On September 22th, the U.S. military struck an Islamic State (IS) camp in Libya, the first American strikes in Libya since President Trump took office.
Six U.S. airstrikes hit an Islamic State camp located about 150 miles southeast of Sirte, killing 17 IS fighters and destroying three vehicles. The desert camp was used by IS to move fighters in and out of the country, stockpile equipment and weapons and plot attacks in Libya and in other countries in Northern Africa and Europe.
The Trump administration has not yet formed a policy on U.S. involvement in Libya. In April, the first time President Trump spoke publicly about Libya, he said he didn’t see a role for the U.S. in helping stabilize Libya and would focus on fighting IS.
Recently, the U.S. State Department has said the U.S. remains committed to working with the United Nations (U.N.) to help advance political reconciliation, defeat terrorism, and promote a more stable future for the Libyan people.
In July, a new diplomatic and military policy was proposed which would significantly increase U.S. involvement in Libya, but the plan has yet to be formally approved. The policy would support reconciliation between factions located in Eastern and Western Libya and would also send U.S. troops to Libya to train Libyan forces fighting with the U.N-sponsored Government of National Accord and to facilitate counterterrorism intelligence sharing.
Libya has been in turmoil since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 and has become deeply fractured since two rival governments were formed in 2014. The House of Representatives (HoR) was created after elections in 2014 to replace the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC). The GNC rejected the HoR’s legitimacy, and Islamist backed militias under the Libyan Dawn coalition seized control of the capital of Tripoli on behalf of the GNC. Most of Eastern Libya was controlled by the internationally-recognized HoR while most of the west, and Tripoli, was controlled by the new GNC.
In 2016, the Libyan Political Agreement, a U.N.-brokered agreement, was signed by both groups to unite as the Government of National Accord (GNA) but there wasn’t full acceptance of this deal. The HoR refuses to approve any changes the GNA makes and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who supports the House, refuses to accept the GNA. The GNA is seen as a foreign-imposed entity, and the administration is mostly dependent on Islamist-leaning militias while the HoR is backed by the anti‑Islamist LNA.
The challenge now is attempting to form a broad national government that would be accepted by both the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj which controls much of the west of Libya and Libyan National Army headed by General Kalifa Haftar which controls the east.
Islamic State has taken advantage of this political instability and ungoverned spaces in Libya to create safe havens from which it could recruit and attack the United States and its allies.
The last U.S. strike in Libya was under former President Obama in January. This airstrike killed over 80 IS fighters and destroyed two camps southwest of Sirte.
Sirte was an important city for Islamic State serving as a planning hub for leaders, but the U.S. in conjunction with Libya’s Government of National Accord and allied forces recaptured the city in December of 2016. The fight in Sirte was a 5 month long operation with the U.S. carrying out almost 500 strikes on Islamic State Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs), heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers, and fighting positions.
Islamic State has been in Libya since the end of 2014 when fighters returned home to Libya after fighting in Syria and formed Libya’s first IS-affiliate in Derna. IS fighters advanced into Sirte in 2015. In the spring, there was an estimated 200 IS fighters left in Libya as compared to early 2016 when there was upwards of 6,000 fighters in Sirte and its surrounding areas.
While Islamic State lost Sirte last year, it is still active in the region around Sirte where large swathes of territory are not under government control. IS will continue to be a threat to the U.S. and its allies and failing to solve the political instability in Libya would allow the group to inspire attacks around the world.