Episode 20



CIA analyst Sarah M. Carlson left her family and the safety of the US behind for Libya in 2014, a wartorn country where even Tripoli International Airport was under the command of rebel forces. Dictator Colonel Gaddafi was long gone, but a deadly power vacuum had arisen in his wake. Under a hail of rocket fire, Sarah needed to get intelligence back to the US and find a way to evacuate 150 American Embassy staff caught in the crossfire of civil war.
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True Spies Episode 20: The Evacuation

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

This is True Spies Episode 20: The Evacuation.

SARAH M. CARLSON: There's actually one moment at the end where I had to talk to a militia commander - the embassy was being hit with indirect fire - and I had asked him: ‘Stop. Help stop the bombing against the US embassy.' So I was able to get enough [Arabic] out that he was able to understand me.

NARRATOR: There's nothing like a barrage of rockets to put your language skills to the test, as Sarah M. Carlson found out the hard way. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: I'm a former CIA officer. 

NARRATOR: And this story is quite extraordinary...

… about my time as a CIA officer serving in Libya when we conducted the full-scale evacuation of all US personnel out of the country.

NARRATOR: In the wake of the 2011 revolution that toppled Colonel Ghadaffi, the US administration promised a partnership in the development of a Libyan state. This is what Sarah committed to help with when she signed up for a CIA analyst position in Libya. By understanding militia groups and terrorist organizations in the country, Sarah’s work would help Libya on a path to stability, and help protect Europe and the US from terrorist threats that were brewing in the power vacuum left gaping in Ghadaffi’s absence. The work was important and necessary, and evacuation was the last thing on Sarah’s mind. It was a worst-case - never going to happen, don’t worry about it too much - scenario. But you know what they say: The best-laid schemes of mice and men - or CIA officers - often go awry. And no matter how expert your analysis might be, no matter how diligent you are, no matter how good your intelligence is, some things cannot be predicted or controlled. And Sarah’s story is one of those. A story of endurance. A story of survival. A story of commitment to your team. A story of getting out of the fire before it engulfs you. Because a year into Sarah’s stint in Libya, on the 13th of July 2014, civil war erupted through the country, and the hypothetical worst-case scenario became an all-too-real reality. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: It was like 5:30 am and there were hundreds of rockets that were launched that day, and it just didn't stop. 

NARRATOR: Okay, let’s rewind. How did it get to this? Well, let’s be honest. Libya wasn’t exactly a holiday destination when Sarah signed up to go there. Yes, the country is lined with a stunning Mediterranean coastline, but sunbathing hasn’t been a recommended pastime for a while. For decades, Libya was under the notoriously oppressive thumb of dictator Colonel [Muammar] Ghadaffi - from 1969 right through to 2011 to be precise. But there was a brief window of optimism when the ‘Arab Spring’ rolled through Libya. Ghadaffi was overthrown and it looked as though the North African nation might be moving toward a brighter future. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: Just after the revolution, there was quite a lot of hope in the country - that they were turning a corner - and this was their moment. And it was, for a while. The Congress was appointed, and there was the president and a prime minister, and it seemed to be going pretty well. 

NARRATOR: But it wouldn't last. Bitter fighting was soon to ensue, and Sarah would be stuck in the middle of it. But how did she get here? This tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed American halfway across the world from her hometown of Seattle, negotiating with militia commanders in Arabic as rockets rained down around her? Well, Sarah’s interest in working in the intelligence sector started back in 2001. She was interning with an emergency response team when America was struck with the most deadly attack on home soil: 9/11. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: That had a really deep impact on me and sort of gave me this broader outlook on what I wanted to do with my life. And so my boss at the time recommended that I join the Defense Intelligence Agency. And that really appealed to me, in particular, because my family has a strong military background and my brothers all decided to join the US military after the 9/11 attacks. And then, I did that for about five years before I ultimately was recruited by the CIA.

NARRATOR: Like so many of our True Spies, Sarah felt a deep calling to serve and to protect her country and its citizens, but why was she drawn to Libya?

