News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

April 15, 2019

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

Dozens of civilians reported killed in first few days of fighting - as thousands more flee

A major offensive on the Libyan capital Tripoli by Marshal Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has already seen dozens of civilians locally reported killed – with the United Nations warning that “Civilian casualties and displacement are expected to increase further given the continued use of air strikes and heavy artillery.”

Haftar’s assault on Tripoli – an apparent attempt to circumvent UN-brokered ceasefire talks between the LNA and the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) – risks plunging Libya into its worst violence since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The first ten days of fighting have seen dozens of airstrikes by both the LNA and GNA, with multiple Tripoli neighbourhoods caught in the battle. According to the UN’s OCHA agency, more than 18,000 civilians have so far been displaced by the fighting – with many thousands more at risk.

Airwars researchers have so far monitored twelve locally reported civilian harm events blamed on air or artillery strikes, in which up to 37 civilians were alleged killed. Among the dead were two doctors, a pregnant woman and a young child.

Over 18,000 ppl have now been displaced by ongoing hostilities in #Tripoli #Libya. 6,000 ppl directly assisted with some form of humanitarian assistance. Some 3,000 refugees and migrants remain trapped in detention centers around the city. https://t.co/wUziRcFDGD pic.twitter.com/L67Olqgyos

— OCHA Libya (@OCHA_Libya) April 15, 2019

Possible stalemate

Marshal Haftar’s offensive on the capital Tripoli has been stalled by unexpected resistance from local militias, and similar matched military capabilities between the GNA and LNA make a stalemate possible.

Until recently Libya’s capital had been spared larger destruction despite eight years of on and off warfare. Unlike cities such as Sirte, Derna or Benghazi that suffered severe damage from two civil wars, Tripoli witnessed only occasional flare ups of violence that left most parts of the city intact. But with the Libyan National Army (LNA) moving towards the country’s biggest city it might now face a dire future.

Only weeks ago, hopes were high for a peaceful settlement of hostilities at the planned National Conference in Ghadames scheduled for April 14th-16th. After years of division, plans for a new constitution and elections were in turn meant to unite the country. Instead, Khalifa Haftar’s decision to move his self-styled army on Tripoli has foiled those efforts – with the conference now postponed indefinitely.

With the reported backing of foreign powers including the United Arab Emirates and France, Haftar’s aim appears to have been to take the capital quickly in a power grab which would put the entire country under his control.

Yet his forces have faced more resistance than expected. Tripoli’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which currently only has territorial control over small parts of Libya’s western territories, received help from militia forces from Misurata. Haftar’s move also united militias that were previously fighting each other, meaning that the country could now face a military standoff or even a third civil war.

This would mean yet more suffering for Libya’s civilian population, who have already faced much hardship since the 2011 revolution.

Competing air forces

Both sides have air forces and artillery which were deployed in various battles over the past years. The LNA currently controls three Su-22s, two Mirage F1s, three operational MiG-23s and a few MiG-21s – one of which was reportedly shot down over Tripoli on April 14th.

The LNA’s planes were previously stationed at Jufra air base south of Sirte, though some were moved to the Al Watyah facility near the Tunisian border. From the former Gaddafi base, protected by Zintani forces, the LNA can easily fly sorties against Tripoli. Before moving on Tripoli, the LNA had conducted 1,405 airstrikes in Libya since 2012 according to an Airwars/ New America assessment, resulting in 115 to 187 civilians killed according to local sources.

The GNA in turn operates one Mirage F1ED, two MiG-23 MLDs as well as approximately a dozen L-39 and G-2 light-attack aircraft. They are currently based both at Mitiga airport in Tripoli, and at Misurata. Mitiga airport is also used as a civilian airport but has been bombed by the LNA in order to degrade its rival’s capabilities.

GNA-aligned aircraft have been considerably less active over the past years, only conducting around 38 strikes according to local reports, which have led to between 10 to 17 civilian fatalities.

In addition, both sides control a few Mi-35 attack helicopters, and artillery brigades.

After days of fighting, who controls what in the suburbs of #Tripoli? check out my latest piece on the current situation in north-west #Libya: pic.twitter.com/zROscQxneC

— Dzsihad Hadelli (@dhadelli) April 7, 2019

In terms of ground troops, numbers on both sides are believed to be more or less even. The LNA consists of roughly 25,000 men but can hardly be called an army in the classical sense. Around 7,000 men form the regular core of the army, while the rest are made up from tribal militias, mercenaries and Salafist fighters.

