By Eric Schmitt
The United States military has carried out twice as many airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Libya since President Trump took office as it has publicly acknowledged, raising questions about whether the Pentagon has sought to obscure operations in the strife-torn North African nation.
The total number of strikes — eight since January 2017 — is relatively small. But the uptick points to the threat that the Trump administration believes Libya still poses, despite the president’s focus on the American-led campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq that he has trumpeted as one of his administration’s signature national security accomplishments.
Counterterrorism specialists warn that the Islamic State and Al Qaeda also still pose formidable threats in places like Somalia, Yemen and West Africa. On Tuesday, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of the Africa Command, said in congressional testimony that “we are heavily involved in the counterterrorism piece” in Libya.
On its website and in news releases, the Africa Command has acknowledged only four airstrikes in Libya in the last 14 months against the Islamic State, also called ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. All of the attacks have been carried out since September.
Commanders decided to reveal those strikes only if a reporter specifically asked about them, a practice the Pentagon calls “responses to questions,” Major Wiest said via telephone and email from the Africa Command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. He said journalists, usually tipped off by local reporting in Libya, have called about some but not all of the four strikes.
Major Wiest said the additional four strikes were not disclosed when they happened to protect American-backed forces or diplomatic issues. “We’re not trying to hide anything,” he said. “Our goal is always to be as transparent as possible while taking into account operational security, force protection and diplomatic sensitivities.”
He could not explain why the command did not announce the strikes some days later, after the sensitivities were presumably resolved or otherwise went away. Of the previously undisclosed airstrikes, one was launched in September, two in October and one in January.
The Defense Department “doesn’t want to telegraph its moves, nor discuss the outcome of surgical strikes because it wants to keep the enemy scared and guessing,” Rudolph Atallah, a former director of African counterterrorism policy for the Pentagon, said in an email from Tunis. “There is regional cooperation to make sure Daesh doesn’t continue to expand its footprint because many of its core members are originally North African.”
Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, which tracks military strikes against militant groups, said the Africa Command was “transparent when asked, but perhaps not always forthcoming when it comes to issuing statements or updating its website.”
To be sure, the number of American airstrikes in Libya since Mr. Trump took office — carried out largely by armed MQ-9 Reaper drones flying from an air base in Sicily — is tiny in comparison to the number of strikes carried out against militants in Yemen (more than 130) or Somalia (more than 40) in the same period.
And it pales in comparison to airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where the American-led coalition has bombed on a near-daily basis.
The United States has only a few dozen Special Operations forces on the ground in Libya, advising and assisting militias aligned with the country’s fragile Government of National Accord, which clings perilously to power in the capital, Tripoli.
Critics say the Trump administration has yet to arrive at a coherent policy for Libya. On one hand, the president has said he sees no role for the United States in Libya; on the other, he has said the United States must fight the Islamic State there.
Nonetheless, the airstrikes are significant because they are a kind of barometer of the highly volatile political and security environment in the country. They also serve as an indicator of the vast ungoverned spaces that still offer fertile safe havens where Islamic State and Qaeda fighters can regroup.
“ISIS-Libya remains a formidable regional terrorist threat,” Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in written testimony this week. “Al Qaeda affiliates in Libya are spreading their influence, particularly in the ungoverned southern region.”
A United Nations report, issued on Feb. 12, offered a similarly gloomy assessment.
“While no longer in control of territory, ISIL continues to be active in Libya and retains the ability to conduct complex terrorist attacks,” the report noted. It also described “desert units” operating in south and central Libya, and “sleeper cells” that lie in wait elsewhere in the country.
The additional strikes came to light during testimony that General Waldhauser gave to the House Armed Services Committee. In response to a question, the general said there had been eight strikes against the Islamic State in Libya in the past year — twice the number his command had publicly acknowledged.
In September, the Pentagon persuaded Mr. Trump to approve a limited action against the Islamic State in Libya. American drones struck a training camp there on Sept. 22, killing 17 militants. The militants were shuttling fighters in and out of the country and stockpiling weapons, the command said.
Four days later, another round of American airstrikes rained down 100 miles southeast of Surt, killing several more fighters, the Pentagon said. The command quickly announced those attacks.
But it did not announce a strike on Sept. 29 that killed a small number of Islamic State fighters, about 100 miles southwest of Surt. Or on Oct. 9, when an airstrike killed another small group of militants, this time 250 miles south of Surt. Or on Oct. 18, when an attack killed another small group of fighters in Libya’s Wasdi al Shatii. Or on Jan. 23, when two vehicles were destroyed in strikes near Fuqaha in central Libya.
Just days before Mr. Trump took office, a B-2 bomber attack on an Islamic State training camp killed more than 80 militants, according to the Pentagon. In 2016, the military conducted nearly 500 airstrikes in Surt over several months to destroy the Islamic State stronghold.
Top Photo: Most of the American airstrikes in Libya since President Trump took office have been carried out by armed MQ-9 Reaper drones. Above, airmen in Afghanistan preparing an MQ-9 for a mission. Credit Josh Smith/Reuters
Eric Schmitt is a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. Since 2007, he has reported on terrorism issues, with assignments to Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Africa, Southeast Asia among others.