SARAH M. CARLSON: Libya stood out because after the raid against Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, back in 2011, there was a lot of document exploitation done of what was found in the house. And, within that, was correspondence where they discussed setting up Libya as a base of operations from which to attack Europe. And so, since that was my area of focus and area of expertise, I thought that was a place where I could really do a lot of good, and really help. And then, of course, the Benghazi attacks happened before I arrived in the country. 

NARRATOR: September 11, 2012. A coordinated attack on the US mission in Benghazi killed the American Ambassador Chris Stevens along with three other embassy staff. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: Those were my colleagues. I knew them. I was aware of them. And so that was really quite difficult to be reading about that, and hearing about that, and trying to stay informed - sort of objectively as that would be into my job - but then, also the emotional investment of knowing them, and having to read through that, and try to remain objective.

NARRATOR: Sarah had not only lost friends, she was also faced with some very real dangers herself because she was about to follow in their path. But for Sarah, the attack only strengthened her calling to serve. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: I wanted to go, I wanted to serve in that capacity. It was really important to me that we prevent something like that from happening again. So it made me more determined than ever... I knew counterterrorism quite well and so I thought it was very fortuitous that I was going to serve in a country where a major attack had just happened.

NARRATOR: Well, fortuitous is one way to put it but Sarah was pretty well prepared. She’d worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency. She knew her stuff when it came to counterterrorism but there were other skills she needed to finesse before heading out to North Africa. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: So I was in Arabic-language training for a full year before I went to Libya, and very specifically learned the language to go there. And so, when I was trying to learn the vocabulary I focussed very specifically on words that I thought I might use. It's such a vast area of language that there was no way to memorize everything. So, I had to pick and choose where I would put my time and effort, and I ended up really focusing on the geopolitical words - like bombing, and militias, and guns, and weapons - and all that kind of thing. So I could carry on a conversation with somebody about the latest threat, but I couldn't go to a restaurant and order coffee, or go to the market and get fruit. 

NARRATOR: So the old holiday phrasebook wouldn’t make its way into Sarah’s luggage. Her life would be consumed by reading everything there was to read about Libya’s deteriorating situation. The more Sarah read, the more she understood the snake’s nest she was headed into: multiple militia groups struggling for power, and terrorist organizations targeting foreigners like her. Sarah had everything to lose. She looked conspicuously American. She would no doubt be a target herself. This was a risk she’d have to accept with the mission she’d been tasked with. The stakes were high, but surely her family would understand the importance of her role? With a strong military history and two brothers in the army, wouldn’t they get Sarah’s calling to serve? 

SARAH M. CARLSON: It's kind of both ways, where it helped provide some of that understanding but a lot of worry as well. Because they understood exactly what I was doing, and what my job was, and what going to a war zone meant. But, I also come from a family of deep faith. And so I think that helped my mom as well. I refer to her as a prayer warrior, so she has a deep faith. And I knew she was praying for me the whole time. And she believed that this was the path I was meant to be on because I believed it was the path I was meant to be on.

NARRATOR: Faith was on her side, but Sarah’s job in Libya was never going to be easy. In the run-up to her departure, sentiment toward American operations became increasingly hostile. Sarah worried that there might be another terrorist attack on Americans in the country. Ansar al-Sharia, the terrorist organization responsible for conducting the attacks in Benghazi were very much still active in Libya. Was the job worth the risk? It was for Sarah. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: So I flew in on Lufthansa, from Germany.

NARRATOR: A commercial flight departing from Germany is where the normality ended. Forget the duty-free shopping or the overpriced cappuccino on arrival. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: The Tripoli International Airport was run entirely by one of Libya's more powerful militia groups, the Zintan. They’re heavily armed and a law unto themselves. It was really kind of nerve-wracking to know that it wasn't an official, government-sanctioned kind of thing. They could decide to just keep my passport and hold me for as long as they wanted. 

NARRATOR: But fortunately, Sarah’s with the CIA...

