Can Airstrikes Alone Tackle Islamic State in Libya?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 2

B-2 Bomber (Source:

In the last four months of 2017, the United States resumed bombing Islamic State (IS) targets in Libya.  On September 24, 2017, U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) announced it had conducted airstrikes against an IS training camp on September 22 at 7:06 PM, killing 17 militants and destroying three vehicles (U.S. African Command, September 24, 2017). According to AFRICOM, the training camp, located 150 miles southeast of the city of Sirte, was hit by a half-dozen “precision strikes” launched from B-2 bombers and Reaper Drones. It also claimed that the terrorist group was stockpiling weapons at the camp, hosting foreign fighters and plotting more attacks in Libya and elsewhere.

Another attack followed swiftly. On September 26, AFRICOM reported it had conducted two more precision strikes, 100 miles southeast of the city of Sirte, which killed several more IS militants (U.S. African Command, September 28, 2017).

Most recently, on November 17 and 19, the U.S. military conducted “precision strikes” near the city of Fuqaha, directly south of Sirte (U.S. African Command, November 21, 2017). While AFRICOM did not report any casualties officially, there are reports that the strike killed several fighters (Libyan Express, November 18, 2017).

Before September strikes, the last U.S. airstrike reported in Libya was on January 19, 2017, the last full day that then-President Barack Obama was in office. That strike, employing B-2 bombers, hit an IS training camp south of Sirte, killing roughly 80 fighters. The strikes were reportedly part of an operation to eliminate external plotters, including those plotting attacks in Europe (North Africa Post, September 20). With the latest strikes, the administration of President Donald Trump is following the Obama-era playbook.

Islamic State in Libya

The willingness of the Obama administration to undertake occasional military interventions in Libya, and for the Trump administration to follow that lead, reflects the growing seriousness of the security threat emanating from the country. With the so-called IS caliphate disappearing in Iraq and Syria, Libya has provided an attractive refuge for fleeing IS jihadists. The extremist network has flourished with their help, organizing increased terrorist attacks at home and abroad while managing a thriving criminal enterprise smuggling people supposedly fleeing Syria into Europe. In a February 2016 report to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called IS in Libya one of the group’s “most developed branches outside of Syria and Iraq.” [1]

Following Clapper’s remarks, the Obama administration took steps to diminish the IS threat emanating from Libya.  It carried out Operation Odyssey Lightning from August 1 to December 19, 2016, an air campaign that included 495 precision strikes in support of military forces aligned with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) (U.S. African Command, December 20, 2016). The campaign evicted IS from the city of Sirte, its main base of operations in the country (al-Monitor, December 14, 2016).

Control of Sirte and its surrounding area are of critical strategic significance for the country. The Sirte Basin ranks 13th among the world’s petroleum provinces. It contains 80 percent of the country’s oil reserves and many of its major oil wells. [2] The Basin provides the resources to support most of the military forces fighting in the area.

By depriving IS of Sirte, the Obama administration succeeded in diminishing the group’s capabilities, at least temporarily. However, rather than being scattered or deterred, many IS fighters merely shifted their base of operations to the surrounding countryside and areas to the south (Middle East Eye, August 24, 2017).

In southern and central Libya, neither of the rival national governments—the GNA and the House of Representatives (HoR)—exercises effective authority. Without clear political authority, these regions have become a passageway for smugglers, jihadists and migrants.

Airstrikes Resumed

IS has taken advantage of this power vacuum to reestablish its operational structure and regain much of its organizational capability.  In 2017, working from its new bases of operations, IS began a push to recapture Sirte. It had already established a strong presence in the city of al-Nawfalya, to the east of the city, and, as of December 2017, it controls an area ranging as far south as Waddan in central Libya.

One estimate by Ibrahim Mlitan, a security commander in Sirte, is that IS operates in an area of 40,000 square km surrounding Sirte (Maghreb Newswire, September 15, 2017).  Local residents and security forces have reported IS fighters patrolling coastal highways around the city and hunting opponents who aided the GNA in expelling them in 2016 (Middle East Eye, September 5, 2017).

The increasing IS activity, and the growing threat of the group recapturing Sirte, is what prompted the United States to resume precision strikes. Unfortunately, it appears that the latest airstrikes have emboldened IS in Libya. After the first set of U.S. strikes in late September, the group mobilized sleeper cells in towns surrounding Sirte. Then, on October 4, IS gunmen opened fire outside a Libyan courthouse complex in Misrata and eventually detonated suicide vests, killing four people and injuring 41 others (IOL News, October 4, 2017). In December 2017, another IS cell was apprehended by Libyan government forces in Derna after members attempted to assassinate a member of the Derna Shura Council, Moaz Tchani (Libyan Observer, December 11, 2017).

Despite these incidents, there is no indication the United States intends to escalate its involvement in Libya. When asked about U.S. policy toward Libya last April, President Trump stated: “I do not see a role [for the United States] in Libya. I think the United States has right now enough roles … I do see a role in getting rid of ISIS, we’re very effective in that regard … I see that as a primary role and that’s what we’re going to do, whether it’s in Iraq, or Libya or anywhere else” (C-SPAN, April 20).

‘Getting Rid’ of IS

It is unclear whether simply continuing to draw from the established playbook of occasional airstrikes, sometimes supported by GNA-affiliated forces on the ground, will achieve the stated policy goal of “getting rid” of IS. After all, the most significant achievement of this approach was forcing IS fighters out of Sirte, and even that is now in danger of unraveling.

In particular, it seems doubtful that IS influence will be broken until a Libyan government can consolidate effective authority in the central and southern regions of the country. As Jalal al-Shweidi, a representative from the Benghazi-based HoR, told one reporter in September: “The defeat of [Islamic State] won’t happen without real consensus between politicians, which we are far from achieving” (World Tribune, September 16, 2017).

Unfortunately, Libya’s politicians do not appear to be moving toward reconciliation. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which controls eastern Libya and is aligned with the HoR government based in Tobruk, declared on December 17 that the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), intended to provide the basis for a national political reconciliation, had expired and therefore no longer applied (Libyan Herald, December 17). The following day, the prime minister of Libya’s unity government, Fayez al-Sarraj, insisted the agreement “remains in place,” despite its mandate elapsing (Daily Sabah, December 19, 2017). His words were echoed by Hashem Bishr, one of the GNA’s key military commanders, but only on condition that there be elections in 2018 (North Africa Post, December 18, 2017).

None of this is encouraging for the prospects for peace and reconciliation. The more immediate question, however, is whether the Trump administration can at least replicate the previous administration’s limited successes in keeping IS out of Sirte. The longer-term question is whether it can fashion a strategy that promises a more sustainable solution.



[1] Clapper, James R, ‘Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community’ (Senate Arms Committee, February 9, 2016).


[2] Ahlbrandt, Thomas S, ‘The Sirte Basin Province of Libya – Sirte-Zelten Total Petroleum System’ (U.S. Geological Survey, 2001).