapons into western Libya. French
military spokesmen later confirmed these arms drops, saying they were
justified as "humanitarian support", but also briefing that the aim was to
prepare for an advance on Tripoli.

British undercover personnel carried out some of the most important
on-the-ground missions by allied forces before the fall of Tripoli, U.S. and
allied officials told Reuters.

One of their key tasks, according to allied officials, was planting radio
equipment to help allied forces target Gaddafi's military forces and
command-and-control centers. This involved dangerous missions to infiltrate
the capital, locate specific potential targets and then plant equipment so
bomber planes could precisely target munitions, destroying sensitive targets
without killing bystanders.


In mid-March, a month after violent resistance to Gaddafi's rule first
erupted, President Obama had signed a sweeping top secret order, known as a
covert operations "finding", which gave broad authorization to the CIA to
support the rebels.

But while the general authorization encompassed a wide variety of possible
measures, the presidential finding required the CIA to come back to the
White House for specific permissions to move ahead and help them. Several
U.S. officials said that, because of concerns about the rebels'
disorganization, internal politics, and limited paramilitary capabilities,
clandestine U.S. support on the ground never went much beyond intelligence

U.S. officials acknowledge that as rebel forces closed in on Tripoli, such
intelligence "collection" efforts by the CIA and other American agencies in
Libya became very extensive and included efforts to help the rebels and
other NATO allies track down Gaddafi and his entourage. But the Obama
administration's intention, the officials indicated, was that if any such
intelligence fell into American hands it would be passed onto others.

A senior U.S. defense official disclosed to Reuters details of a legal
opinion showing the Pentagon would not be able to supply lethal aid to the
rebels -- even with the U.S. recognition of the NTC.

"It was a legal judgment that the quasi-recognition that we gave to the NTC
as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people didn't check the legal
box to authorize us to be providing lethal assistance under the Arms Export
Control Act," the senior official said.


In some ways the rebels' most unlikely ally was Qatar.

The Gulf Arab state is keen to downplay its role, perhaps understandably
given that it is ruled by an absolute monarch. But on the ground, signs
abounded of the emirate's support. The weapons and equipment the French
brought in were mostly supplied by Qatar, according to rebel sources. In
May, a Reuters reporter saw equipment in boxes clearly stamped "Qatar." It
included mortar kits, military fatigues, radios and binoculars. At another
location, Reuters saw new anti-tank missiles.

Qatar's decision to supply arms to the rebellion, one source close to the
NTC told Reuters, was instigated by influential Libyan Islamist scholar Ali
Salabi, who sought refuge in Qatar after fleeing Libya in the late 1990s. He
had previously worked with Gaddafi's son Saif, to help rehabilitate Libyans
who had fought in <http://www.reuters.com/places/afghanistan> Afghanistan.
Salabi's brother Ismael is also a leader of a rebel militia in Libya.

Salabi "is the link to the influential figures in Qatar, and convinced the
Qataris to get involved," said the source close to the NTC.


By early June, Libya seemed locked in a stalemate.

After three months of civil war, rebels had seized huge swathes of
territory, but NATO bombing had failed to dislodge Gaddafi. The African
Union said the only way forward was a ceasefire and negotiated peace. London
joined Paris in suggesting that while Gaddafi must step down, perhaps he
could stay in Libya.

But hidden away from view, the plan to seize Tripoli was moving into action.

The rebels began making swift advances in the Western Mountains, out of
Misrata and around the town of Zintan. Newly arrived Apache attack
helicopters operating from Britain's HMS Ocean, an amphibious assault ship,
were destroying armored vehicles. NATO aircraft dropped leaflets to dispirit
Gaddafi forces and improve rebel morale.

"The game-changer has been the attack helicopters which have given the NTC
more protection from Gaddafi's heavy weapons," a French Defense Ministry
official said.

The rebels' foreign backers were eager to hasten the war. For one thing, a
U. N. mandate for bombing ran only to the end of September; agreement on an
extension was not guaranteed. One U.S. official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, told Reuters the main U.S. concern was "breaking the rough
stalemate before the end of the NATO mandate".

The Europeans were also burning through costly munitions and Washington was
concerned about wear and tear on NATO allies' aircraft. "Some of the
countries... basically every deployable F-16 they had in the inventory was
deployed," a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters.

But the momentum was shifting in the rebels' favor.

On July 28, the assassination of rebel military commander Abdel Fatah Younes
proved a surprise turning-point. The former Interior Minister had defected
to the rebels in February. Some believe he had held back their advance from
the east, for reasons that remain unclear. Younes' death at the hands of his
own men raised questions about the NTC and added impetus to NATO's desire to
push things along in case the anti-Gaddafi forces imploded.