SARAH M. CARLSON: So, when I got outside of the airport, our security officers were waiting for me and they were there in an armored vehicle with diplomatic plates. And so I was able to get in the armored vehicle pretty quickly after that. So you could see - driving toward the embassy - people driving down the wrong side of the road. And there were wrecked and burned-out cars, and people were just doing whatever sort of driving wherever they wanted. 

NARRATOR: Despite the lawless roads, Sarah makes it to the compound alive. This is where she'll be based for the next 13 months on the most demanding assignment of her life. So what does her day-to-day entail? 

SARAH M. CARLSON: Every waking hour will be dedicated to reading, reading, reading - so any intelligence reporting that came in, any analysis, assessments, anything in the news that mentioned Libya. I would read the social media postings from locals about what was going on in Tripoli, and it was a really good way to kind of stay abreast of the latest developments. 

NARRATOR: And of course, the other half of her job was committed to feeding all this intel back to her team. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: As a CIA analyst, I'd been giving a weekly briefing to all US mission personnel and anybody who wanted to hear it, and then I would brief the ambassador in the country team weekly as well.

NARRATOR: Occasionally, Sarah found a rare moment of downtime to relieve the stress of working in such a high-pressure environment 

SARAH M. CARLSON: So I would run every day. I felt like a hamster cage sometimes. You're just running in circles around the compound, over and over again. And then, I actually had my bow. I shoot archery and got permission to take it, and I set that up.

NARRATOR: That's right. Sarah's a bit of a hotshot at archery. This is a high-intensity conflict zone so why not have an on-topic hobby, right? And the intensity of this conflict zone is only increasing. The more she reads, the more Sarah understands that two militia groups are emerging as the main players. There’s a power struggle between them and tensions are hotting up. So, let's have a briefing from our CIA expert analyst, who are these two militia groups, and what do we need to know about them? 

SARAH M. CARLSON: The one side that started the civil war was led primarily by the Misrata, a militia that came from the city of Misrata. And they operated under the umbrella of Operation Dawn [a coalition of Islamist and Misrata forces]. That one was of particular concern to me because there were a lot of individual ties from people who were in those militias, and in Operation Dawn, to those who were in Ansar al-Sharia, which was the terrorist group that conducted the Benghazi attack. And then, on the other side in Tripoli, it was the Zintan [brigade]. And we actually sat on Zintan lands in the US Embassy, and residents were outside the city center and closer to the international airport, which was controlled and operated by the Zintan. So they're not necessarily the largest tribe or militia by any means, but they had a lot of power because they controlled the airport and because the US presence was on their land.

NARRATOR: The situation was complex and getting more tense by the hour. But luckily for Sarah, the warring factions were surprisingly upfront about what they have in mind for the day... 

SARAH M. CARLSON: A lot of the groups would post their plans and intentions on social media. It was actually really valuable information for me, as a CIA analyst, to just go to Operation Dawn's Facebook page and see what they were planning to do the next day. 

NARRATOR: Well, I suppose that’s one way to use Facebook.

SARAH M. CARLSON: In the beginning, there was a lot of posturing between the militia groups. So, at first, it was a lot of talk, basically, and bravado. They would shoot weapons toward each other, but not really at each other. Or they would put bombs on empty buildings - that kind of thing - but again, as it progressed, it steadily devolved and it turned from just posturing to actual action. 

NARRATOR: Not only were tensions heating up between the two militia groups, but hostility toward the American presence was also growing thanks to a couple of high-profile missions conducted by the US that year. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: In the fall, after I got there - so fall of 2013 - there was one operation to capture Abu Anas al-Libi, who conducted the East Africa embassy bombings back in 1998. So, we knew he was living in Tripoli and the US administration made the decision to go in and capture him, and then take him back to the US for prosecution. And then there was another operation in the Spring of 2014, while I was there, to capture the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, who conducted the Benghazi attacks. So I think those two operations - while very important and, executed very well they were - but they were big operations against high-value targets. And so I think, there was a lot of resentment by the local Libyans about this violation of their sovereignty, and a lot of anger. 

NARRATOR: At this point, Sarah's job is even more crucial than ever.

