US bombers flew from Missouri and killed 80 Islamic State fighters in Libya

Two B-2 Spirit stealth bombers from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., prepare for takeoff Wednesday Jan. 18, 2017, in support of operations near Sirte, Libya. In conjunction with the Libyan Government of National Accord, the U.S. military conducted precision airstrikes destroying two Islamic State camps some 27 miles southwest of Sirte.



WASHINGTON — U.S. warplanes struck Islamic State encampments in Libya overnight, killing more than 80 terrorists and destroying their makeshift training camps near Sirte, a town the group once dominated, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday.

“These strikes were directed against some of [the Islamic State group’s] external plotters who were actively planning operations against our allies in Europe,” Carter said on his last day in office. “These were critically important strikes for our campaign … against [the terrorist group] everywhere it exists.”

U.S. Africa Command recommended two Air Force B-2 stealth bombers carry out the strikes because of their ability to loiter over a target and deliver dozens of precision munitions against a target, Carter said.

The bombers flew 34 hours from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and hit the two camps simultaneously, dropping more than 100 munitions, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said. The bombers were accompanied by armed MQ-9 drones and assisted by special operators to target the desert encampments about 45 kilometers southwest of Sirte, where last month Libya’s Government of National Accord, with the assistance of American airpower, drove out the remnants of the Islamic State group. The UN has recognized the GNA as Libya’s proper governing body.

The airstrikes were requested by the GNA and authorized by President Barack Obama in his final days as commander in chief, said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook.

Video released by the Pentagon showed alleged members of the Islamic State group in one of the encampments moving weapons that appeared to be rocket-propelled grenades and artillery shells from pickup trucks into the camp. A second video showed one of the camps being obliterated by bombs. Air Force spokesman Col. Pat Ryder said the B-2s – each capable of carrying some 40,000 pounds of munitions -- dropped more than 100 500-pound bombs during the roughly 30-minute attack.

Carter said the U.S. military had been watching the camps, which had popped up as Islamic State fighters fled from Sirte, “for some time.”

The GNA declared victory over the Islamic State group in Sirte in December. The terrorist group had controlled nearly all of the city, where it had aimed to establish a headquarters for its operations in Africa.

James estimated there were about 100 Islamic State fighters living in the encampments. Not all of the fighters there had fled from the clashes in Sirte, Cook said. He added Islamic State group-affiliated fighters had been observed moving in the rural desert regions around Sirte for several months before they finally appeared to settle in the encampments attacked Thursday. The terrorist group, he said, was attempting to “reconstitute” itself after its defeat in Sirte, and set up a training and recruiting hub.

Cook declined to say whether the United States was watching any other Islamic State-affiliated groups in Libya.

Planning for the Thursday attack had been underway for some time with U.S. Africa Command to target the camps, James said. Eventually, commanders settle on using the B-2s, which had not been used to strike an enemy target since March 2011 when three stealth bombers destroyed Libyan air force assets on the ground as part of its no-fly zone enforcement during Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Operations against the Islamic State group have been carried out largely by fighter jets, conventional B-1 bombers and conventionally armed B-52 bombers. Ryder said the use of the B-2s sent the message that the United States’ stealth bombers are “unique in capability” and can be used against any enemy at any time.

The pair of B-2s were supported by more than 15 tanker aircraft who refueled the aircraft en route.

The airstrikes were a continuation of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the four-month campaign in which U.S. warplanes almost daily pounded Islamic State targets in Sirte to back the GNA militias. That operation had seemingly completed in December after almost 500 U.S. airstrikes.

American officials in early 2016 estimated there were several thousand Islamic State fighters operating in Sirte, but those numbers had dwindled to several hundred by late summer. The GNA declared victory in the city in early December, saying it had eliminated the terrorist group from the city. Cook said Thursday he did not have a current estimate of the number of Islamic State group fighters remaining in Libya.

“This dealt a significant blow to [the Islamic State group’s] presence in Libya,” Cook said. “Was it a death blow for them in Libya? We’ll have to wait and see, but we feel we’ve done significant damage to their presence in Libya.”

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Airmen from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., prepare a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, for operations near Sirte, Libya.