The West forced NTC head Mahmoud Jibril to change his cabinet. NATO then
took more of the lead in preparations, according to Denece, who said he has
contacts within both French and Libyan intelligence.

There was another boon to the rebels. Regional heavyweight
<http://www.reuters.com/places/turkey> Turkey came out in support of the NTC
in July, and then held a conference at which 30 countries backed them. "The
Turks actually were very helpful throughout this in a very quiet kind of
way," said the senior U.S. defense official.

With the morale of Gaddafi troops eroding, the end was clearly near.
Mediocre at the best of times, Gaddafi's fighters began fading away. So too
did his secret weapon: foreign mercenaries.

After the uprising began, Gaddafi recruited several thousand mercenaries;
some formed the core of his best-organised forces. Most of the hired guns
came from countries to Libya's south such as Chad, Mali, and Niger, but some
were from further afield, including South Africa and the Balkans.

Among them was a former Bosnian Serb fighter who had fought in Sierra Leone
as a mercenary and later worked as a contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hired in March, first as an instructor and later as the commander of a 120mm
mortar battery, the fighter, who used his nom-de-guerre Crni ("the Black" in
Serbian), told Reuters he had been paid regularly in cash in the western
<http://www.reuters.com/finance/currencies> currency of his choice.

"I knew Libyans had poor discipline, but what I have seen was dismal in
comparison with what we had in former Yugoslavia during our wars," he told
Reuters. "They were cowards, at least many of them. Communications were the
biggest problem, as they just couldn't figure out how to operate anything
more sophisticated than a walkie-talkie, so we resorted to cellphones, when
they worked and while they worked."

It was in early August, he said, that "everything started falling apart."
The force of which he was a part began retreating from a rebel onslaught.
"At some point we came under fire from a very organised group, and I suspect
they were infiltrated (by) NATO ground troops," he said. The loyalist units
pulled back to a point about 50 km (30 miles) from Tripoli. By mid-August,
"I decided it was enough. I took a jeep with plenty of fuel and water and
another two Libyans I trusted, and we traveled across the desert to a
neighboring country. It took us four days to get there."


Foreign agents, meanwhile, were circulating far and wide. At the
<http://www.reuters.com/places/tunisia> Tunisia-Libya border in early
August, a Reuters reporter ran into a Libyan with an American accent who
identified himself as the head of the rebel command center in the Western
Mountains. He was accompanied by two muscular blond western men. He said he
spent a lot of time in the United States and Canada, but would not

As the rebels advanced on Zawiyah, the Reuters reporter also saw
western-looking men inside the Western Mountain region traveling in simple,
old pickup trucks. Not far away, rebels in Nalut said they were being aided
by CIA agents, though this was impossible to verify.

Operation Dawn Mermaid was initially meant to begin on August 10, according
to Mohammed Gula, the political cell leader in central Tripoli. But "other
cities were not yet ready", the leadership decided, and it was put off for a
few days.

A debate flared inside the Pentagon about whether to send extra Predator
drones to Libya. "It was a controversial issue even as to whether it made
sense to pull (drones) from other places to boost this up to try to bring
this to a quicker conclusion," the U.S. defense official said.

Those who backed the use of extra drones won, and the last two Predators
were taken from a training base in the United States and sent to north
Africa, arriving on August 16.

In the meantime, the rebels had captured several cities. By August 17 or 18,
recalls Gula, "when we heard that Zawiyah had fallen, and Zlitan looked like
it was about to fall, and Garyan had fallen, we decided now is the time."

Those successes had a knock-on effect, U.S. and NATO officials told Reuters.
With much of the country now conquered, Predator drones and other
surveillance and strike planes could finally be focused on the capital. Data
released by the Pentagon showed a substantial increase in the pace of U.S.
air strikes in Libya between August 10 and August 22.

"We didn't have to scan the entire country any longer," a NATO official
said. "We were able to focus on where the concentrations of regime forces


Days before the attack on Tripoli, the White House began leaking stories to
TV networks saying Gaddafi was near the end. But U.S. intelligence officials
-- who are supposed to give an objective view of the situation on the ground
-- were pushing back, telling journalists they were not so sure of immediate
victory and the fighting could go on for months.