The same goes for GNA forces, which are mostly made up from local militias with very different backgrounds. The Tripoli-based militias comprise around 5,000 fighters, while forces from Misurata could contribute up to 18,000 additional men if they fully join the fight. However, alliances in Libya have proven to be fluid and could shift rapidly in one party’s favour.

International actors

Defence and security analyst Arnaud Delalande describes the volume of forces as “unfavorable to Haftar. Regarding air power, Haftar must deploy the greater part of his aircraft in the west with the risk of leaving some areas of Libya without air cover. In addition, range is also important. Mitiga and Misurata are close to the clash zones. The LNA Air Force must therefore both support its forces around Tripoli, and also protect its supply lines between Jufra and the West. These lines are permanently threatened by the strikes of the Misurata air force.”

An offensive on Tripoli is also particularly problematic at the moment as the city hosts many people who fled from fighting in other parts of the country, as well as refugees and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. With a regular population of around 2 million people, continued shelling could have devastating consequences for the civilian population in a densely populated urban environment.

Both sides have international backers, with Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Russia openly supporting the LNA, while the GNA has support from the US, the UK, Italy, Qatar and Turkey. France has an ambivalent role, keeping ties to both factions. Most important international players, Egypt excluded, have urged all parties to stop fighting and de-escalate tensions. Though a foreign military intervention seems unlikely at present, both Egypt and the UAE have come to Haftar’s help in the past and could do so again.

The UN has unsuccessfully tried to broker a ceasefire, reminding parties that attacks on civilians could constitute war crimes. Yet conflicts of the past have shown that consideration for innocent lives diminish when everything is at stake. With more troops mobilising from each faction, Libyans risk witnessing a third civil war within a decade. After eight years of violence and instability, a peaceful solution would certainly be a relief for the people of Libya.

▲ Smoke rises up after an airstrike (via Libya Observer)

Published

December 5, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

Incident marks biggest single allegation of civilian harm against US in Libya since 2011.

Local reports indicate that up to eleven civilians have been killed in a US precision strike near Al Uwaynat, in the extreme south of Libya close to the Algerian border on November 29th.

The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has confirmed conducting the strike, originally stating that it had targeted fighters from a regional Al Qaeda faction. Responding to allegations of civilian harm, an AFRICOM spokesperson told Airwars that “we are aware of reports alleging civilian casualties resulting from the Nov. 29 airstrike near Al Uwaynat.” However the official added that “At this time, we still assess that no civilians were injured or killed.”

Local sources first reported the airstrike on November 29th, in an area mostly populated and controlled by Tuareg tribespeople. Initial claims were that only suspected militants were killed.

AFRICOM officially confirmed the strike the following day, claiming to have killed “eleven (11) al-Qa’ ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) terrorists and destroying three (3) vehicles.” It further stated that “at this time, we assess no civilians were injured or killed in this strike.”

U.S. Conducts Precision Airstrike in Libya — https://t.co/mbirKvlIwp pic.twitter.com/e3OvHxD6WJ

— US AFRICOM (@USAfricaCommand) November 30, 2018

Local demonstrations

Both locals and Al Qaeda itself quickly rejected AFRICOM’s claim of no civilian harm – insisting that the victims did not belong to any terror organisation. Members of a local Tuareg tribe issued a statement during a demonstration in Ubari against the American strike demanding justice for those killed. They further requested an investigation by the Libyan government, and the names of those killed by AFRICOM.

While the combatant status of all victims was not entirely clear, locals denied that any of the victims had belonged to Al Qaeda. At least some of those killed were said to be militiamen aligned with a US-supported faction in Libya which in 2016 had successfully ousted so-called Islamic State from the city of Sirte.

According to the Tuareg statement “the victims included civilians and military personnel. Among them was a field commander in Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous, who fought terrorism in Sirte to offer his country security and stability.” Two of the alleged victims who fought ISIS have been named as Moses Tony and Issa Mousi Ahmed Malik Taraki.

