Move aids Libyan ground forces in battle for militant group’s stronghold
The U.S. conducted airstrikes against Islamic State’s primary stronghold in Libya for the first time on Monday, aiding the U.N.-backed Libyan government’s attempt to retake the area and deepening American involvement in efforts to defeat the group in North Africa.
U.S. aircraft struck Islamic State vehicles and a tank in the coastal city of Sirte, a critical base for the extremist group outside its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
American airstrikes have hit individual Islamic State targets, including a training camp, on two prior occasions in Libya. But Monday’s actions mark the first time they have come to the aid of local Libyan forces carrying out a traditional ground offensive to recapture territory from Islamic State.
The U.N.-backed government in Tripoli has been fighting in a campaign alongside local militias primarily from the city of Misrata to oust Islamic State from nearby Sirte. The militias have ejected the militants from about 100 miles of coastline since the campaign began in May and last week seized the security headquarters in Sirte.
Now they are facing difficult urban resistance in holdout areas of the city.
By Monday, Islamic State had been isolated to a roughly five-kilometer (3.1-mile) radius in Sirte, according to Ismail Shukri, head of military intelligence for the militias. “We are drawing up our battle plans for the final advance into last districts where they remain,” he said by phone from Misrata.
President Barack Obama approved the airstrikes in response to a formal request for assistance from the U.N.-backed government, known as the Government of National Accord. The Pentagon said the U.S. would continue to conduct strikes at the Libyan government’s request to keep up momentum against Islamic State in Sirte.
“They have made significant progress in Sirte already on their own,” Mr. Cook said. “And we believe this can make a difference, hopefully in a short amount of time.”
Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who heads U.S. Africa Command, will be responsible for approving future strike requests in the Sirte campaign, Mr. Cook said.
A victory against Islamic State in Sirte would deny the extremist group a new staging ground for international attacks. It would also notch a win for the U.N.-backed government in its bid to reassert control over a swath of the divided nation.
But the recapture of territory from Islamic State in Libya does not necessarily reduce tensions among various factions allied against the extremist group in the country—a similar problem the U.S. faces in Iraq and Syria.
“The problem I think we need to face in Libya, and we have to face it in Syria and Iraq, is that defeating ISIS doesn’t bring unity,” said Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It doesn’t necessarily bring an end to the fighting.”
Still, Mr. Cordesman said it makes sense for the U.S. to provide air power when it can identify a local force fighting what is clearly an international threat. It becomes more difficult for local forces to recapture territory from Islamic State the longer the group holds it and installs booby traps and mines. “Even a small amount of air power can often make the difference,” he said.
Washington’s deeper involvement in Libya comes as the U.S. and its coalition partners step up their campaign against Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan through a strategy of backing local forces with airstrikes, advice and materiel. In Syria, U.S. airstrikes and advisers are helping Arab and Kurdish fighters retake the city of Manbij, while in Iraq, American troops are preparing Iraqi forces to recapture Mosul.
In Libya, the U.S. has shied back, carrying out only limited operations against Islamic State in part because of divisions in the country’s government and resistance to foreign troops among locals. U.S. precision airstrike capabilities could help local Libya forces move into urban areas of Sirte without causing excess civilian casualties, Mr. Cook said, adding that the U.S. military would remain rigorously involved and vet proposed strikes.
Mr. Cook also said no U.S. ground forces would be involved in the mission in Sirte. U.S. Special Operations teams have been functioning in Libya to establish contacts and communication with local forces on and off for some time. Mr. Cook declined to comment on their disposition, calling their activities “separate and apart from this operation.”
Faiez Serraj, prime minister of Libya’s unity government, said Libyan authorities requested that the U.S. coordinate its strikes in Sirte with Libya’s presidential council and operations command. He said Monday’s strike cost Islamic State “major losses” in equipment and allowed Libyan ground forces to “take control of key locations.”
“In cooperation with the international community, we have decided to join the international alliance to fight the Islamic State,” Mr. Serraj said. “This step comes as it’s time the international community keeps its promises and commitments to the Libyan people and the Government of National Accord.”
Libya became embroiled in a chaotic contest for power after the 2011 ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The struggle between competing political and armed factions created a vacuum that allowed Islamic State and other extremist groups to thrive.
At the height of that struggle, in early 2015, Islamic State seized Sirte, and a 125-mile stretch of coastline that surrounds it, transforming the port into a foothold in North Africa and a welcoming ground for foreign fighters and weapons. The birthplace of Gadhafi, the symbolic city became the de facto headquarters of Islamic State’s most powerful branch outside Iraq and Syria.
The fractiousness of the Libyan state has made the task of ousting Islamic State there more challenging. Despite years of international diplomacy, the country still has two main rival governments: the U.N.-backed government led by Mr. Serraj in the western city of Tripoli and another government loyal to Libyan General Khalifa Haftar in the eastern city of Bayda.
Mr. Shukri said U.S. airstrikes had come later than necessary in the campaign for Sirte. “We needed them earlier in the battle when it was open warfare and [Islamic State] were manning heavy artillery,” he said. Now his forces are facing snipers and ground fighters in urban combat.
Mr. Cook said the U.S. received the request for assistance from Libya’s unity government in recent days. “They have not up until now requested this kind of assistance,” he said. “Now they have, given that they’re in Sirte, that they’re taking on ISIL. While they’re having success, they do see areas of opposition, areas where ISIL is dug in.”
On July 18, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford estimated that “just a few hundred” Islamic State fighters were left in the city of Sirte itself.
Islamic State doesn’t wield full control over any other major cities in Libya, but the extremist group does retain a presence in Benghazi and Derna, in Libya’s east.
Libyan forces loyal to Gen. Haftar and allied with the rival government in the east have been fighting Islamic State in those locations. French Special Forces recently killed in a helicopter crash in Libya had been embedded with an armed group commanded by the prominent general.