NARCO Analysis: Why the US bombed ISIS in Libya

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Overnight, the US bombed Islamic State training camps in the vicinity Sirte, Libya. The bombing came as somewhat of a surprise both because of its timing and how it was carried out. In particular, the bombing comes a month after the Pentagon announced the end of air operations against the Islamist State in Libya (and on the last full day of Barack Obama’s presidency.) In addition, the bombing was carried out by B-2 bombers based in the US rather the US fighter jets based in Europe or on aircraft carriers. There are several (not mutually exclusive) explanations for why the bombing and why now:

  • Even assuming the low-end estimates of the number of Islamic State fighters that were in Sirte, there have not been nearly enough corpses found in Sirte after the successful campaign against the group to account for all the fighters. The US government believes that the Islamic State had rat lines out of the city and that only hardcore fighters stayed behind to fight to the death. The bulk of fighters, the foot soldiers, fled the city. Fight and run away and live to fight another day.
  • Since the defeat of the Islamic State in Sirte in December, Libyan oil production has increased from roughly 500kbpd to 750kbpd. This increase is tremendously important. It is largely due to the inability of the Islamic State to threaten upstream, midstream, and downstream oil infrastructure in the Sirte Basin. Without oil production, Libya has no revenue. The only thing that could possibly save the struggling Government of National Accord (GNA) is being able to restore the provision of social services throughout the country. Libya is currently suffering from debilitating shortages of water, electricity, cooking gas, fuel, cash, and medicine, not to mention security and law and order. If oil flows, then the GNA has funds. If the GNA has funds, it can (in theory) spend some of that money to address shortages. Targeting Islamic State training camps in the Sirte Basin consolidates the oil production gains made in the last two months and reduces the risk that they will be targeted by the Islamic State again in the future.
  • According to some sources, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s team recently informed Italian representatives that it would not commit to supporting the UN-backed GNA. This would suggest that there is some urgency to make the GNA’s path forward as viable as possible before it loses US support with the incoming administration in Washington.
  • Lastly, there may be a little bit of showmanship and posturing here. Last week, Russia parked its aircraft carrier off the coast of Libya and hosted Field Marshall Haftar onboard. Haftar is the leader of one of Libya’s largest militias, which happens to go by the name the “Libyan National Army,” even though it does not fall under the command of the Government of National Accord. Haftar and the Russians signed some papers, and Russia made a show of donating medical supplies, but nothing else was really accomplished. By bombing Islamic State training camps with B-2 bombers based in Missouri, the US is able to demonstrate that it walks the walk and doesn’t just talk the talk. The Russians can send a rusty old aircraft carrier (that may or may not be able to actually launch aircraft), but the US can strike when and where it wants for the benefit of all Libyans, not just those who are allied with Haftar.


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