Fighters opposed to the Islamic State in Sirte, Libya claim to have gained more ground inside the city in the past few days. The US has conducted dozens of airstrikes in support of their campaign.
Al Bunyan Al Marsoos (“Solid Structure”), a military operations room that includes Islamist fighters from Misrata, has posted new images from inside Sirte highlighting its gains since earlier this week. The images include scenes at the Ouagadougou Congress Hall Complex and the Ibn Sina Hospital. Al Bunyan Al Marsoos has identified both locations as being key to the fight against Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists. Some of the operations room’s photos can be seen below. In addition, an infographic depicting the Islamic State’s forces surrounded in the city can be seen above.
On Aug. 10, US Africa Command announced that the US had carried out 36 “precision” airstrikes since the beginning of the month. The bombings are part of “Operation Odyssey Lightning” and have targeted Islamic State fighting positions, artillery, vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), supply trucks, and other locations inside Sirte.
The Washington Post reported on Aug. 9 that US Special Operations forces have been deployed inside Libya and are “coordinating American airstrikes.”
The US isn’t the only Western nation operating on the ground inside Libya. The French government confirmed in July that its own forces were operating in Benghazi. According to Defense News, the Italian media reported this week that Italy’s special forces are taking part in the effort to oust the Islamic State from its Libyan stronghold. UK press outlets also reported earlier this year that British special forces had destroyed an explosives-laden truck that was heading for the city of Misrata.
Al Bunyan Al Marsoos launched the offensive to retake Sirte in late May and claimed it would “be liberated within days.” While the Islamic State lost some ground during the initial fighting, the situation quickly ground to a stalemate. American airpower was called in because the offensive had stalled and the US can provide superior targeting against the jihadists, who have entrenched themselves in the interior of the city. [See LWJ report, Libyan forces seize key points from the Islamic State around Sirte.]
As Al Bunyan Al Marsoos advanced on the city in May, the Islamic State’s Libyan “province” was forced to deploy its “martyrs.” The jihadists launched zero suicide attacks in and around Sirte during the first four months of the year, according to data published by Amaq News Agency, which is part of the the Islamic State’s media machine.
But then, in May, the organization dispatched nine suicide bombers in Sirte and on the outskirts of the city. This was a clear indication that the Islamic State’s grip on the area was slipping, as the organization previously did not need to use its “martyrs” to beat back its opponents.
The Islamic State launched five more suicide attacks in Sirte in both June and July, according to Amaq’s statistics. Amaq has identified Fajr Libya (“Libya Dawn”) as the target of these attacks. This is likely due to the fact that Fajr Libya fighters have joined Al Bunyan Al Marsoos.
By way of comparison, the so-called “caliphate’s” arm carried out a total of just three “martyrdom operations” in Benghazi and zero elsewhere in Libya between January and July. This is a further indication that the group has devoted much of its resources in North Africa to defending its safe haven in Sirte.
Amaq claimed yesterday that the jihadists had downed a jet in or near Sirte. Al Bunyan Al Marsoos quickly confirmed that two pilots were killed when the jet crashed during a raid, but did not indicate a cause. The pilots were identified as “colonel pilot Mukhtar Fakroun and the colonel pilot Omar Doga.” Al Bunyan Al Marsoos said the pair was working “to liberate the most important institutions and sites in Sirte from [the] Kharijites [extremists] of this era” and that their bodies had been returned to Misrata.
The loss of Sirte would be a major blow to the Islamic State and its efforts to control territory in North Africa. The group seized Sirte in June 2015 and has repeatedly showcased the city as one of its main bases outside of its holdings in Iraq and Syria. Thus far, the jihadists have not been entirely expelled from the city and some of the Islamic State’s surviving forces will likely relocate to other areas inside Libya.