British Boots on the Ground in Libya? The Mystery of the Soldiers Filmed near Misratah

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“BRITAIN’S SECRET WAR” screams the headline in the June 1 Daily Mirror. The British tabloid has adorned its front page and an inside spread with blurred images captured by a crew from the al-Jazeera television network showing “footage of 11 ex-SAS and Parachute Regiment soldiers in Libya training the rebels in military tactics to defeat Colonel Gaddafi,” according to the newspaper’s security correspondent Chris Hughes. He continues: “We can reveal the crack unit is being funded by the [British] government via a private U.K. security company to wage war by proxy on Gaddafi.” You can read the Mirror’s full story here.

With the article running on the same day that NATO confirmed a 90-day extension to its operations in Libya, critics of the mission who have warned that the intervention doomed its participants to a protracted and messy campaign will feel vindicated. Proponents of the NATO-led mission argued that this would be different from Afghanistan because action was limited to protecting civilians. Nor would it split the international community and stoke hostilities between Muslim countries and the West as the Iraq war and its aftermath did because the alliance supporting rebel forces in Libya was endorsed by the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council. U.N. resolution 1973, passed in March, authorized member states “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi.” But the resolution also explicitly forbids “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” The al-Jazeera film appears to suggest that codicil is being ignored. And the Arab League has distanced itself from the alliance, protesting that it endorsed a no-fly zone, not the heavy shelling with attendant civilian casualties that has ensued.

During President Obama’s May state visit to Britain, POTUS made clear to the U.K. government that they should not look to the U.S. for added firepower in Libya. “There may be a false perception that there are a whole bunch of secret, super-effective air assets that are in a warehouse somewhere that could just be pulled out and would somehow immediately solve the situation,” he said during a joint press conference with the British Prime Minister David Cameron in London. But both men made clear they could not envisage a future for Libya with Gaddafi remaining at the helm and Cameron sounded a determinedly martial note:

“The President and I agree that we should be turning up the heat in Libya…I believe we should be turning up the pressure and on Britain’s part we will be looking at all the options for turning up that pressure, obviously within the terms of U.N. resolution 1973.”

A move to turn up the heat followed swiftly with confirmation of the rapid deployment of British Apaches and French Tiger helicopters to assist rebel troops—not boots on the ground, but boots that can hover just above it. The Mirror report implies that such niceties are already being ignored. British officials are adamant, however, that the Mirror story is “seriously misleading.”

“We don’t have combat forces in Libya at all,” says one government source. What of the newspaper’s claim that Britain is paying a private security company? “There is a team of officials from the Foreign Office and the MOD [defense ministry] in Benghazi. We have to take their security very seriously.” A private company is employed to do this but is only active in Benghazi and only in this capacity, the source insists. That version of events receives backing from a range of different sources in Westminster. In the post-Iraq, post-bin Laden world, it will not be easy to douse suspicions that the official exercise of power and diplomacy in Libya is supplemented by quiet operations that go unnoticed unless a passing film crew should happen to record the evidence.