Unintended Consequences: Inside Story of an Unsung Counterterrorism Strike

The U.S. hit on ISIS in Libya saved Tunisia but led to an odd standoff with Serbia.

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Just before dawn on Feb.19, 2016, U.S. Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle fighter jets dropped a payload of precision-guided bombs on a terrorist training camp in western Libya. The target: a senior Islamic State operative named Noureddine Chouchane. 

Some 1,300 miles away, Vice Admiral Michael T. Franken, deputy director of military operations at the U.S. Africa Command Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, watched the airstrike unfold on several large closed-circuit TV screens that streamed live video of the targeted buildings from remotely piloted MQ-9 Reaper drones circling overhead. 

The primary target, a three-story building, stood in the middle of a sprawling, two-acre Islamic State training compound outside the city of Sabratha, not far from Libya’s border with Tunisia along the Mediterranean coast and about 50 miles west of Tripoli, Libya’s capital.

ISIS, facing military defeat in Syria, had established a major presence in northeastern Libya, taking advantage of the chaos following the death of Muammar Gaddhafi in 2011. A large force of Islamic State fighters had taken over the area around Gaddhafi’s birthplace of Sirte. 

ISIS had ambitious plans for North Africa.Libya, and eventually Tunisia, were to be the epicenters of the new caliphate and to continue the Islamic revolution started in Iraq and Syria. The group saw Tunisia as promising real estate since it had birthed the Arab Spring the country and its citizens had an outsized representation within ISIS. Moreover, Tunisia was particularly fragile since two terrorist attacks the previous year had decimated the country’s tourism industry. Its fragile democracy was recovering, albeit slowly.

As Vice Admiral Franken tells it, a complex of U.S. counterterrorism entities, including the Special Operations Command and his own Africom, were engaged in the task of stopping the ISIS advance. 

The Tunisian-born Chouchane was a mission-critical target in the American effort to stop the ISIS advance into Tunisia. U.S. drones, satellites, and spies on the ground had been tracking him for months. It was known he had helped facilitate two terrorist attacks in Tunisia in 2015, recruiting gunmen and providing training, logistics and weapons. In March of that year, three ISIS recruits shot up the Bardo Museum, one of the Mediterranean’s most important cultural treasures, in the capital, Tunis, killing 22 foreign tourists. Three months later, a lone gunman firing an automatic weapon at a Tunisian beach resort outside the coastal city of Sousse killed 38 people, mostly British tourists. In both attacks, the gunmen were killed, and it later emerged that they all had been trained in Libya.

At the Sabratha training camp, virtually all of Chouchane’s fighters were Tunisian nationals, Franken said. Many of them had fought in Syria, Iraq and other parts of Libya. “These were Tunisians who were going home,” Franken said.

More than once, a U.S. drone camera caught Chouchane standing on a pier near Sabratha sending off boatloads of refugees to Europe. Refugee smuggling was a lucrative business for Chouchane, but it also fit in the larger ISIS strategy to foment political tensions in Europe. 

With his shaved head, full beard and zbiba, or calloused prayer bump on his forehead, the heavy-set Chouchane, 36, was becoming a terrorist star.

And now, Franken’s unit received U.S. reports that Chouchane was in the final stages of preparing a force of some 80 jihadists to launch an invasion of Tunisia aimed at sparking an uprising among ISIS sympathizers and eventually adding the country to the Islamic State’s new North African caliphate. As the ISIS invasion force trained at the Sabratha compound, U.S. drones had captured video of Chouchane traveling daily to the compound from his home in Tripoli, where he lived with his wife and two children. 

In Washington, there was deep concern among the U.S. national security officials, including President Barack Obama, about the growing threat that ISIS posed to the region and beyond.

“There was no reason to believe they were going to limit what they were doing to Tunisia,” a former senior U.S. official who worked on counter-terrorism issues in the Middle East told SpyTalk. “They were going to threaten both Libya and Tunisia. That in turn had significant potential for threatening Egypt, Algeria and Europe.” 

