On 24 March, Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command, told a press conference at the Pentagon that the United States would “maintain a force” in Libya in order to develop intelligence and work with the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli if more action was needed against Islamic State. He estimated that there were between 100 and 200 Islamic State fighters left in Libya. “We’re going to maintain a force that has the ability to develop intelligence, work with various groups as required, or be able to assist if required … to take out ISIS targets,” he said. He went on to explain that Libya no longer appears to be a “backup plan” for foreign fighters unable to join ISIS’ forces in the Levant.
While discussing the US airstrikes which killed around 80 ISIS fighters south of Sirte in January, Waldhauser said U.S. personnel had spent several weeks coordinating face-to-face with Libyan allies to ensure there would be no collateral damage. “When you conduct precision airstrikes, close-air support operations in an urban environment with the requirements to not have civilian casualties, with the requirements to be careful about infrastructure, destruction and the like, you can’t do an operation like that without somebody on the ground to interface,” the general added.
During a US senate hearing earlier in the month, Waldhauser said “We must carefully choose where and with whom we work with to counter ISIS-Libya in order not to shift the balance between factions and risk sparking greater conflict in Libya.” Brig. Gen. Donald C. Bolduc, who oversees American Special Operations forces in Africa told the New York Times in an interview that “We will be able to keep pressure on that ISIS network enough to keep it decentralized so that it cannot mass and to buy time for the GNA to develop governance,” however acknowledged that none of this would happen quickly.
On 27 March, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Benghazi Operations Room announced the start of the ‘final’ operation to retake central Benghazi. The areas of Sabri and Souq al-Hout, adjacent to the port in central Benghazi, are the final enclaves in the city controlled by a loose jihadist alliance of the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC), ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia. The LNA is currently conducting daily airstrikes in the area and hitting targets with rounds of heavy artillery. The jihadist alliance published photographs of its fighters prepared to fend off the attack. LNA sources said that on 25 March, a jihadist supply boat was targeted with gunfire and sunk a mile off the coast of Benghazi. Other reports say that on 24 March, three boats carrying fleeing jihadists were stopped off the coast of Benghazi and a number of the occupants arrested.
Clashes broke out last week between the LNA and Derna Mujahedeen Shura Council (DMSC) fighters in Abu Dahak area south of Derna, with the LNA losing one fighter. On 23 and 26 March, LNA aircraft conducted airstrikes against DMSC positions while naval forces are still enforcing the maritime blockade around Derna.
To read about the international community’s responses to jihadis in Libya this week, click here. To read the Eye on ISIS team’s explanation of the developments within the anti-ISIS Coalition of Libyan militias, click here. To read all four sections of this week’s Eye on ISIS in Libya report, click here. To subscribe to receive this report weekly into your inbox, sign up on the subscribe page.