The US has conducted 550 drone strikes in Libya since 2011
By Nick Turse, Henrik Moltke & Alice Speri
The United States has conducted approximately 550 drone strikes in Libya since 2011, more than in Somalia, Yemen, or Pakistan, according to interviews and an analysis of open-source data by The Intercept.
The Intercept’s reporting indicates that Libya has been among the most heavily targeted nations in terms of American remotely piloted aircraft and radically revises the number of drone strikes carried out under the Obama administration, doubling some estimates.
During a four-month span in 2016, for example, there were approximately 300 drone strikes in Libya, according to U.S. officials. That’s seven times more than the 42 confirmed U.S. RPA attacks carried out in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan combined for all of 2016, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit news organization.
The Libya attacks have continued under the Trump administration, with the latest U.S. drone strike occurring last week about 50 miles southeast of the town of Bani Walid.
Tracking drone strikes can be confusing, so much so that even the U.S. military has difficulty accurately tallying them. Since last fall, the Trump administration has carried out 18 airstrikes in Libya, according to official U.S. Africa Command press releases and confirmed media reports, but only 11 according to an AFRICOM spokesperson.
Before a congressional committee in March, even AFRICOM’s own chief, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, provided an incorrect count of airstrikes in Libya in 2016.
Changes in how strikes are defined and counted, a refusal to provide information on the aircraft used and where they originate from, and new Trump administration policies limiting disclosures of attacks have made already opaque operations even more secretive and difficult to track.
“Probably very few people outside the U.S. government are even aware the U.S. is fighting in Libya, let alone conducting hundreds of lethal drone strikes there.
And the U.S. seems to be quite selective about which strikes it publicizes and which it doesn’t,” said Daphne Eviatar, director of security with human rights at Amnesty International USA.
“Because these are unmanned aircraft that are launched remotely from bases abroad, it’s very easy for the U.S. to keep these operations secret if it chooses to. And we’re seeing increasingly that, especially outside acknowledged areas of armed conflict such as Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has been operating in secret and not even sharing publicly the rules or legal framework it’s operating under.”
Libya – subject to US military interventions since 1804 and the site of the world’s first modern airstrike, by an Italian pilot, in 1911 — found itself in America’s crosshairs again a century later.
During the short-lived Operation Odyssey Dawn and the NATO mission that succeeded it, Operation Unified Protector, the U.S. military and eight other air forces flew sorties against the military of then-Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, leading to his demise and the end of his regime.
Since 2012, the United States, three other countries, and three Libyan armed factions have continued air operations there, conducting at least 2,158 airstrikes, including drone attacks, according to “Air Strikes and Civilian Casualties in Libya,” a report released Wednesday by New America, a Washington-based think tank, and Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group.
The report estimates that the attacks killed between 242 and 392 noncombatants from 2012 to 2018, and injured as many as 524. “Hundreds of civilians have been killed by all parties to this very complex conflict in Libya, and none of them are taking responsibility,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars. “All of them are off the leash — often bombing without any accountability.”
AFRICOM stresses that it complies with the laws of war and takes “all feasible precautions during the targeting process to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage.” A Department of Defense analysis released last month found “no credible reports of civilian casualties resulting from U.S. strikes in Libya in 2017.”
“I don’t think AFRICOM has ever admitted a civilian harm event in Libya, including during the 2011 NATO campaign,” Woods said. “The U.S. is not taking responsibility where harm does occur, but neither is any other belligerent, foreign or domestic.”
New America and Airwars found that reported civilian deaths from airstrikes in Libya are fewer than in other war zones, like Syria and Yemen. U.S. attacks in Libya, for example, have resulted in 10 to 20 civilian fatalities, with as many as 54 additional civilian deaths attributable to strikes of possible U.S. origin, according to their research.
Attacks by the Libyan National Army, led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, resulted in 95 to 172 noncombatant deaths — the highest reported number for any belligerent.