SARAH M. CARLSON: So my job, as an analyst, was to watch for threats and I figured terrorists would be upset by these capture operations. 

NARRATOR: And Sarah’s right, the threats begin to roll in. 

There was a constant stream of threats to kidnap Americans, to kill Americans. 

NARRATOR: And to add to that, those militants who’ve been posting their violent intentions all over social media are about to take action... just... about...

SARAH M. CARLSON: … now. There was an initial rocket attack in April of 2014. And it was directed against a militia compound, really close to the residence where I was living. 

NARRATOR: The attack is so close, Sarah can feel it.

SARAH M. CARLSON: And then another one occurred in May. And so at that point, the administration decided to do a draw-down of the embassy. So they sent all nonessential staff home.

The American mission is scaled back to a skeleton staff. Those near the end of their assignments, and anyone who could continue their work remotely, returns to the States. But Sarah is not among those asked to leave. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: I was designated essential and so ended up staying. And so after that draw-down occurred, I started doing daily briefings. I was writing cables and reports back to CIA headquarters on a pretty much a daily basis from May onward. But then, as we approached July, there was an election that didn't go well. 

NARRATOR: Didn’t go well. I suppose that’s one way of putting it. The 2014 elections in Libya were a total disaster. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: The international community had been hoping this would be an opportunity for stability in Libya. But no luck. Voter turnout was less than 18 percent, and the whole thing was marred by violent clashes between government forces and militants. And then that further destabilized things.

NARRATOR: The country is descending into chaos. But bizarrely, good manners are still alive.

SARAH M. CARLSON: On July 12th we had somebody from the Misrata militia actually call us and say they were going to start the civil war the next morning, and they were going to attack the airport.

NARRATOR: This is bad news. Being based so close to the airport has always been a convenient exit strategy in case things got too hot. But now the airport is about to become the hottest place in the country. Literally. It’s about to be on fire. There’s no flying Lufthansa business class out of this one. Now what? 

SARAH M. CARLSON: We decided to have everybody get ready, so made sure our ‘go bags’ were ready. I slept that night with my running shoes under my bed, and my weapon loaded and ready to go right on my nightstand. And the next morning it did start. So the civil war started July 13, 2014, and it was 5:30 am, and there had been a couple of rocket attacks that caused that draw-down. And those were six rockets each, so about half a dozen. On the 13th, there were six rockets in each round that went out. So there were hundreds of rockets that were launched that day, and it just didn't stop. And until that day there, there had been pauses in the fighting but, that was really the point it changed, and it just didn't stop. 

NARRATOR: The fighting didn't cease and neither did Sarah's job. Her role was even more essential than ever, and she had to push on through the insanity that was erupting all around her. And this is where all that Arabic training comes in handy, not just for reading up about bombings and shootings, but now Sarah is in a situation where she actually has to speak this fiendishly difficult language because the American Embassy is caught in the crossfire.

SARAH M. CARLSON: There's actually one moment at the end where I had to talk to a militia commander. The embassy was being hit with indirect fire, and I had asked him: ‘Stop. Help stop the bombing against the US embassy.’ So I was able to get enough [Arabic] out that he was able to understand me.

NARRATOR: The commander understood, but there wasn’t exactly a ceasefire. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: We ended up having to walk out into this bombing campaign because I knew I had to go into the office because I would need to send information back to CIA headquarters to let them know what was going on. I had to walk out into that, and that was one of the most intense moments of my life, where I walked out - into the middle of a bombing campaign - and you could see the rockets hitting the airport. They hit some of the planes that were there. And so it was sending this billowing black smoke into the sky. And we moved as fast as we could to get back inside. But we also knew that if a rocket hit our facility directly, we didn't really have a defense against it. We didn't have a defense against rockets. We didn't have any of the weapons that could defeat that. Because it never stopped, we ended up having to just go about our business. We wore body armor and carried our weapons, but there really wasn't a lot we could do to defend ourselves.