And the United States. “When they’re killing American tourists at a museum, that’s a terrorist attack against America,” the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Armed with details of Chouchane’s ISIS activities and surveillance of his travel routines, officials drafted a decision “one-pager” to take to President Obama, recommending a strike on Chouchane. Unlike the looser rein that President George W. Bush gave the U.S. military for such operations, Obama demanded tight control and strict conditions over antiterrorist killings. 

“He liked to make the final decision himself,” a former senior CIA official told SpyTalk on condition of anonymity to freely discuss counterterrorism policy. “He didn’t like to subject junior personnel to liability issues.” 

Obama signed off on the operation. 

Pinning the Point

Like past orders for targeted killings of terrorists, parameters were set to avoid harm to women and children. The last thing the commander-in-chief wanted was to see was foreign leaders withdraw their support for a counter-terrorism campaign of targeted killings because of shoddy U.S. targeting and mishandled intelligence. Fortunately for the planners, none of the militants were known to be female.

With Obama’s green light, the intelligence services, allies, and U.S. counterterrorism forces put in motion an operational plan. Opening a window of several days to execute the strike, they focused the vast array of intelligence assets and weapons systems to track Chouchane’s SUV from the time he bid goodbye to his wife in Tripoli, to his arrival in the Sabratha compound on Friday, February 16. According to the plan, when Chouchane got back on the road to Tripoli late in the day, drones would fire missiles to obliterate the car and its occupants. 

Franken agreed to discuss the unclassified aspects of the operation in order to provide a glimpse into the minute-by-minute decisions of an officer executing the deadly missions at the heart of America’s irregular war against ISIS. 

Now retired, Franken has returned to his native state of Iowa, where in 2020 he launched a losing bid for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. He is still intrigued by the idea of transitioning from a nearly 40-year military career to national politics, inspired in part by a two-year stint decades ago as an executive fellow in the office of the lead Senator Ted Kennedy, advising him on military affairs.

Franken is not hesitant to talk about what he calls "some of the dark aspects of what our country asks the military to do.” indeed, the Chouchane killing was not his first involvement in such an operation, he said. "I have no problem talking about these things. Everything I did was in the line of duty," he says. The Libya hit would block an imminent, possibly existential, threat to Tunisia, and possibly worse.

As he monitored the mission from Africom’s Stuttgart command headquarters, Franken was suddenly alerted to an unpredicted turn of events. Chouchane, having worked all day at the compound, showed no sign of leaving at his normal time to return to Tripoli. He appeared ready to spend the night. 

For Franken, this development was not so much an inconvenience as an opportunity. 

The authorization to kill Chouchane allowed for an expanded attack against the whole hostile compound, if that was required to complete the mission. “It was time to call an audible,” Franken said, “This was going to be another all-nighter.” It was a chance to destroy the entire ISIS operation planning the Tunisia invasion. 

Franken turned to his intelligence officers. Do we know enough about who is in the compound to ensure we aren’t killing any women or civilians? He asked. Yes, they assured him. The drones, whose cameras are powerful enough to detect the color of a person’s eyes from thousands of feet, had been giving them what Franken called a “long stare” at the camp for days at that point . 

The ordnance that had been lined up to hit Chouchane’s car on a highway was nowhere near sufficient to strike a sprawling compound with its multiple buildings, so other weapons options had to be considered: The Navy’s own precision-strike Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from ships hundreds of miles away, armed with 1,000-pound warheads could do the job. (“You can send them through a window,” Franken said.) But the decision was made at a higher level to go with even greater and more expensive U.S. firepower: a quartet of the Air Force’s U.K.-based F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bombers, together with support aircraft, including tankers for in-flight refueling and rescue ships off the Tunisian coast in case a fighter crew had to eject over the Mediiterranean.

The F-15s were armed with 2,000-pound bombs for the main building and more than a dozen 500-pounds bombs separately targeted to destroy the other buildings in the compound. 

The new plan had to be put in place and executed in a matter of hours, from early evening, when it was clear Chouchane was not moving from the compound, to scrambling the warplanes and getting them over the target in time for a strike before dawn at 5 am. The only holdup, soon resolved, was obtaining the indispensable sign off from the British government. 

