As we learn more about the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the probability that the militants involved were retaliating for a drone strike that took out a top al-Qaeda leader who happened to be Libyan. Christopher Chivvis puts this in context.

As details emerge, it appears increasingly probable that al Qaeda-linked groups were behind the violence, likely acting in reprisal for the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, Al Qaeda’s second in command, who was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan earlier this year. Just prior to the Benghazi assault, on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released an Internet video in which, according to CNN, he said that al-Libi’s “blood is calling, urging and inciting you to fight and kill the crusaders.”

Even if the deaths were not linked to al Qaeda or its dangerous North African affiliates, the event is still a major threat to Libya’s chances of successful transition to stability, and could be a watershed of the worst kind. The nightmare scenario that Libya could go the way of Iraq in 2004 is still not likely, but no longer seems implausible.

Perhaps just as ominous is the US reaction, which appears determined to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Drones visible to the naked eye flew over Libya in the past 48 hours, supplementing a dispatch of Marines and warships to the region. A few intelligence sources are on the ground but hampered by the fractious and dangerous nature of the country. In addition, the main CIA team in place moved on to Syria. Libyan authorities arrested what they said were four suspects in the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, but the search continues, led by military and intelligence personnel operating within a foreign country.

Whether those surveillance drones will shift into armed flying robots in the event of locating the perpetrators is not yet known. But the President did send a letter to Congress, as per the War Powers Resolution, identifying the transport of military personnel to both Libya and Yemen:

On September 12, 2012, in response to an attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four U.S. citizens, including U.S. Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, a security force from the U.S. Africa Command deployed to Libya to support the security of U.S. personnel in Libya. Further, on September 13, an additional security force arrived in Yemen in response to security threats there.

Although these security forces are equipped for combat, these movements have been undertaken solely for the purpose of protecting American citizens and property. These security forces will remain in Libya and in Yemen until the security situation becomes such that they are no longer needed.

We don’t know how many troops are in Libya and/or Yemen. We do know that Al Qaeda forces have called for more attacks on Western interests in the wake of the Benghazi tragedy, attempting to leverage the protests over an anti-Islamic film into a revolt at US Embassies worldwide. But the deadliest of these demonstrations, in Libya, probably had nothing to do with the film, but probably a drone strike, suggesting that the cycle of violence continues.

This is a truly harrowing paragraph:

With ongoing counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, as well as the civil war in Syria, the CIA’s clandestine and paramilitary officer corps is simply running out of trained officers to send, U.S. officials say, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deployment of intelligence personnel publicly. The clandestine service is roughly 5,000 officers strong, and the paramilitary corps sent to war zones is only in the hundreds, the officials said.

Apparently we’re not staffed up for all these secret wars. Fortunately the drones don’t need as many trained personnel.

This also shows the persistent instability in Libya, months after the fall of Gadhafi. Nobody should long for the stability that a strongman like Gadhafi provided; but similarly, we should look realistically at the struggles of that nation’s very new democracy which has deteriorated from the standpoint of security. Libya’s new leaders rejected post-stabilization forces from NATO after the Gadhafi overthrow which masked the fact that they had little control of a country littered with fractured sects of armed militias. Attacks have grown more frequent in recent months, against Sufi mosques and shrines, government officials and buildings, and diplomatic sites like the US consulate. Things could get particularly chaotic in Libya over the next several months without very delicate actions taken by the central government. Adding drones and US intelligence into the mix seems like the wrong step to take.