NARRATOR: Put yourself in Sarah's position. Rockets are exploding all around you. You feel their impact rumbling through your bones. You have no idea where the next one will land. The only thing you do know? If one lands on you, you won't survive to tell the tale. How do you keep a cool head? Because keeping your focus is key to survival. Not just your own survival, your colleagues are depending on you. And all the while, the threat is closing in. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: Operation Dawn was trying to surround the Zintan and that was the land we were on. So I was watching how they were maneuvering, and which facilities they were taking over, and saw how they were surrounding us, and then - bit by bit - moving closer to where we were. And I knew we had to get out before they actually reached our walls. And, the other part that I was looking at, was what Ansar al-Sharia was doing in the midst of all this fighting because we knew that members of the terrorist group had come to Tripoli during that two weeks of fighting. There was actually a suicide attack against one of those Zintan facilities. So those are very much terrorist tactics. So I was very much aware of the threat from Ansar al-Sharia and the fact that another Benghazi attack could absolutely happen again. And, very similar to the set-up in Benghazi, we also had a militia providing our outer security. So the Zintan were providing that perimeter security and, of course, they were heavily involved in the fighting, so their attention was very much on their militia, [their] tribal interests. 

NARRATOR: This all feels uncomfortably familiar. Less than two years earlier, your colleagues lost their lives to the same terrorist organization who are now, very possibly, honing in on you. Like your late colleagues, the only thing between you and the terrorist group? Militia security guards are more interested in battling for power than watching your back. And on top of that, you’re very likely to become collateral damage in that power battle. How do you keep safe? 

The safest area of, really, any house is the stairwell because it's interior. There are no windows or anything like that. Underneath the stairwell was the bunker, and we stacked sandbags along the outside so that it created this little cave that went back in there. There were half a dozen-ish other people that had to get in there, and we were all wearing body armor and carrying our weapons, so it was quite crowded. 

NARRATOR: It's hot. The air is stale. You're totally exhausted. But this is no time to hunker down, stay safe, and take a breather. It’s focus or die. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: So as the CIA analyst, I was still briefing the ambassador throughout the fighting. She was at the embassy facility, so it was a separate place that I had to go. We had some security officers drive us over in an armored vehicle, but every time we went it was a huge risk. We were driving out into the middle of active fighting, active bombing. So in addition to the rockets - which there were numerous, numerous rockets still being fired every day - there's also small-arms fire. 

NARRATOR: What a commute. And Sarah had to do this every day throughout the two weeks of fighting. The Americans based in Tripoli needed to come up with a plan. Would they try to stay put through the civil war, or get out as soon as possible? Sarah's expertise was essential in formulating their strategy. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: First we were told we needed to stay, that we couldn't give up Libya, that we needed to maintain our presence there. And so, we were trying to figure out how we can make that happen, how we could shelter in place. We weren't able to get additional food or water to the facilities. So what we had was what we had to live with. And we're trying to figure out: how long can we make that last? What else do we need? Is there another way to get the stuff through the supply lines? Once it became apparent that the fighting was not going to stop anytime soon, and that we were being surrounded - the fighting had gotten so close that we were getting hit with indirect fire and some of the small-arms fire - once that started happening, we shifted from talking about how long we could stay to how soon could we go. And so, we were talking about different evacuation routes that we could take, mostly ruling things out.

NARRATOR: What about getting an American plane to swoop in and save them? They were based right next to the airport. Surely that would be a way out of the situation?

SARAH M. CARLSON: We couldn't fly into Tripoli International Airport. One because it was on fire. There was so much anti-aircraft artillery being fired that it would have been shot down, so they weren't going to fly into Tripoli airspace. 

NARRATOR: Oh, there goes that plan then.

SARAH M. CARLSON: So we ended up pretty quickly realizing we were going to have to drive overland. And so then it was a matter of finding the route.

NARRATOR: The evacuation was announced on the afternoon of July 24th. All American personnel would be evacuating the country on the 26th, leaving about a day and a half to destroy everything. All the intel, it all has to go - now. Sarah knows this stuff inside out - it’s all her work from the past year. Now she has to turn her expertise from gathering information to obliterating it.

