Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Washington on the warpath

The US carried out air strikes on the Islamic State terror group in Libya this week at the request of the country’s Government of National Accord, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Head of the Presidential Council of Libya’s Government of National Accord Fayez Sarraj announced that the US air force had carried out its first air strikes on Islamic State (IS) positions in the town of Sirte this week, at the request of the council in coordination with the Bunyan Marsous Operation and the Libyan Defence Ministry.

He said the strikes would not go beyond Sirte and would be carried out for a specific period of time, though the length of this was not specified. The Pentagon also announced that it had carried out air strikes against IS in Libya, saying in a press statement that the strikes were on the orders of US President Barack Obama following a request from the Libyan government.

The announcements came as pro-government forces in the Bunyan Marsous Operation made progress this week by taking over the Dollar neighbourhood of central Sirte after expelling IS fighters from their positions.

In a press conference on Sunday, spokesman for the Operation Mohamed Al-Ghasri welcomed the US strikes, saying they were being coordinated with US forces based on coordinates identified by the Libyan authorities. He added that the US air strikes “began at exactly 1:40pm on Monday. They directly targeted IS equipment, including a T72 tank.” He also confirmed the arrest of a IS leader who was attempting to flee the country by sea.

Sources in the Bunyan Marsous Operation told Al-Ahram Weekly that the US air force had carried out four strikes, leaving five IS fighters dead and destroying a second tank belonging to the group.

US sources expect the strikes on IS positions to last several days, starting with the use of unmanned drones. The sources said a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship carrying 22 Marines and AV-8B Harrier aircraft are currently off the Libyan shore.

According to media reports, the strikes are part of a three-stage operation run by US Africa Command (AFRICOM). The first phase of the operation, called Operation Odyssey Resolve, involves intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights to counter violent extremism in Libya.

The second phase, Operation Junction Serpent, will identify targets, while in the third phase, Operation Odyssey Lightening, fighter aircraft will strike identified targets.

The Libyan Bunyan Marsous Operation sought US assistance in the fight against IS after sustaining heavy losses among its fighters. Al-Ghasri announced at the press conference on Sunday that since the beginning of the Operation 354 men had been killed and some 2,000 injured.

Meanwhile, reports indicate that IS fighters are continuing to resist despite their losses around Sirte, under their control before the beginning of military operations in May.

As they penetrated Sirte this week, the Bunyan Marsous forces managed to thwart three suicide bombs targeting them. The forces also found a cache of ammunition containing mortars, 106 mm artillery, and tank shells. Last Friday, it was announced that a laboratory for the manufacture of explosives had been found as the forces combed the Sawawa region of Sirte.

IS announced on Sunday that its fighters had launched a counter-attack on positions held by Bunyan Marsous forces in central Sirte. This was followed by a suicide mission carried out by IS fighter Abu Dajana Al-Jazrawi, which killed and wounded several government troops and destroyed equipment yet to be identified, according to pro-IS accounts on Twitter.

The Misrata District Hospital announced that from Friday to Sunday it had admitted more than 75 injured men and more than 10 dead troops with the Bunyan Marsous forces following violent clashes with IS fighters in Sirte.

Despite the advances made by the Bunyan Marsous fighters, IS remains defiant, though the area under its control has diminished and security reports indicate that many of the group’s fighters have begun heading for southwest Libya as it seems certain to lose its position in Sirte.

Libyan security sources say that IS is now strengthening its previously dormant branch in southern Libya, having lost much territory in the north. It is focusing particularly on southwest Libya, which is witnessing a conflict over spheres of influence among competing social groups, the sources say.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that after IS had lost many fighters in violent clashes in Sirte it was working to recruit new fighters from other extremist groups, such as Al-Murabitoun, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, and Touareg supporters of Ansar Al-Din who fled to Libya following France’s military offensive on their positions in northern Mali in 2013.

In doing so, IS was seeking to bolster its presence in southwest Libya where conditions are ripe for it to take advantage of the social conflict in the region between Tabu and Touarag tribes for control of border smuggling areas, the sources said.

IS calls southern Libya the “State of Fezzan,” and it has for some time been exploring the vast southern area of the country. Mostly sparsely populated desert, the area could allow it to set up training camps that would be safe from security offensives in the north and harassment by French forces stationed in northern Mali.

The latter may encounter legal obstacles if they attempt to pursue IS into Libyan territory without obtaining prior approval from the government in Tripoli.

In statements to the Weekly, the sources suggested that areas west of Sabha and in Ubari and Ghat could be open to penetration by IS fighters due to social instability, which could help the group to establish alliances to facilitate movement across the desert from and into Libya and neighbouring African states.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon released a report on 22 July on foreign fighters in Libya recruited by Al-Qaeda, IS, and other groups and their impact on neighbouring states. The report says that IS’s presence has been limited to Sirte following military operations by various militias, most of them from Misrata, and forces from other cities in western Libya, such as Gharyan, Tripoli, Sabratha, and Janzur, nominally under the control of the national accord government.

The report says these forces, fighting as part of the Bunyan Marsous Operation, are receiving outside assistance.

It adds that in addition to Sirte, IS is still active in Benghazi in the Al-Sabiri neighbourhood and the Al-Hout Market area, as well as in the cities of Al-Qawarsha and Qunfuda. IS has allied with other Islamist militias close to Al-Qaeda, Ansar Al-Sharia, and other Islamists fighting army forces led by Khalifa Haftar on behalf of the Shura Council of the Benghazi Revolutionaries.

The UN report said that IS is also operating in areas extending from Tripoli to the Tunisian border, although it was ejected from Sabratha west of Tripoli by local militias in February.

The report says that some foreign fighters have crossed the border into Tunisia, while others have headed for Tripoli, Sirte, and rural areas around Sabratha in the Nafous Mountains. A small number of foreign fighters have found safe haven within Sabratha itself.

The UN report notes that the current political divisions in Libya are contributing to the recruitment of foreign fighters. Competition between militias in the country leads them to recruit foreign fighters to strengthen their military capacities, and several Libyan militias are capable of mobilising international networks due to historical links.

The report says that IS secured its position in northern Libyan in areas where extremist groups, especially Ansar Al-Sharia, have a heavy presence, specifically in Derna, Benghazi, Sirte, and Sabratha, due to support from local parties.

The report also notes ties between Al-Qaeda and IS cells and militias in Tripoli. Members of the cells are offered safe houses by local militias like the Tawhid Brigade, whose commander was killed in December 2015.

It says that groups linked to Al-Qaeda, such as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Al-Murabitoun, and Ansar Al-Din, have found footholds in southern Libya, where they are establishing links with local militias. According to the report, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Algerian Jihadi leader of Al-Murabitoun, and Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Al-Din, move freely in southern Libya.

The report says that foreign fighters are a relatively new phenomenon in southern Libya, but it does not rule out the possibility that these elements could establish alliances of convenience as they have done in the north. It expects IS to move into the area, but it may face the same difficulties it encountered in the north of creating durable alliances with local groups.

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