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Watch out, that freighter may actually be a warship

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U.S. military operations now increasingly begin and end at sea — aboard a growing fleet of vessels that the Pentagon has specifically outfitted as floating command facilities, barracks and launch pads.

The daring U.S. commando raid into Libya to capture Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the Benghazi terror suspect, opened a window into Washington’s new approach to war and counterterrorism. The Navy warship New York was central to the military’s mission in seizing Khatallah and transporting him to the United States for trial.

New York and other “sea bases,” as the military calls them, are more mobile, better defended and potentially cheaper than long-term U.S. facilities built on foreign soil. These ships sail and anchor in international waters, so they offer legal and diplomatic advantages over former land bases.

The USS New York sails underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into New York HarborSome sea-base ships are high-profile military projects costing billions of dollars. Others are civilian vessels that the Defense Department quietly charters, modifies and staffs with non-military crews to function as secretive special operations bases on classified missions.

The capture of Khatallah demonstrates what this could look like. When U.S. Special Operations Forces seized him on June 15, the commandos and an accompanying FBI team reportedly traveled by car and then boat to deliver the suspected terrorist to the New York, waiting off the Libyan coast. The 690-foot vessel, which has steel salvaged from the World Trade Center forged into its bow, then set course for the United States.

The capture of Khatallah: How things went down in Libya

Navy SEAL photo downloads

When Ahmed Abu Khatallah, accused of leading the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was seized by U.S. special forces in Libya after midnight Monday, it raised a number of questions. Not the least being why it took 21 months to capture him.

The answer is more complex than it might first appear. There were essentially three major issues in play: the FBI and the Justice Department were determined to build a clean legal case against Khatallah that would stand up in public court; diplomatic and military factors complicated the timetable, and more than a half-dozen government agencies — some with their own specific concerns — had to coordinate in carrying out the secret mission.

U.S. President Obama listens to a question during a visit to PittsburghThese agencies included the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, which runs the special forces, including the Navy’s SEALs and the Army Delta Force; the FBI, which gathered the legal evidence against Khatallah; the State Department, which had to prepare for the international legal issues; the Navy, which is bringing Khatallah back to the United States; the Justice Department, which will prosecute the captured suspect; the CIA, which provided intelligence support; the White House, where the president had to approve the operation, and other units of the government that target terrorists.  All had “equities” in this covert action — bureaucratic-speak for a piece of the action.

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