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US Special Ops Teams in Libya Helped Direct Airstrikes Against ISIS

This photo released online by the Sabratha Municipal Council on Feb. 19, 2016, shows the site where American warplanes struck an Islamic State training camp in Sabratha, Libya, near the Tunisian border. Sabratha Municipal Council via AP
This photo released online by the Sabratha Municipal Council on Feb. 19, 2016, shows the site where American warplanes struck an Islamic State training camp in Sabratha, Libya, near the Tunisian border. Sabratha Municipal Council via AP

U.S. Special Operations teams on the ground in Libya in recent weeks aided in the preparations for the U.S. airstrike that hit an ISIS training camp and reportedly killed a top operative, the Pentagon said Friday.

The meetings in recent weeks of the special ops teams with Libyan officials improved "our ability to get a better sense of the playing field" in the North African country rife with factional fighting, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said.

The special operators were not believed to have been on the ground to direct the airstrike, but their previous contacts with the Libyans "gave us the confidence that allowed us to carry out the strike," Cook said.

Army Gen. James Votel, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said last month that his troops would become more active in Libya to prevent the country from becoming a new front for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

"There is a concern about Libya" and ISIS' growing presence there, Votel said at the Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference in Washington last month. "It can't all be about Iraq and Syria," said Votel, who has been nominated to replace Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as head of U.S. Central Command.

To meet the threat, "we do have to do activities and pursue objectives that allow us to tamp down on it -- prevent it, and destroy it in areas where it is not wholly grown or beginning to metastasize so that we can bring that area back to legitimate local control," Votel said.

At a Pentagon news conference, Cook said that the airstrike on an ISIS training facility in a rural area was believed have killed Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian who allegedly organized attacks last year on a Tunis museum and the Sousse beach resort which killed dozens of tourists.

Cook declined to give a casualty estimate for the airstrike, which reportedly killed at least 40 fighters training at the facility. Cook also declined to disclose the type of aircraft used, beyond saying that manned and unmanned aircraft were involved. Several news outlets said strikes were carried out by F-15s.

Cook twice thanked the British, saying the British "offered" the use of their airfields in the region to launch the airstrikes. He declined to say whether the U.S. took up the British offer, or whether airfields in Malta or Cyprus were involved.

The airstrike was the second in three months by the U.S. against the Islamic State in Libya, which has been in chaos since the 2011 overthrown of Moammar Gadhafii. Last November, the United States carried out an airstrike on the Libyan town of Derna, close to the Egyptian border, to kill ISIS operative Abu Nabil.

In a statement, the Pentagon said that the "destruction of the camp and Chouchane's removal will eliminate an experienced facilitator and is expected to have an immediate impact on ISIL's ability to facilitate its activities in Libya, including recruiting new ISIL members, establishing bases in Libya, and potentially planning external attacks on U.S. interests in the region."

Cook said that the airstrikes were carried out under international law and the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recommended the strike and it was approved by President Obama, Cook said. At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the airstrikes were "an indication that the president will not hesitate to take these kinds of forceful, decisive actions."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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