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US planes strike Isis fighters in Libya 'planning attacks in Europe'
US warplanes have conducted massive airstrikes near the Libyan city of Sirte against Islamic State members believed to be planning attacks in Europe, in an attack which killed 80 people.
A month after the US military declared a successful conclusion to a months-long air campaign against the militant group, B-2 bombers made a 9,400km (5,800-mile) journey on Wednesday night from a Missouri airbase to target what Pentagon officials described as two Isis training camps 45km (28 miles) south-west of Sirte.
Initial US estimates were that approximately 80 people were killed, who the Pentagon described as Isis fighters.
The outgoing US defense secretary, Ashton Carter, said that some of those killed posed an urgent threat to America's European allies.
"They certainly are people who were actively plotting operations in Europe and may also have been connected to attacks that have already occurred in Europe," Carter told reporters.
"We need to strike Isil everywhere they show up. And that's particularly true in view of the fact that we know some of the Isil operatives in Libya were involved with plotting attacks," he said, using an alternative acronym for the group also known as Daesh and Isis.
The Pentagon press secretary, Peter Cook, said some of the fighters "fled to the remote desert camps from Sirte in order to reorganize". Cook said the military was evaluating the results of the strikes but said an initial assessment "indicates they were successful". He did not say how many Isis fighters remain in Libya following the attack.
The airstrikes did not appear to signal the resumption of a sustained air campaign, but Cook said that the US "remains prepared to further support Libyan efforts to counter terrorist threats and to defeat Isil in Libya". The strikes were directly ordered by Barack Obama in the past few days, Cook said.
It is likely to be the last wave of military strikes under the presidency of Obama, who committed US airpower to toppling dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Gaddafi's death left a vacuum that Libyan politicians have struggled to fill. Into the void has stepped Isis, which overran swaths of territory including the port city of Sirte.
After a request for help from the Washington-backed Libyan unity government, US bombers and attack helicopters harassed and ultimately dislodged Isis from Sirte after a five-month campaign that included the amphibious-assault ship USS Wasp. The US declared a successful end to the bombing on 20 December.
On 5 January, in remarks defending the Obama administration's foreign policy, the outgoing secretary of state, John Kerry, asserted: "We have particularly helped push back against any number of violent extremist groups, including our efforts most recently to liberate Sirte in Libya from the clenches of Daesh."
Carter, on Thursday, was less definitive.
"There's a civil war in Libya. That fundamentally is the reason Isil is able to get a foothold there. Libyans don't like foreigners, and I think if they could settle their own internal differences - which is a political and diplomatic matter - they'd themselves make quick work of Isil," he said.
The Pentagon portrayed Wednesday night's airstrikes as a mop-up effort emanating from the Sirte campaign, suggesting that the US bombardment went unfinished.
There was speculation in the closing stages of the battle that Isis units had escaped the town into the vast Saharan desert south of the town. But the US strikes appear to underline that Isis remains a threat in Libya, despite the deployment of US, British and French special forces to combat them.
Incoming president Donald Trump, who takes office on Friday, is reportedly receiving aggressive but unspecified plans to intensify US war efforts against Isis. It is unclear if they focus primarily on the remaining Isis strongholds in Iraq and Syria or aim to reignite the Libya campaign as well.
Cook said the US was "committed to maintaining pressure on Isil and preventing them from establishing safe haven. These strikes will degrade Isil's ability to stage attacks against Libyan forces and civilians working to stabilize Sirte, and demonstrate our resolve in countering the threat posed by Isil to Libya, the United States and our allies."
Analysts say the US airstrikes are proof that many Isis formations remain in Libya's desert interior, taking advantage of the country's chaotic civil war, and are likely to target nearby oil fields.
"[Isis] will certainly remain a threat in Libya. I expect them, after some consolidation, to become increasingly active. They will go at first after easy targets, like the hydrocarbon infrastructure in the Sirte Basin," said Wolfgang Pusztai, analyst at America's National Council for US Libya Relations and Austria's former Libya defense attache.
Carter and Cook described the use of the B-2, the US air force's central long-range bomber, as the decision of the commander, Thomas Waldhauser, the marine general in charge of US Africa Command. Cook said the "loitering" capability of the B-2 made it the ideal airframe for the mission, which arose as an "opportunity" after US surveillance sighted trucks and fighters hauling rocket-propelled grenades to the camps. He did not say if the warplanes loitered to attack specific individuals.
[Source: By Spencer Ackerman in New York and Chris Stephen in Tunis, The Guardian, London, 19Jan17]
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