American warplanes carried out air strikes against an Islamic State training camp in northwestern Libya on Friday, killing at least 40 people.
ISIS members were planning terrorist attacks against U.S. interests at the facility located near the coastal city of Sabrata, according to Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook, and the operation also targeted Noureddine Chouchane (a.k.a. “Sabir”), an ISIS senior operative believed to have played a significant role in two terror attacks last year in Tunisia.
“We took this action against Sabir and the training camp after determining that both he and the ISIL fighters at these facilities were planning external attacks on U.S. and other western interests in the region,” Cook told reporters on Friday. “Of note, Sabir was named a suspect in the March 18, 2015, deadly attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis, and has facilitated the movement of ISIL-affiliated foreign fighters from Tunisia to Libya and on to other countries.”
Cook added that, while the ISIS members at the camp likely planned to target attacks in the immediate region, they had aspirations to conduct operations further afield, implying that the U.S. homeland was one of those areas.
Cook also said in a statement that this operation demonstrates Defense Secretary Ash Carter's commitment to go after ISIS wherever it gains a foothold in the world and fits into the Obama administration's broader strategy to defeat the jihadist group and prevent it from forming any safe havens.
The military reportedly used F-15 aircraft to carry out the strikes, but Cook refused to give any specifics on what capabilities were used, only confirming that both manned and unmanned aircraft were involved in the effort.
The Pentagon spokesman also said the United Kingdom offered the use of its bases for U.S. air assets and did not go into any further detail about the U.K.'s role. He did say that other countries were aware of and supported the operation.
The strikes were also conducted with the knowledge of Libyan authorities, although Cook did not specify which groups were aware of and supported the military action.
U.S. intelligence had been watching the camp “for an order of weeks,” and there were at times as many as 60 people involved in training at this facility, both recruits and full-fledged members.
Carter had recommended the strike to President Obama, who then authorized it.
According to the Pentagon, the camp is located in a rural area near Sabrata, with a number of buildings in the nearby area.
Cook told reporters that the operation is legal under the authority of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was created after 9/11 to target al-Qaeda. Carter has maintained that the U.S. can fully operate under this AUMF but would support Congress passing another one because it would show that U.S. troops have the support of their government.
Cook made clear that ISIS' “parent tumor” is in Iraq and Syria, where the U.S. has been leading an international coalition to defeat the jihadist group, but he said Washington is committed to confront the group wherever it metastasizes in concert with allies and partners.
While the spokesman refused to speak to any specific future military action to target ISIS in Libya, he said the U.S. will continue to monitor the situation there and make sure the group does not gain ground.
Reporters at Friday's Pentagon press briefing tried to decipher if future U.S. operations in Libya will resemble limited strikes like the one carried out near Sabrata or if they will take on a more comprehensive approach like in Iraq and Syria.
Cook would not give any hints of what the U.S. may be planning but said, “This strike was not the first time we have taken direct action in Libya or against other high-value ISIL targets, and it may not be the last.”
The spokesman said there are other facilities like the targeted camp in Libya, and the U.S. has a better sense of the situation in Libya than before and will act as necessary to stop the spread of ISIS.
Libya has fallen into disarray since former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by rebels backed by NATO air strikes in 2011. Two rival governments have emerged in the aftermath, one based in Tobruk that is backed by the U.S. and United Nations, and one based in the capital Tripoli that is run by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Amid this chaos, jihadist groups like ISIS have been able to create a strong presence in Libya, and as the U.S.-led coalition has gone after ISIS in its heartland in Iraq and Syria, the ISIS branch in Libya has become a significant concern for U.S. officials.