Within days of the deadly assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the skies over Libya began buzzing with American surveillance drones, prompting annoyed responses from some Benghazi residents. “Give it a rest, Obama,” one resident posted in a Twitter message after a low-flying drone woke up much of the city. “We want to get some sleep.”
More broadly, the AP reported that armed drones are also flying over other parts of Libya and northern Africa, and US Special Operations forces are on call, ready to attack if the Obama administration can identify who was behind the attack. In addition, the New York Times reported on October 15 that the United States is now “speeding up efforts” to help the Libyan government create an elite commando force that can combat “terrorist and violent extremist organizations” and counter the country’s fractious militias. American Special Operations forces would conduct much of the training as they have with building elite counterterrorism forces and commando units in Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen, among other places.
Thus, while the American media remains fixated on “who knew what and when” regarding the Benghazi attack, the surge in drones and plans to create an elite commando force indicates that the more significant story is the extension of the “matrix” to Libya: the incorporation of Libya into the global precision-strike network built over the past decade in which the US military, the CIA and other agencies hunt, kill or capture alleged enemies worldwide without needing to deploy ground troops or necessarily gain local political approval for operations.
According to a three-part series published in the Washington Post, the Obama administration has institutionalized its controversial targeted killing program through the development of what it terms the “disposition matrix,” an operational planning guide whose purpose is “to augment” the “separate but overlapping kill lists” maintained by the CIA and the Pentagon and map out the various operational plans for “disposing” of alleged terrorist suspects. “If he’s in Saudi Arabia, pick up with the Saudis,” a former official said. “If traveling overseas to al-Shabaab [in Somalia] we can pick him up by ship. If in Yemen, kill or have the Yemenis pick him up.” The Post concludes that the new “disposition matrix” is tranforming “the highly classified practice of targeted killing” from “ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war.”
Thus, while drones and drone strikes have received the bulk of attention regarding the Obama administration’s targeted killing program, the notion of a “matrix” aptly captures the much broader institutional form and operational expansion of what Nick Turse identifies as the new American style of war-fighting: a “light footprint” combination of clandestine Special Operations raids, drone strikes, continuous surveillance, cyberwarfare and locally trained proxy forces who hunt, capture, kill and manage perceived threats to American interests on a global scale.
On the one hand, the “matrix” is a not simply a single agency or actor but rather a networked constellation of agencies and actors who pool resources in various “task forces” to mass information on selected target areas and conduct targeted kill-or-capture operations. This network includes the increasingly paramilitary forces of the CIA, which recently requested an expansion of its drone fleet, as well as the rapidly expanding array of Special Operations Forces, along with satellite analysts from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, regional experts from the State Department and surveillance specialists from the National Security Agency, among other institutions. The Washington Post series highlights the central role played by the once clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), upon which President Barack Obama has repeatedly relied to execute the nation’s most sensitive counterterrorism missions. JSOC has recently established a secret targeting center across the Potomac River from Washington.
This networked “matrix” is increasingly being augmented by the training of elite indigenous commandos or local special forces through joint training missions that emphasize the networked “interoperability” American and local forces for conducting such clandestine targeted operations.
In this regard, Yemen, for example, has become a virtual “matrix” laboratory where the US is carrying out its signature new brand of warfare with “black ops” troops from JSOC like the SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force conducting kill-or-capture missions, while “white” forces like the Green Berets and Rangers are training indigenous commandos, and CIA and JSOC drones hunt and kill members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
On the other hand, the “matrix” is spreading its global reach through building and linking an expanding constellation of drone, Special Operations and surveillance bases over several continents, casting its net over ever wider expanses. The Washington Post series highlights how Djibouti is the clearest example of how the United States is laying the groundwork to expand these operations into new regions of Africa. As the US military’s first permanent drone war base, Camp Lemonnier is the centerpiece of an effort to extend American force projection to combat militants and terrorist groups across the continent, from Mali to Libya to the Central African Republic.
The officials quoted in the Washington Post series hint that the permanent war “matrix” could expand to even more countries. “Egypt worries me to no end,” an administration official said. “Look at Libya, Algeria and Mali and then across the Sahel. You’re talking about such wide expanses of territory, with open borders and military, security and intelligence capabilities that are basically non-existent.”
The apparent extension to Libya of the “matrix” network of drones, Special Operations Forces and elite indigenous forces who conduct targeted operations illustrates not only the further expansion of the “matrix” into North Africa, but also the myopic US penchant for military responses to complex social and political challenges. The US remains focused on direct action and kinetic solutions, rather than on helping Libya establish accountable institutions and a government that has popular support, while developing a viable, responsive police force capable of expanding that popular support. Moreover, elite commando forces more often than not end up becoming regime protection forces.
The appeal of the “matrix” form of networked permanent war to Washington is easily understood. It is a method of expanding power and control to new areas while reducing the stigma of a large US military “footprint” and the domestic consequences of American soldiers’ deaths, and its enables the expansion of operations without the formalities of Congressional or UN approval. As Jacob Levich points out in a perceptive recent commentary on the political aims of drone warfare, “all this points toward a future of worldwide ‘virtual occupations’ in which US power is projected primarily by drone-based COIN, supplemented with relatively small teams of Special Forces.” In this sense, like its science fiction namesake, the “matrix” can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.