US resumes strikes against Islamic State in Libya

US Africa Command (AFRICOM) announced this week that “several” Islamic State fighters were killed during a pair of precision airstrikes about 100 miles southeast of the Libyan city of Sirte on Sept. 26.

Separately, AFRICOM revealed to FDD’s Long War Journal that an estimated 800 to 900 Islamic State fighters were killed during Operation Odyssey Lightning’s air campaign in Sirte between Aug. and Dec. of 2016.

While that operation did significant damage to the self-declared caliphate in Libya, the jihadists have maintained a foothold in the country.

The US military has resumed targeting the Islamic State’s branch in Libya, though it remains to be seen if the bombings become more frequent. Over the past week, AFRICOM has launch eight airstrikes. Six of them took place on Sept. 22, when the US military reportedly killed 17 jihadists and destroyed three vehicles at a “desert camp” 150 miles southeast of Sirte.

The recent airstrikes are the first by the US in Libya in eight months. The last bombings took place in Jan. 2017, when US aircraft struck two Islamic State training camps south of Sirte. The Department of Defense cited the presence of the group’s “external plotters” and estimated that dozens of jihadists were killed. Subsequent reporting revealed that the “external plotters” were connected to attacks in Europe, including the Dec. 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack and possibly the May 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.

The Islamic State has been attempting to regroup in the country since late last year, when the US military and ground forces backed by the Libya’s Government of National Accord ousted the jihadists from Sirte. The so-called caliphate’s leaders considered the Mediterranean city to be one of the most important locales under their control.

Between Aug. 1 and Dec. 19, 2016, AFRICOM conducted “495 precision airstrikes” as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning. The bombings took a heavy toll on Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists in Sirte, according to AFRICOM.

“While we are unable to provide specific numbers, we estimate that between 800-900 ISIS fighters were killed during Operation Odyssey Lightning in Sirte,” AFRICOM recently told FDD’s Long War Journal.

The State Department previously estimated that 1,700 Islamic State fighters perished in Sirte. AFRICOM’s estimate covers only those killed in airstrikes, meaning that approximately half of the the jihadists’ casualties came in bombings.

However, in Country Reports on Terrorism 2016, State also cited reports saying that the Islamic State had as many as 6,000 members in Libya prior to Operation Odyssey Lightning. Therefore, thousands of jihadists may have lived to fight another day.

“Although more than 1,700 ISIS terrorists were killed during the Sirte counterterrorism operations,” the State Department reported, “many members of the terrorist organization fled to Libya’s western and southern deserts, abroad, or into neighboring urban centers.”

The seven months of heavy fighting in Sirte was costly for the GNA-backed militiamen who ousted Baghdadi’s jihadists as well. More than 700 GNA-sponsored fighters were reportedly killed and thousands more wounded.

US strikes against the Islamic State and al Qaeda in Libya

The US military has launched at least 508 airstrikes against the Islamic State and one airstrike on an al Qaeda target inside Libya since June 2015, according to information compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal. In addition, the US carried out two Special Forces raids. These operations are summarized in the map seen at the beginning of this article.

The figures used to create the map are estimates based on open source reporting and information released by the US military. As with US counterterrorism operations in ungoverned spaces such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, it is difficult to independently assess the results of the strikes.

The overwhelming majority of the attacks against the Islamic State took place during Odyssey Lightning, however some strikes have also targeted the group’s leadership. In 2015, the US military killed Abu Nabil al Anbari (aka Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi), a senior Islamic State leader in Libya. The Defense Department described al Anbari as “an Iraqi national who was a longtime al Qaeda operative and the senior [Islamic State] leader in Libya.”

The US has also struck al Qaeda’s network in Libya at least three times since 2014.

In June 2014, commandos captured Abu Khattala, an Ansar al Sharia Benghazi leader who is accused of participating in the Sept. 11, 2012 assault on the US Mission and Annex. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans perished in the attack. Although Ansar al Sharia Benghazi was widely portrayed as an independent and “local” organization at the time, it was actually part of al Qaeda’s network. Ansar al Sharia’s ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were eventually recognized by the United Nations. The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that, in addition to Ansar al Sharia’s members, jihadists from AQIM, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Mohammad Jamal Network (which was run by a long-time subordinate of Ayman al Zawahiri) all participated in the Benghazi attack as well. Abu Khattala is the only one of the terrorists to be captured and put on trial inside the US.

In June 2015, US warplanes targeted senior al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar and a group of commanders gathering in Ajdabiya. Rumors spread that Belmokhtar had been killed, but his death was never confirmed and al Qaeda continued to act as if he is alive. Seven other jihadists were reportedly killed during the bombing.

In Oct. 2015, US special operations forces, aided by the FBI and CIA, captured Abu Anas al Libi (also known as Nazih Abdul Hamed al Ruqai) in Tripoli. Al Libi helped build al Qaeda’s network in Libya after the 2011 uprisings. He was allegedly part of the terrorist team that plotted the twin US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998.

Alexandra Gutowski create the map of US airstrikes in Libya. Alexandra is a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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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