Through months of military stalemate in Libya it was an open secret among NATO allies that countries inside and outside the alliance were quietly but crucially helping rebels gain their footing against the much stronger forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Covert forces, private contractors and US intelligence assets were thrown into the fight in an undercover campaign operating separately from the NATO command structure. Targeted bombings methodically took out Qaddafi’s crucial communications facilities and weapons caches. An increasing number of US hunter-killer drones provided round-the-clock surveillance as the rebels advanced. These largely unseen hands helped to transform the ragtag rebel army into the force storming Tripoli.
Diplomats acknowledge that covert teams from France, Britain and some East European states provided critical assistance, without, they contend, compromising NATO’s mandate from the UN to restrict its operations to protecting civilians.
The aid included logisticians, security advisers and forward air controllers for the rebel army, as well as intelligence operatives, damage assessment analysts and other experts, according to a diplomat based at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The CIA and other US intelligence agencies have been gathering information throughout the conflict from contacts they had developed when they were working closely with Qaddafi’s government on counterterrorism against al-Qaeda-related Islamic militant groups operating in Libya. This thawing of relations between two longtime adversaries, lasting only a few years, paid unexpected dividends later.
Foreign military advisers on the ground were key to getting real-time intelligence to the rebels, helping them accurately concentrate their limited firepower on the enemy.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the Qatari military led the way, augmented later by French, Italian and British military advisers. This effort had a multiple purpose, not only assisting the rebels but monitoring their ranks and watching for any al-Qaeda elements trying to infiltrate or influence the rebellion.
Bolstering the intelligence on the ground was an escalating surveillance and targeting campaign in the skies above. Armed US Predator drones helped to clear a path for the rebels to advance.
The addition of US drone aircraft into the Libyan theater was important to the rebels, in giving them access to constant surveillance of the terrain, said General Jean-Paul Palomeros, the French Air Force chief of staff.
“The better the intel is, the more valuable it is,” Palomeros said. “It’s part of an ensemble: Time was also needed for the opposition forces to get organized.”
Allied officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations, said that at the onset of the conflict, the bombing campaign stretched along the length of the coast. Over time, as major regime resources were destroyed, the coalition was able to narrow the focus of its strikes.
“We simply followed the way the opposition fronts moved,” said the NATO official. “Qaddafi’s forces usually came out to meet the rebels, and that’s when we struck.”
In recent weeks, as the US added more drones to the fight, they were able to do precision strikes closer to the cities, shadowing the rebels as they advanced through Zawiya and roared into Tripoli.