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Airstrikes devastated ISIS camps in Libya, defense official says

By JOHN VANDIVER | Stars and Stripes | Published: October 10, 2019

STUTTGART, Germany — A series of recent airstrikes in Libya against Islamic State targets were delivered to “devastating effect,” eliminating roughly one-third of the group’s already weakened fighting force in the country, a defense official said Thursday.

U.S. Africa Command launched four airstrikes in Libya in September, resuming attacks after a one-year pause. The strikes killed 43 ISIS fighters who were operating out of desert camps.

“We assess that was a pretty significant degradation of their capability,” said the defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

There are now only about 100 ISIS fighters believed to be operating in Libya, the official said. Leading up to the airstrikes, AFRICOM had seen an uptick in attacks in Libya by the militant group, which had taken advantage of an ongoing civil war in the country that has pitted a U.S.-backed government against the so-called Libyan National Army, commanded by rebel leader Khalifa Hifter. While the two forces fought against each other, ISIS launched attacks of its own against the warring sides.

Still, ISIS in Libya has struggled to regenerate in the years since it had some 5,000 fighters in the country and dominated a 200-mile coastal section in the north where it had a burgeoning government of its own. However, all but about 200 ISIS members were killed in 2015 when AFRICOM launched a massive airstrike campaign in coordination with government-aligned forces. The remaining fighters dispersed throughout the country.

Though degraded, military officials warn the chaos in Libya still provides a potential haven for militants. Moreover, there are fears that fighters in Libya could coordinate with other more powerful ISIS affiliates in other parts of Africa, such as groups in the western Sahel region, which have been expanding in power.

With ISIS’ main force in Iraq and Syria under pressure, the group is placing greater emphasis on global affiliates, particularly in Africa, the defense official said.

Since NATO’s 2011 bombing campaign that helped overthrow longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has been embroiled in a civil war that has pitted a U.S.-backed central government against various militia groups.

The United States is now pushing for a political deal between Hifter and Libya’s Government of National Accord.

In September, U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland and an official from AFRICOM held talks in Abu Dhabi with Hifter in hopes of working toward a political settlement in the country.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver
  

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