Then, on August 19, a breakthrough: Abdel Salam Jalloud, one of the most
public faces of Gaddafi's regime, defected. Jalloud had been trying to get
out for the previous three months, according to the senior NTC official. "He
asked for our help but because he wanted his whole family, not only his
immediate one, to flee with him it was a logistical problem. His whole
family was around 35."

By now, the mountain roads were under rebel control. They took him and his
family from Tripoli to Zintan and across the border into Tunisia. From
there, he flew to <http://www.reuters.com/places/italy> Italy and on to

The rebel leadership was ready. But now NATO wanted more time. "Once they
got control of Zawiyah, we were sort of expecting that they would make a
strategic pause, regroup and then make the push on into Tripoli," the senior
U.S. defense official said.

"We told NATO we're going to go anyway," said a senior NTC official.

The western alliance quickly scaled back its number of bombing targets to 32
from 82, while rebel special forces hit some of the control rooms that were
not visible, like those in schools and hospitals.

The signal to attack came soon after sunset on August 20, in a speech by NTC
Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil. "The noose is tightening," he said. A
"veritable bloodbath" was about to occur.

Within 10 minutes of his speech, rebel cells in neighborhoods across Tripoli
started moving. Some units were directly linked to the operation; many
others were not but had learned about the plan.

"We didn't choose it, the circumstances and the operations led us to this
date," Alhasi told Reuters when asked why the uprising in Tripoli began
then. "There was a public plan in Tripoli that they would rise up on that
day, by calling from the mosques. It was not a military plan, not an
official plan, it was a people's plan. The people inside Tripoli, they did
this in coordination with us."

In the first few hours, rebel cells attacked installations and command
posts. Others simply secured neighborhoods, setting up roadblocks and
impeding movement.

Ships laden with food and ammunition set off from rebel-held Misrata. Rebel
forces began pushing toward the capital from the Western Mountains and from
the east. According to French newspapers, NATO cleared a path on the water
by destroying pro-Gaddafi speed boats equipped with explosives.

The first rebel soldiers reached the city within a few hours. The rag-tag
army didn't look like much: some warriors wore football kit bearing the name
of English soccer players. But they encountered little resistance.

One rebel source said Gaddafi had made a fatal error by sending his
important brigades and military leaders, including his son Mu'atassem, to
secure the oil town of Brega. The Libyan leader apparently feared the loss
of the oil area would empower the rebels. But it meant he left Tripoli
without strong defences, allowing the rebels easy entry.

The air war was also overwhelming the regime. Under attack, Gaddafi forces
brought whatever heavy equipment they still had out of hiding. In the final
24 hours, a western military official said, NATO "could see remnants of
Gaddafi forces trying to reconstitute weapons systems, specifically
surface-to-air missiles". NATO pounded with them with air strikes.


By Sunday August 21, the rebels controlled large parts of Tripoli. In the
confusion, the NTC announced it had captured Saif al-Islam. Late the
following evening, though, he turned up at the Rixos, the Tripoli hotel
where foreign reporters were staying. "I am here to disperse the rumors...,"
he declared.

U.S. and European officials now say they believe Saif was never in custody.
NTC chief Mahmoud Jibril attributes the fiasco to conflicting reports within
the rebel forces. But, he says, the bumbling turned into a bonanza: "The
news of his arrest gave us political gains. Some countries recognized us,
some brigades surrendered ... and more than 30 officers defected."

As the Gaddafi brigades collapsed, the rebels reached a sympathizer in the
Libyan military who patched them into the radio communications of Gaddafi's
forces. "We could hear the panic through their orders," said the senior NTC
official. "That was the first indication that our youths were in control of

As the hunt for Gaddafi got underway, the NTC began implementing a 70-page
plan, drawn up in consultation with its foreign military backers, aimed at
establishing security in the capital.

Officials in London, Paris and Washington are at pains to say the plan is
not based on the experience of Iraq or any other country, but the lessons of
their mistakes in Baghdad are obvious.

At a press conference in Qatar, NTC head Jibril said Libya would
"rehabilitate and cure our wounds by being united so we can rebuild the

Unity was not hard to find during the uprising. "The most important factor
was the will of the people," commander Alhasi told Reuters. "The people hate

Will Libya remain united once he's gone?

(With reporting by Robert Birsel in Benghazi, Peter Graff in Tripoli,
Michael Georgy in the Western Mountains, Phil Stewart and Mark Hosenball in
Washington, Regan Doherty in Doha, Bill Maclean and Peter Apps in London,
John Irish in Paris, Nick Carey in Chicago, Aleksander Vasovic in Belgrade
and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; editing by
> Simon Robinson, Mike Williams and
Sara Ledwith)



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