Why the U.S. Strike in Libya Wasn’t Just About Libya

Washington was also trying to protect Tunisia — and help keep the Arab Spring’s only success story from going off the rails.

Libyans stand next to a crater and debris at the site of a jihadist training camp, targeted in a US air strike, near the Libyan city of Sabratha on February 19, 2016.

A US air strike on a jihadist training camp in Libya killed dozens of people Friday, probably including a senior Islamic State group operative behind attacks in Tunisia, officials said. / AFP / MAHMUD TURKIA        (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Libyans stand next to a crater and debris at the site of a jihadist training camp, targeted in a US air strike, near the Libyan city of Sabratha on February 19, 2016. A US air strike on a jihadist training camp in Libya killed dozens of people Friday, probably including a senior Islamic State group operative behind attacks in Tunisia, officials said. / AFP / MAHMUD TURKIA (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. air raid in Libya Friday that destroyed an Islamic State training camp reflected growing alarm in Western capitals that the militants’ foothold in Libya could jeopardize the one country that has embraced democratic rule after the Arab Spring’s turmoil — Tunisia.

The strikes by American F-15 fighter jets hit an Islamic State compound in the coastal town of Sabratha — only 50 miles from the Tunisian border — and are thought to have killed Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian militant suspected of orchestrating two terrorist attacks last year against tourists in his home country, U.S. Defense officials said.

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters that while the Islamic State fighters at the camp posed a threat to the West, ”the immediate region was the area of most focus for these fighters” — a coded reference to the threat the militants pose to neighboring Tunisia. Cook, using an alternative acronym for the group, said that Chouchane “facilitated the movement of potential ISIL-affiliated foreign fighters from Tunisia to Libya and onward to other countries.”

U.S. intelligence officials and senior military officers have become increasingly concerned that the Islamic State’s rapid advances in Libya could lead to new waves of strikes inside Tunisia that could decimate its fragile economy and derail Tunisia’s fledgling experiment with democracy.

From its bastion in Libya, the Islamic State has already taken aim at Tunisia’s vital tourist industry. The group claimed responsibility for an assault on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis in March, which left 23 dead, and an attack on the seaside resort of Sousse in June, which killed 38. And in November, the Islamic State said it bombed a bus carrying Tunisian presidential guards, killing 12 people. Chouchane has been linked to the first two deadly attacks and Tunisian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.

The Islamic State’s branch in Libya “poses a proven threat to Tunisia and a potential threat to Algeria,” said author Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now an analyst at the Brookings Institution. ”This is a targeted strike to eliminate a specific dangerous problem not the larger problem of Islamic State in Libya.”

Local officials in Libya said more than 40 people were killed in the U.S. bombing raid. The American fighter jets hit a house in Sabratha that had attracted suspicion in recent months, with several groups of fighters arriving at the compound and militants reportedly undergoing what appeared to be terrorist training for a potential attack outside Libya. The mayor of Sabratha, Hussein al-Thawadi, said the site was an Islamic State recruitment base for Tunisians and other foreigners.

The raid was the third U.S. airstrike carried out against the Islamic State and al Qaeda elements in Libya in recent months. In June, American warplanes struck a farmhouse thought to hold Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar — who was affiliated with al Qaeda — while in November another strike killed Abu Nabil, an Iraqi who ran the Islamic State’s franchise in Libya.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Friday that the strike was in line with the Barack Obama administration’s promise to “take out” the Islamic State’s senior leaders and training camps around the globe. But Toner said the operation did not mark the “the opening of a new front” in Libya.

Toner would not say whether the United States had received permission from the fractured Libyan government prior to the attack, but said that Washington informed the Libyan representatives in advance.

“Libyan authorities were aware that we were going to carry out these strikes,” he said.

In a nod to the power vacuum in Libya, which is controlled by a balkanized assortment of militias linked to two rival parliaments, Toner said the United States and its allies were still working to stand up the a unity government. “We want to see it returned and establish itself in Tripoli.”

The Islamic State has swept across Libya’s central coast by exploiting Libya’s plunge into chaos. Since a NATO-led air war ousted the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has been engulfed in a violent power struggle between two rival governments — one in Tripoli and one in the eastern city of Tobruk.

While the core of the Islamic State has suffered some setbacks in Iraq and Syria in recent months, the group’s branch in Libya has seized territory at a lightning pace. In less than a year, the Islamic State has captured a stretch of 150 miles of terrain, including Sirte; staged attacks on oil facilities; and introduced its barbaric methods of repression in towns under its control.

As the Islamic State has gained ground, a U.N. bid to negotiate a unity government for Libya has repeatedly foundered. In the meantime, Washington has been looking for ways to insulate Tunisia — and the rest of North Africa — from the the Islamic State scourge.

When Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to Tunis in November, he vowed that the United States would help Tunisia — which held peaceful elections in 2014 — on its democratic path. As the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolts, Tunisia was “a shining example to those who claim that democracy is not possible in this part of the world,” Kerry said.

Pentagon officials have in recent months held discussions with Tunisia to provide helicopters and intelligence-gathering drones to the country. And American military commanders have weighed military options with their French and British counterparts to contain the Islamic State in Libya, while U.S., French, British, and Italian special operations forces have been carrying out reconnaissance on the ground. 

When Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi visited the White House last year, Obama announced the United States had designated the country as a major non-NATO ally, opening the way for stepped-up military cooperation and security assistance.

Tunis this month said it completed construction of a 125-mile wall along its long border with Libya, and that U.S. and German contractors would soon begin installing electronic surveillance equipment. “This will help us protect our border, and stop the threat,” said Tunisian Defense Minister Farhat Horchani.

But while Tunisia has expanded its cooperation with Western spy agencies to counter terrorist plots, its military and intelligence services lack the resources to track Islamic State operatives across its territory, analysts said. And the country’s weak economy offers a pool of potential recruits for the Islamic State, said Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“If the Libyan political problems are tackled, then the Islamic State can be defeated,” he told FP. “But if Libya remains in this state, more and more people can find training in Libya and plot attacks” in Tunisia and elsewhere the region.

The United States went ahead with the operation despite reservations among some European and Arab governments, which have privately voiced a preference to delay any outside military action in Libya until its feuding factions clinch a long-delayed deal on a cabinet.

Republican critics of the Obama administration’s strategy against the Islamic State welcomed the airstrike. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), said the threat posed by the Islamic State could not be countered without addressing the group’s presence in Libya.

“We hope today’s air strikes signal the beginning of a new commitment by the Obama administration to put Libya at the center of a comprehensive strategy to defeat international jihadism,” Nunes said in a statement.

But there was concern among Obama’s fellow Democrats that the operation represented a commitment to a wider war without a full public debate. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) tweeted that the strikes in Libya “herald a new front in #endlesswar” and that the Constitution requires Congress “to debate these costly & bloody wars.”

FP reporter Paul McLeary contributed to this article.

Photo credit: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images