SARAH M. CARLSON: The first thing we did was focus on the highest-risk stuff that we had, that we needed to destroy. 

NARRATOR: Ever wondered how to destroy evidence? Here’s a guide from the CIA. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: So we pulled all the hard drives out of the laptops. And we had a nail gun and we're driving nails through all the hard drives. And then I'm using a sledgehammer on all the computers, and then also shredding documents. So we made the decision - it didn't matter if the piece of paper was blank, we were going to shred everything. So the shredder was this big, industrial size and it was running, basically, the entire day and a half. It was crazy because the air was thick from the gunpowder and the smoke from the planes, and it was just this toxic, nasty air, and it was gray. You couldn't really see even in the middle of the day in July. It was very gray and smelled very acrid, and then we added destruction fires. So we started these huge fires. We threw in some incendiary grenades and then started this fire, and it was entirely non-flammable stuff. And so, everything that we destroyed or retreaded, we then took and put on the fire. So, it was multiple layers of making sure that things were quite destroyed. 

NARRATOR: Not the sort of fire you want to toast marshmallows on. It’s a scene of absolute carnage. Now it's time to leave. But in which direction? You're surrounded. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: The route that we ended up taking was chosen by the ambassador. And so, it actually went south through Libya and then up and around to southern Tunisia. And it was not ideal because it would take so much longer than other options. Also, part of it went through hostile territory, and so we were concerned about being ambushed - not only by a terrorist group - but now [worried about] what we would face from a hostile militia that didn't want us to leave. So, it was quite dangerous to go that route. There were a lot of people as well. So, I can say, it was around 150 US personnel that we had to get out of the country. And, the longer a route takes, the more time there is for a terrorist group if a militia were to attack. And so, it just increased the threat exponentially.

NARRATOR: So you've got to move 150 Americans, hundreds of kilometers across enemy lines through hostile territory. You're one massive terrorist target.

SARAH M. CARLSON: We ended up dividing the convoy up into sections - and so there were multiple vehicles in each section - and then we had to stagger the departure so that we weren't all driving out together at the same time. So if there were an ambush, it wouldn't disrupt the entire convoy.

NARRATOR: The plan is in place. It's still risky but it looks like the best of all the dangerous options. It might be their only chance to escape. And Sarah is given a key position in the exit strategy. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: So, I was assigned to be a tactical commander in my vehicle. 

NARRATOR: This meant that if the vehicle was attacked, the driver would be in charge of the vehicle defense, and Sarah would be in charge of getting the people in the vehicle to safety.

SARAH M. CARLSON: A lot of responsibility and really quite terrifying. 

NARRATOR: But not to worry, the driver of Sarah's vehicle, the Special Operations Forces representative, won't leave her unprepared. There's still a few minutes for a crash course in how to do this stuff... right? 

SARAH M. CARLSON: The morning of the evacuation, he was talking to me about what I would be responsible for on the drive out as the tactical commander. And we were going around the vehicle, and I was putting my rifle in with this stack of magazines, and it's in the right seat where the glove box was. And he opened it up and there were grenades inside, and he was like: ‘So you know what these are and how to use them?’ And I was like: ‘No. No. I have no idea how to use a grenade.’ So, he had to walk me through what to do. It was very surreal to go through that and to have that responsibility.

NARRATOR: Finally, they're on the road. Is this the beginning of the end? After two weeks of rocket attacks, mounting threats, extreme danger, and barely any sleep, you're dog tired. You've been living on adrenaline. You just need rest, just for a few hours. But don’t even think about it. Vigilance is essential to survival. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: We were all watching for any potential danger because, of course, the fighting was still ongoing. There were still rockets going off. So pulling out of that front gate was quite scary. And so we were doing that until we got to the first checkpoint, and some of our officers who'd been in the first vehicle got out, and they were on the side of the road and chatting with the commander of the hostile militia. They were there to make sure that all the vehicles got through. 

