US strikes target ISIS in Libya
TUNIS - US fighter jets struck an Islamic State (ISIS) gathering in western Libya, killing about 50 people, including a leading Tunisian Islamist operative suspected of masterminding terror attacks in neighbouring Tunisia, Libyan authorities and the Pentagon said.
The February 19th strikes were seen as less the start of the widely discussed Western military campaign in Libya than an opportunistic attack, however.
“Western powers could not wait when such a target presented itself, said Faysal Cherif, a Tunisian military specialist at Tunis-based International Centre for Military and Security Strategic Studies.
“There was a big number of ISIS fighters, likely more than 60, at a compelling location. Sabratha is not far from Europe across the Mediterranean, close to NATO bases in Italy and just across the border from Tunisia.
Sabratha has been used as a starting point for smugglers’ boats sailing to Europe. It has also been a transit point for Tunisians and other jihadists to join ISIS branches in Libya, Syria and Iraq.
“At least 43 people were killed and six wounded and many body limbs covered the place,” Libya Al Mostaqbal newspaper reported on its website, adding that most of the dead were Tunisians. It said the strike took place at Qasr Talel, 8km west of Sabratha.
Among the dead were two Serbian embassy staff members abducted in Libya.
“The safe house had been probably under close watch by human intelligence operatives on the ground,” Cherif said. “They could be special forces from the West who had infiltrated Libya in the past two months or spies from allies in Libya or other Maghreb states.”
US Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a US Department of Defense spokesman, said on February 22nd that the attack likely prevented a major terror operation. Davis said the “type of training they were doing there and the proximity to the Tunisian border suggest that some larger plan was in the works”.
Among those killed is believed to be Noureddine Chouchane. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Tunisian authorities named him as a suspect in the March 18th, 2015, attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis in which 20 foreign tourists were killed by two ISIS-affiliated assailants.
Cook said Chouchane had facilitated the movement of potential ISIS fighters from Tunisia to Libya and other countries.
Destruction of the camp and Chouchane’s death will eliminate “an experienced facilitator” and is expected to have an immediate impact on ISIS’s ability to recruit new members and conduct attacks in and outside Libya”, he said.
ISIS also claimed responsibility for a June 2015 attack at the Tunisian resort of Sousse in which 38 tourists, most of them British, were slain by a lone attacker the Tunisian government has said was trained in a Libyan ISIS camp, likely in Sabratha.
Chouchane, 35, was said to be from the central region of Sidi Bouzid, where a street vendor set himself on fire triggering the uprising that ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
Tunisia was watching Libya carefully for signs of Western military intervention against ISIS.
Authorities have said a large campaign would force large numbers of refugees from Libya towards Tunisia.
“The Americans have started another Iraq in the Maghreb,” said Tayeb Sellami, at a café in Tunis. “That would bring more bloodshed and misery to Libya and all its neighbours. Tunisia’s economy and society would be squeezed by the deepening human and social problems of Libya.”
Cherif and other analysts dismissed the notion that the strike could be the beginning of a wide Western intervention in Libya.
“It was a big strike because it was relatively easy to carry out,” he said. “The target was a house outside the centre of Sabratha and Sabratha is a small town where any stranger can be easily spotted. It cannot easily be replicated in other cities where ISIS militants are burrowed in the midst of crowded streets of big cities.”
A witness in Sabratha told the Associated Press he heard two explosions at 3.30am coming from the nearby village of Qasr Talel. He said the house that was hit belonged to Abdel-Hakim al-Mashawat, known locally as an ISIS militant.
The US government has said it would support international military action against ISIS in Libya once the country has a unity government. Washington is seeking to show it does not intend to remain idle as the UN-backed efforts to establish a unity government have been moving slowly. The US administration has vowed to hit significant targets when the opportunity presents itself.
In November, a US military air strike killed an ISIS leader called Abu Nabil or Wissam al-Zubaydi, an Iraqi national, in the eastern Libyan city of Derna. In July, air strikes targeted an al-Qaeda gathering in the eastern city of Ajdabiya. Official sources said the US targeted Mokhtar bel-Mokhtar, an al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) leader, but the operation failed.
A former senior Libyan intelligence officer with links to current intelligence community in western areas of Libya said European special forces have been in Libya helping with aerial surveillance and other intelligence efforts in several cities, including Zintan in the west.
Adding to the concern in Washington and Europe, Western intelligence reports showed the number of ISIS fighters in Libya swelling to about 5,000-6,000 even as the group’s numbers in Syria and Iraq fall. “I have been clear from the outset that we will go after ISIS wherever it appears, the same way that we went after al-Qaeda wherever they appeared,” US President Barack Obama said on February 17th.
“We will continue to take actions where we’ve got a clear operation and a clear target in mind. And we are working with our other coalition partners to make sure that as we see opportunities to prevent ISIS from digging in, in Libya, we take them.
“At the same time, we’re working diligently with the United Nations to try to get a government in place in Libya and that’s been a problem.”