US airstrikes target Islamic State stronghold in Libya

Fighters from the Al Bunyan Al Marsoos ("Solid Structure") operations room in Sirte, Libya.

Fighters from the Al Bunyan Al Marsoos (“Solid Structure”) operations room in Sirte, Libya.

The US military acknowledged today that it has targeted the Islamic State’s Libyan arm in the city of Sirte. The air strikes are part of an effort to deal a blow to the jihadist group in its largest base of operations inside Libya.

“Today, at the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), the United States military conducted precision air strikes against ISIL [Islamic State] targets in Sirte, Libya, to support GNA-affiliated forces seeking to defeat ISIL in its primary stronghold in Libya,” the Pentagon stated in a press release.

“These strikes were authorized by the president following a recommendation from Secretary [of Defense] Carter and Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Dunford,” the statement continued. “They are consistent with our approach to combating ISIL by working with capable and motivated local forces. GNA-aligned forces have had success in recapturing territory from ISIL thus far around Sirte, and additional US strikes will continue to target ISIL in Sirte in order to enable the GNA to make a decisive, strategic advance.”

The airstrikes were confirmed by Libya’s prime minister and Al Bunyan Al Marsoos (“Solid Structure”), an operations room that is allied with the UN-backed government and recruits fighters from Islamist militias in Misrata and elsewhere. According to Al Bunyan Al Marsoos, an Islamic State “tank” was targeted and destroyed by US aircraft.

Al Bunyan Al Marsoos launched an 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 in Sirte has largely stalemated. American airpower was likely called in because the offensive has stalled and the US can provide superior targeting against the jihadists, who remain entrenched 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 Islamc 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 loss of Sirte would be a major blow to the Islamic State and its efforts to control territory outside of Iraq and Syria. 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.

Sirte is so important to the Islamic State that the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, mentioned it alongside Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq in a speech in May. Raqqa and Mosul are the de facto capitals of the self-declared caliphate and, as such, the most important cities under the jihadists’ control.

In his speech, titled “That They Live By Proof,” Adnani implicitly conceded that the Islamic State could lose one or all three of these cities. Adnani argued that neither the loss of individual leaders, nor the “loss of a city or the loss of land,” would mean that the Islamic State has been defeated as long as the jihadists retained the will to fight.

The newly announced operations in Sirte are the first publicly acknowledged airstrikes by the US in Libya since Feb. 2016, when American warplanes attacked an Islamic State training camp near Sabratha. The US targeted Noureddine Chouchane, who was described by the Pentagon as a “senior facilitator” for the so-called caliphate and was “associated with the training camp.” Chouchane is thought to be involved in two high profile terrorist attacks in Tunisia in 2015 and reportedly played a significant role in the Islamic State’s external operations network that plots and executes attacks against the West. [See LWJ report, US airstrike targets Islamic State operative, training camp in Libya.]

On Nov. 13, 2015, the US killed Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, also known as Abu Nabil al Anbari, in an airstrike. Zubaydi, an Iraqi national, “was a longtime al Qaeda operative and the senior ISIL [Islamic State] leader in Libya,” according to a statement by the US military. Some accounts indicated that Zubaydi served as the lead executioner in the February 2015 massacre of Coptic Christians on the Libyan coast.

The airstrikes in Sirte highlight the expanding war against the Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for multiple terrorist attacks in the West over the past year.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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