NARRATOR: Everything hangs on this negotiation. The first checkpoint is the toughest. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: Once that happened, we were able to let our guard down a little bit. Not much. We were still very vigilant about watching for all the threats but, at that point, we were able to put on a little bit of music, and then we talked about music and food, and that kind of thing. And it was just really to break the tension - this sort of inane chatter - where we could talk about something. But we were still able to very much focus on our surroundings and what we needed to be watching for. 

NARRATOR: And they needed to maintain this level of focus for hours, and hours, and hours. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: It actually ended up taking about 26 hours from start to finish. So the point at which we're able to relax a little bit more was when we got to the border with Tunisia. 

Finally, they were out of Libya - out of the war zone and across the border. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: And then, on the Tunisian side, it was quite professional. There was this huge border gate with guards, and so we ended up driving through. We handed them our passports and then waited on the Tunisian side of the border until all the vehicles got there. So it actually took several hours before everybody was there and safe. 

NARRATOR: Sarah may be a top-notch CIA officer, but she is also human and the car journey was really long. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: And, I was really thankful because I was able to use the bathroom, and then also get some water and just... feel like you could really breathe for the first time, and be thankful that we had made it that far. 

After a much-needed toilet break, they were on their way again. And, after hours on rocky Tunisian backroads and a brief stopover in Tunis, Sarah is finally on her way home to the States. But is she ready to transition from the trauma of war to the mundanity of civilian life?

SARAH M. CARLSON: I didn't really have any time to talk to people or to decompress from what happened. And then having to say goodbye, there's this overwhelming sense of loss. 

NARRATOR: On her return, Sarah was hit with the horror and stress of everything that had happened, everything she and her colleagues in Tripoli had been through, and everything her colleagues in Benghazi had been through just two years earlier. Sarah had got away with her life but others hadn’t been so lucky.

SARAH M. CARLSON: It very much felt like we had been left there to die by the US administration. And, you know, even in Benghazi, people literally gave their lives for that mission because it had been deemed so important. And so, then to feel like we gave up or we were just left there... it was really difficult 

NARRATOR: Feelings of abandonment were hard to reconcile. But when Sarah did return to the CIA after taking her home leave, she found some solace.

I went back, and I think it was really important because I was able to learn about so many other people that had tried to help us. We have a very large intelligence community in the US, and it felt like we were so alone and isolated there and in Libya. And, in some ways, we were but then, in other ways, we had so many people that were trying to look out for us and trying to help us, not just in the US intelligence community, but throughout the world. And I think it's really important for people to know and to remember that nobody does this alone. And I think that is one of the more negative things that come from movies, this idea that people are the sole operator, like Jack Ryan... that they're the only ones who are single-handedly stopping an attack. But it doesn't actually happen that way - there are so many people involved. And while I'm grateful for the role I played, and I know I was really instrumental in helping, there were so many other people that helped as well. 

NARRATOR: Sarah settled back in Seattle. She left the CIA and now works in the local government coordinating emergency management. Today, she channels all of her expertise and experience into supporting her community through crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic. It's rewarding work and Sarah still gets to answer her calling to serve, but she'll never forget the Libya chapter of her life and is driven to make others aware of what happened. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: I really wanted to share our story. I think that there are stories like this that happen all the time and we never really hear about them. And I think it was a way for me to make it matter for the people who were there and what we went through, that it gives it meaning by talking about it and by writing about it. But I also think it highlights that this is not really that abnormal. We have US officers, CIA officers, military, but then many other countries - there were many other countries there in Libya, there was British Embassy and Italian Embassy and French Embassy - and all these people risked their lives. And so I wanted to bring that recognition to them as well. Ultimately, we did get out. And ultimately, I was able to help save the lives of over 150 people and I played a big part in that. 

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another mission with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com

Guest Bio

Sarah M. Carlson worked as an analyst at the CIA’s counterterrorism center, specializing in threats and attack plans directed against the US and Europe. She learned Arabic and traveled extensively through North Africa and the Middle East, receiving dozens of awards for her service. She now works as a SPYEX consultant and an emergency operations manager for Seattle’s local government.

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