The Hitch

About 4:30 am, the F-15Es, flying at high altitude, were locked on the three-story house where Chouchane was spending the night. With all the other pieces of the operation functioning smoothly, Franken was cautiously optimistic that the operation was going well. The bomb drop occurred on time

But suddenly, there was another hitch.During the tense window of time while the bombs were falling, Franken was startled to see a splash of light from a door opening in the main building. The bearded Chouchane emerged, and walked toward his SUV and waiting driver, his tell-tale limp confirming his identity. Franken saw an otherwise successful mission unravel: would Chouchane’ s SUV leave the compound before the bombs struck? It was going to be close. Franken pondered the career repercussions of the senior ISIS operative’s escape while hisband of foot soldiers was incinerated in the multi-million dollar operation.

Franken watched Chouchane and his driver pause to chat outside the SUV. Then, the driver suddenly looked up, startled at the whoosh of the bombs just before they smashed into the compound. More than a dozen precision-guided bombs created a rapid series of explosions blanketing the entire camp. Fiery billows of smoke, debris, and dust from the blasts obscured the view of the surveillance drones. As the smoke cleared, their cameras revealed a devastated scene of gaping bomb craters, the rubble of a half dozen buildings and the twisted, flaming wreckage of vehicles. 

Chouchane, along with at least 50 jihadists, was dead. Franken was satisfied: Mission accomplished.

The Pentagon issued a brief announcement of the Sabratha airstrike, presenting it as the routine elimination of yet another terrorist, Chouchane. There was no mention of the administration’s success in blunting the ISIS threat to Tunisia. 

But in interviews, Franken provided SpyTalk with a wealth of previously unreported details of the wider operation.

Dreams of a Caliphate

“We had 100 percent intel that the ISIS compound was training to set up the caliphate in Tunisia,” he said. Indeed, U.S. intelligence had learned that ISIS commanders had ordered Chouchane and his cadre of jihadists to take over the small southern Tunisian coastal city of Ben Guerdane, 20 miles from the Libyan border. Ben Guerdane, with 80,000 inhabitants, was a crossroads known as “the gateway to Libya.” 

For ISIS, however, it was the gateway to bringing down the Tunisian government, the only one in North Africa that qualified as a democracy. Lacking paved roads, factories or universities, Ben Guerdane was a glaring example of the poverty and economic depression that gripped southeastern Tunisia. It had also turned into a hub for weapons smuggling and an incubator for Islamic extremist recruits. The city appeared ripe for the taking. Once the invaders were in control, U.S. intelligence determined, they planned to link up with ISIS sympathizers in the region and mount a new wave of attacks on a government reeling in red ink, dissension, and internal chaos.

Franken said that by capturing the city and creating a stronghold inside Tunisia, “they expected thousands of ISIS militants and sympathizers to appear overnight,” to realize the dream of a new caliphate. “It would have ruined the Tunisian economy—devastating the tourist industry and the emerging financial sector,” he said. And it would have placed the central government in jeopardy of becoming a failed state..

“His description of events is correct,” the former senior U.S. counter-terrorism official told SpyTalk, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. “It’s all consistent with what people in the U.S. government understood at the time. So on the factual stuff, it’s rock solid.”

At that time in 2016, the existing ISIS “caliphate” stretched from Aleppo in northern Syria to Diyala in eastern Iraq, but it had come under relentless U.S. aerial bombardment. In an effort to demonstrate its influence outside its borders, the organization expanded its ties with affiliates and supporters in several other Arab countries, most prominently in Libya. Among them was Ansar al Sharia, the Islamist militia that had attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens, a State Department information officer and two CIA operatives. ISIS then took control of a wide swathe of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline, stretching about 170 miles from Misrata to Sirte, as well as neighborhoods in Benghazi, Tripoli and Derna. 