The toll of some attacks is still in dispute. A U.S. drone strike in Libya on June 6, for example, killed four “ISIS-Libya militants,” according to AFRICOM.
AFRICOM “performed a thorough review and determined the allegations of civilian casualties to be not credible,” according to a statement released Wednesday. The Libya Observer and the Libyan Foundation for Human Rights, however, reported that only one of the dead was a militant and that the others were civilians.
The Intercept count of 550 U.S. drone strikes in Libya over the last seven years is based primarily on five U.S. military sources.
The first is a retired Air Force squadron commander who said his unit executed 241 drone strikes out of a U.S. base in Sicily in 2011, when the air campaign in Libya began.
The second is an Air Force wing commander based in Nevada who told the audience of the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium that drones conducted approximately 300 strikes in the second half of 2016, when the U.S. was attacking the Libyan city of Sirte to oust Islamic State militants.
The third is a 2017 Air Force news story that provided roughly the same figures. The fourth and fifth sources are AFRICOM and Pentagon officials, who confirmed that 11 strikes carried out in Libya during the Trump administration involved remotely piloted aircraft.
The more than 550 drone attacks in Libya since 2011 exceed the number of airstrikes since 2001 in Somalia, Yemen, or Pakistan. Between 2001 and 2011, the United States built up its drone forces and developed a framework for employing RPAs in combat.
Since then, Libya has served as a laboratory for new tactics and a proving ground for the next era of drone warfare.
U.S. engagement in Libya began in 2011, when the so-called Arab Spring uprisings swept across the Middle East, imperiling autocrats from Tunisia to Bahrain.
On March 25, 2011, the Air Force’s 324th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron and its MQ-1 Predator drones began operatingfrom Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. Less than a month later, the U.S. military confirmed its first drone strike in Libya — an attack on a Gaddafi regime military target near the city of Misrata.
For the next six months, U.S. drones flying from the Italian air base stalked the skies above the north African nation, conducting a campaign of previously under-reported size and scope.
“Our Predators shot 243 Hellfire missiles in the six months of OUP, over 20 percent of the total of all Hellfires expended in the 14 years of the system’s deployment,” retired Lt. Col. Gary Peppers, the commander of the 324th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron during Operation Unified Protector, told The Intercept.
When OUP ended in October 2011, Peppers noted, fewer than 1,200 Hellfire missiles had been fired by U.S. RPAs across the entire world, including in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Peppers recalled that the 243 missiles fired constituted 241 individual strikes. Neither the Pentagon, AFRICOM, nor U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa could corroborate Peppers’s figures.
After Gaddafi’s overthrow and death on October 20, 2011, Libya collapsed into chaos and militia-fueled insecurity, allowing terrorist groups to flourish and the so-called Islamic State to take over the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte.
By early 2013, the Italian government provided “a temporary authorization to deploy additional U.S. assets at the Sigonella base,” including MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, the larger and more lethal cousin of the Predator, according to a report prepared by the foreign policy think tank CeSI for Italy’s parliament and ministries of defense and foreign affairs.
After several years of limited activity, the U.S. air war in Libya accelerated in 2016 with Operation Odyssey Lightning. That summer, the fledgling post-Gaddafi regime — the Libyan Government of National Accord, or GNA — asked for American help in dislodging ISIS fighters from Sirte.
The Obama administration designated the city an “area of active hostilities,” loosening guidelines designed to prevent civilian casualties and allowing the U.S. military a freer hand in carrying out airstrikes.
“I only asked for U.S. airstrikes which must be surgical and limited in time and geographical scope, always carried out in coordination with us,” GNA Prime Minister Fayez Serraj told Italy’s Corriere della Sera in late summer 2016.
Nick Turse is a contributing writer for The Intercept, reporting on national security and foreign policy.
Henrik Moltke is an investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker.
Alice Speri reports on justice, immigration, and civil rights. She is originally from Italy and lives in the Bronx.