Britain's SAS in Libya: What happened there?

The confusion surrounding the detention and then release of several British nationals – including members of the Special Air Service – in Libya has generated as much interest as the incident itself. However, little information is available on why a group of British men arrived unauthorized and unannounced in Libya. Below is an overview of what can be confirmed about the incident.

What is the SAS?

The British Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland arrives in Valletta's Grand Harbour onMarch 7. Twenty nine evacuees from Benghazi in Libya were onboard. A British Ministry of Defence official on site would not confirm nor deny that eight Special Air Service (SAS) commandos who had been detained then released while on a covert mission in Libya were on board, as reported in many sections of the media. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

The SAS (Special Air Services) is an elite British special forces unit originally formed during World War II. It began as a desert force in North Africa and is now responsible for high-level, typically covert operations such as reconnaissance and raids. Though very little is known about its work, it is compared to the US Army’s Delta Force.

What do we know about the incident?

SAS soldiers and members of the British intelligence unit MI6 were escorting British diplomats into eastern Libya to build connections with Libyan opposition leaders, The Guardian reports. They were dropped by helicopter outside Benghazi and were reportedly detained Thursday by rebel commanders who suspected them of being mercenaries because of the reconnaissance and military equipment they carried.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who approved the mission, gave a brief explanation to members of Parliament Monday afternoon local time:

Last week I authorised the dispatch of a small diplomatic team to Eastern Libya in uncertain circumstances which we judged required their protection to build on these initial contacts [with the Libyan opposition] and to assess the scope for closer diplomatic dialogue. I pay tribute to that team. They were withdrawn yesterday after a serious misunderstanding about their role leading to temporary detention. This situation was resolved and they were able to meet [an opposition leader]. However it was clearly better for this team to be withdrawn.

Rebel forces have asked why the SAS/MI6 group came in so secretively if they were an official group tasked with guiding diplomats to the opposition. “If this is an official delegation, why did they come with a helicopter? Why didn’t they [inform the revolutionary council] …?” asked Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the opposition, according to the Guardian.

BBC reports that six soldiers and two officials from the Foreign Office were freed two days after they were detained and that they were put on a boat bound for Malta on Sunday night.

Meanwhile, The Netherlands is still trying to arrange the return of three of its soldiers who were reportedly in the country to evacuate Dutch nationals from Sirte, Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown, which is located about halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi. The men, along with their helicopter, were captured by Qaddafi’s forces and are still in detention.

Are they still in detention?

No. The BBC reports that six soldiers and two officials from the Foreign Office were freed two days after they were detained and that they were put on a boat bound for Malta on Sunday night.

Meanwhile, The Netherlands is still trying to arrange the return of three of its soldiers who were reportedly in the country to evacuate Dutch nationals from Sirte, Muanmmar Qaddafi’s hometown located about halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi. The men, along with their helicopter, were captured by Qaddafi’s forces and are still in detention.

Why did this mission happen?

There’s still substantial confusion about why the mission was staged when the British government is in contact with the opposition by phone and could have openly arranged a meeting. There have also been questions about why they came in by helicopter at night when there is a British ship currently anchored in the Benghazi port. Mr. Hague, who approved the mission, has yet to provide further information on why the diplomats and their security forces chose to enter the country the way that it did.

What is SAS' track record?

The SAS has a reputation for being one of the world’s best special forces units. It doesn’t botch missions often, which is one of the reasons this incident is getting so much attention.

The SAS gained worldwide notice after a hostage rescue in 1980 in which all but one of the 26 people being held in the Iranian embassy in London were rescued. Although not much information is known about their operations over the years (in some ways, another sign of success), a BBC profile on the unit, written prior to their involvement in Afghanistan, reveals that the incident in Libya appears out of character for the group.

In an op-ed published March 7, The Guardian’s security editor writes that Britain’s special forces are more active now than they have been since World War II and that their role is “increasingly important.” Their warfare leads to fewer casualties than conventional warfare, he writes, and they are trained to handle terrorism in a way that conventional forces are not.