A series of four airstrikes in recent weeks against Libya’s Islamic State franchise killed roughly one-third of the militant group’s personnel, giving much needed breathing room as the country’s two main factions wrangle for control in Tripoli.
The strikes killed an estimated 43 ISIS fighters, with roughly 100 still remaining, according to a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity.
“We assess that was a pretty significant degradation of their capabilities and, again, they struggle to reconstitute because of the nature of the operatives who were killed in this strike and the fact that they have already been struggling with manpower,” the official said in a telephone interview Thursday.
“We certainly don’t assess that they’re expanding,” the official added.
The strikes come amid an ongoing struggle between the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord and Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army. U.S. Africa Command officials warned this summer that the fighting distracts both factions from counterterrorism aims, and could allow for a resurgence of ISIS-Libya.
But that hasn’t stopped foreign governments from betting on each side.
The senior defense official said that in June, Turkey provided armed Bayraktar TB2 drone aircraft to GNA forces. Those were used in late July to destroy two Emirate-provided Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes, the official added.
The official maintained that the Americans, meanwhile, are focused on a political solution to the conflict, and only conducted the recent strikes to “keep pressure” on ISIS-Libya.
However, the official doubted that ISIS-Libya could return to its pre-2016 levels of power, around the time when its fighters lost their hold over the coastal city of Sirte and fled into the desert.
A total of six strikes were conducted in 2018, and seven in 2017. The numbers were a significant reduction from the nearly 500 air strikes conducted in 2016.
In 2018, ISIS fighters claimed responsibility for more than a dozen attacks targeting the Libyan government and oil infrastructure, according to AFRICOM. But the group is a long way from its height of control, when NATO’s Allied Maritime Command warned that ISIS wanted to use Sirte as a launching point for a maritime force into the Mediterranean.
ISIS knock-off, or legit franchise?
ISIS has shown an ongoing interest in its African affiliates, as evidenced by a series of propaganda releases this spring and summer in which Africa-based ISIS “provinces” were highlighted and some reaffirmed pledges of allegiance to ISIS’ emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But beyond propaganda, it remains unclear what these different groups share between one another. The senior defense official could only say that there is a “likely exchange of revenue or support being provided” to ISIS groups lower on the militant network’s hierarchy.
Despite the fall of ISIS’ territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials say the group still has access to a sprawling financial network. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned seven individuals in April who were connected to the use of hawalas to circumvent the formal banking sector and move funds for ISIS across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Citing ISIS publications like the al Naba newsletter, the defense official said that they have increasingly seen ISIS emphasize the accomplishments of its African affiliates, as well as the sharing of propaganda victories between them.
“That highlights that there is a greater inter-connectivity between ISIS affiliates, that there is closer coordination,” the defense official said. “All of which starts to pose a more significant threat when you consider there’s ISIS-Somalia, ISIS-Democratic Republic of the Congo, ISIS-Mozambique, ISIS-Libya, ISIS-Greater Sahara and ISIS-West Africa.”
The official said that there has been “an expanding threat in the Sahel." But the U.S. military doesn’t conduct airstrikes in that region. Instead, the strategy is to provide support to French-led operations. It’s “primarily an intelligence-focused approach,” the defense official added.
Many of the fighters in ISIS-Libya these days are native Libyans and the group is primarily attempting to recruit locally, the defense official said. Though, foreign recruits have been part of the group in the past.
Who’s backing Hifter?
AFRICOM’s latest strikes come as Hifter has been leading an offensive to take over the capital of Tripoli from the United Nations-supported government.
Hifter’s quest for control concerned some within AFRICOM, who worried that it would provide “oxygen” to existing terrorist elements, Air Force Col. Chris Karns, a command spokesman, told Military Times in August.
AFRICOM commander Army Gen. Stephen Townsend has conducted high-level meetings on the subject. In August, he met with Libya’s prime minister and the U.S. ambassador to the country to discuss threats from existing violent extremist organizations in Libya.
The U.S. military had a small presence of troops in Libya starting in 2011, after long-time ruler Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown. But in April, U.S. forces were pulled from Libya when Hifter’s Libyan National Army launched its offensive.
Hifter, a former CIA asset, was exiled during Gadhafi’s leadership, and settled in Langley, Virginia, in the 1990s. He obtained U.S. citizenship before returning to Libya in 2011 at the start of the civil war.
The former AFRICOM commander said in February that the U.S. has maintained lines of communications with Hifter throughout Libya’s civil war, and added that the Russians have also tried to revive Gadhafi-era weapons sales and oil contracts in the country through Hifter.
“Like others, when the music stops, they want to be able to influence whoever, you know, finds the seat, whoever wins,” said Marine Corps Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, who relinquished control of AFRICOM to Townsend this summer.
Russia has stated that its objective in Libya is to restore stability and fight terrorism. But the senior defense official who spoke over the telephone Thursday said that Russian private military companies have been operating in LNA territory in eastern Libya.
The Gadhafi-era business contracts are in excess of $4 billion, “so they have strong economic rationale as to why they’re going to continue to support Hifter,” the senior defense official said.
The Turkish government has also provided armed drone aircraft to the GNA government, despite the U.N. embargo to tamper down on Libya’s civil war. The defense official said Turkey sold Bayraktar TB2 drones to be used over Tripoli by the U.N.-recognized GNA government.
The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, "remains one of the staunchest foreign backers” of the LNA and increased assistance in April 2019, according to the senior defense official.
“They provided military support across the board, from UAS capability, transport aircraft, and what we are assessing is a variety of arms and material support," they said.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.