According to a 2015 report to the United Nations Security Council, then-ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exercised greater control over the organization’s Libyan branch than any other, viewing the lawless North African state as an ideal location to enlarge his caliphate. Al-Baghdadi also viewed Libya as a base for training recruits, plotting attacks and executing them in neighboring countries such as Tunisia. Libya’s oil exporting industry was an attractive acquisition for ISIS.

At the time of the twin attacks on Sousse and the Bardo Museum in 2015, the first foreign visitors were just beginning to trickle back to Tunisia’s beaches after the 2011 Arab Spring revolution that toppled authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It had brought to power a new national unity government made up of secular and moderate Islamist parties. Hope was in the air, not just in Tunisia but in Washington and allied capitals desperate for a win against the region’s violent Islamist radicals. 

Premature Elation

Even after the destruction of the training compound, however, surviving remnants of the ISIS force did not abandon the plan to start an uprising in southeastern Tunisia. Franken disclosed that just days after the air strike, U.S. intelligence learned that a small force of ISIS fighters in Libya had set out for Ben Guerdane. Franken said U.S. officials tipped off Tunisian forces, who ambushed and killed all five infiltrators. Three Tunisian soldiers were killed and 10 were wounded. 

But the strikes showed the limits of military action when deployed against a determined adversary drawing strength from a poor and profoundly devout Muslim population.

The ISIS leadership kept up the drive to capture the city. Just days later, on March 7, a much larger force of fighters in Libya, reinforced with Ansar al Sharia militants, successfully crossed the border into Tunisia. Mounting a two-pronged assault on Ben Guerdane, they ambushed Tunisian military and police forces, touching off fierce gun battles that raged across the city for three days, according to reports in Al Jazeera and the Washington Post. When the fighting ended, 52 ISIS fighters, 12 Tunisian security forces and eight civilians were dead.

The former U.S. counter-terrorism official said the high casualties suffered by the Tunisian security forces in the Ben Guerdane battle underscored the country’s continuing security vulnerabilities. “The Tunisian government doesn't have a lot of money to spend on the military,” he said. “It needs basic capabilities. It needs counter-terrorism capabilities.”

Which makes the significance of the U.S. airstrike on the Sabratha camp that much greater, Franken maintains. Since the battle of Ben Guerdane, U.S. air and naval firepower have helped decimate the ISIS presence in Libya and, at least for now, derail the terror group’s plans for a new caliphate in North Africa.

“All that tourism would have been impossible with a black flag flying over Ben Guerdane.” Franken asserts. “We saved Tunisia’s ass.”

Alas, that would hardly be the end of the story. Within hours, the U.S. strike on Sabratha would provoke a diplomatic standoff between America and—of all places—Serbia.

Body Doubles 

In the shadowy worlds of intelligence and counter-terrorism, even some of the most effective operations can have unintended, troubling outcomes.

That certainly proved true in the killing strike on Noureddine Chouchane and his band of ISIS fighters. In a surprising, bizarre development, it also ended up drawing in Serbia and delivering a collateral blow to U.S. efforts to deter Russia from its designs on the Balkan country.

Within hours of the February 19 airstrike, social media and Serbian news services reported that two Serbian diplomats based in Libya had been killed in the attack. Their bodies showed up at a hospital where other victims had been taken. The two, a 41-year-old mother of two and an embassy driver, had been taken hostage by an armed Libyan group three months earlier, and ransom negotiations were known to be underway. 

The Serbian government denounced the killings the next day. “Apparently, the Americans were not aware that foreign citizens were being kept there,” Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told reporters. He said he would seek a formal explanation from the United States. 

The Pentagon disputed the Serbian claims, insisting that a Serbian autopsy of the bodies showed none of the typical wounds of people killed by high-explosive ordnance, such as burned skin and hair, severed limbs, broken eardrums and blown-out eyeballs. 

Our forces watched this training camp for weeks leading up to the operation,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said, “and at the time of the strike, there were no indications of any civilians present.”

Admiral Franken told SpyTalk that U.S. experts who studied the autopsy photos determined the diplomats had died several days before the air strike—murdered by their kidnappers, with distinctive head wounds indicating they may have died from hammer blows. 

The diplomats were mostly likely killed, Franken speculated, after ransom negotiations for their release broke down over the kidnappers’ demand for 15 million euros, or about $19 million. He maintains that when U.S. warplanes bombed the ISIS camp a few days later, the kidnappers seized an opportunity to escape blame for murdering their hostages: They took the diplomats’ bodies to the hospital in the western Libyan town of Sabratha as the casualties from the airstrike arrived, claiming they were among the dead.

“It was a convenient way for them to dispose of the bodies,” Franken said.“This was a well-established way to blame someone else in Ghaddafi’s Libya.”

But news reports cast doubt on the U.S. claims. One in the Intercept noted that the bombed Sabratha compound was very near the spot where the Serbians were kidnapped in November—only about 500 yards away. The report said Serbian intelligence concluded the two Serbians may have been held in one of the buildings at the ISIS compound since November and thus their presence would not have been detected by more recent US surveillance.

Kyle R. Scott, the U.S. ambassador to Serbia at the time, said Belgrade’s claim of U.S. responsibility for the deaths of its diplomats set back efforts by Washington to draw Serbia away from Russia’s sphere of influence and closer to the West. 

“We supported Serbia's efforts to join the European Union,” Scott told SpyTalk. “That would mean that they would have to distance themselves a little bit more from Russia than they had.” 

“But the reality is that they see Russia as more their friend than the European Union,” Scott added, “because Russia supports their position on the one existential issue for Serbia, which is Kosovo, while most of the European Union and the United States do not.”

In 1999, U.S.-led NATO forces had used air power in support of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo who were fighting for independence from the then-Yugoslav and Serbian governments. The fighting ended that year with an agreement requiring the withdrawal of Yugoslav and Serbian troops from Kosovo and the deployment there of an international peacekeeping force. 

Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence. And to this day, Scott said, Belgrade remains bitter over the nearly 500 Serbian civilians killed by NATO airstrikes. The alleged deaths of their Libya-based diplomats by American bombs have only deepened that bitterness, he said.

“Serbia’s relations with the United States have been strained ever since the war with Kosovo,” Scott said. “We were slowly climbing back, but [the death of the diplomats in Libya] in the eyes of many Serbs, meant that once again, the Americans are bombing, and once again, Serbs are being killed.”

Scott said the Serbian government has never accepted the U.S. explanation, and he added that there’s still debate over how the two Serbian diplomats died. The incident, in short, remains a muddle.

“I'm not quite as confident as the admiral that the results of that autopsy proved that they were not killed in that raid,” the now retired ambassador said. “There were others who argue that they could have been buried under rubble and therefore not actually been right at the impact point, but nonetheless died [there].The Serbs remained convinced that those individuals died in that bombing raid.”

Game of Pawns

Franken insists the two Serbian victims were pawns in the bloody political struggles of the lawless post-Gaddhafi Libya. He contends a Libyan militia was holding the Serbs hostage to force Belgrade to make good on a multimillion dollar arms sale. The weapons were paid for but never delivered. Intelligence sources told him that the Serb diplomats were insurance policy for repayment of the money. 

“We had a vexing issue before us and it was complicated,” says Franken. “Either we call out the Libyans for being party to abducting the two Serb diplomats—a crime that may well implicate notable Libyan clans, or we highlight that the Serbs’ reluctance to pay the high ransom was linked to the weapons deal gone bad.” In the end, Washington decided to let the issue go. 

Unintended consequences, indeed. The 2016 strike demonstrated once again that the Middle East remains a Rubik’s Cube of policy choices for the United States. Vice Admiral Franken had accomplished his mission, and his action had saved Tunisia from the clutches of ISIS for the time being. It would turn out, however, to be just another salvo in an ongoing struggle.

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 John Dinges, a former Washington Post foreign news assistant editor and NPR managing editor, is the author of The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. Jonathan Broder has written about and from the Middle East for four decades, most recently for Newsweek. Both are SpyTalk contributing editors. SpyTalk Editor-in-chief Jeff Stein contributed to this story.