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إن العين تدمع والقلب يحزن ولا نقول إلا ما يرضى ربنا وإنا بفراقك لحزينونهذا الفديو لشاب البطل #موسى_توني في #حرب_سرت_ضدالتنظيمالإرهابي_داعشعندما ترك كل شيء ورائه أسرته و أبنائه لنصرة الوطن وشارك في حرب تحرير المدينة من قبضة داعشوالآن نتفاجئ بضربات الأفريكوم الظالمة والغير مبررة لي هؤلاء الشباب في العوينات بتهمة الإرهاب وبدون أي دليل يذكر تحت صمت الحكومات وذكر موقفها من هذه الخروقات الواضحة وحملة التشويه التي تطال مناطق الطوارقوفي ظل هذه الأحداث الكارثية تطالنا الحسرة والخيبة في بعض وسائل الإعلام والنشطاء والاعلاميين لمنح هذا الموضوع حقه في تبيان الحقيقة وما مدى الظلم الذي تعرض له هؤلاء الشبابقد يكون أحدنا الضحية في المرة القادمة بتهمة الإرهاب لو أستمر الصمت والتجاهل بخصوص هذه الخروقات والجرائم ضد الإنسانية التي يمارسها الأفريكوم الإرهابي .

Geplaatst door ‎ربوع ليبيا‎ op Vrijdag 30 november 2018

Video of Moses Tony allegedly fighting ISIS

#اوباري ..خاص – الاسم ( عيسي موسي أحمد مالك التارقي ) الشهير #تقيست_التارقي والمكني #الاقدالي ومن مواليد 1993 ومن سكان…

Geplaatst door ‎ليبيا الامل‎ op Zondag 2 december 2018

Issa Mousi Ahmed Malik Taraki

In their statement, the Tuareg further claimed that the “motorcade that was bombed was on its way to rescue a group of Tuareg, near the Algerian border, who were encountering a smuggling gang attempting to smuggle heavy machinery to Algeria.”

Sign during the demonstration in Ubari saying: “AFRICOM killing our sons in the so-called War on Terror” (via Libya’s Channel)

The incident created an abundance of online sources showing both the scorched cars following the strike in the middle of the desert, as well as a demonstration condemning the violence.

Last week’s incident may mark the biggest known loss of civilian life from a US action in Libya since 2011. Acknowledging that AFRICOM was aware of the claims of civilian harm, an official outlined the next steps: “As with any allegation of civilian casualties we receive, U.S. Africa Command will review any information it has about the incident, including any relevant information provided by third parties. If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, USAFRICOM will then determine the next appropriate step.

USAFRICOM complies with the law of armed conflict and takes all feasible precautions during the targeting process to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage.”

▲ A truck reportedly destroyed in the US strike near Al Uwaynat on November 30, 2018 (via Riyadh Burshan)

Published

September 6, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

The fresh crisis was triggered after the Libyan capital was attacked by the 7th Brigade – a militia previously confined to the nearby city of of Tarhuna, and which is led by a 33 year old field commander.

The UN, the EU and the P3+1 group for Libya consisting of France, Italy, the UK and the US have all condemned recent events in and around Tripoli. According to OCHA, the United Nations agency, a total of 61 people were killed with another 159 injured and over 2,000 families forced to flee their homes in the first week of fighting.

According to a UN statement UN Secretary General António Guterres reminded “all parties that the indiscriminate use of force is a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. He urges all parties to grant humanitarian relief for those in need, particularly those who are trapped by the fighting.”

A UN-brokered ceasefire appears to be holding for the moment.

Facts and numbers on the clashes provided by OCHA

New armed actor

The fresh wave of violence in Tripoli began on August 27th, and was triggered by the 7th Brigade, a militia which had previously been based at Tarhuna, 50 km south of Tripoli. It consists of 5,000 members and is fronted by Major General al-Said al-Jedi al-Tarhuni. Also known as the Kaniyat or Kani Brigade, the name was derived from the Kani family which established the Brigade in 2013.

Five Kani brothers still dominate the brigade today: Abdul Khaliq Khalifa Al Kani, who is currently a political and tribal leader, and Mohammed Khalifa Ali Kani, head of the military council of Tarhuna, reportedly come from a Salafist background. Muammar Khalifa al-Kani is responsible for the ‘Ministry of Finance’, banks and municipalities in the city, and Abdulrahim Khalifa Al-Kani, a merchant, supervises security in Tarhuna. The fifth brother is Muhsin Khalifa al-Kani, 33, who is in effective command of the 7th Brigade at Tripoli.

After seizing heavy weaponry in 2013, the 7th Brigade managed to take control of Tarhuna in the following years, providing some sort of stability in the city by reducing crime and kidnappings.

For its operation in Tripoli the 7th Brigade teamed up with other militias from Zintan, Tajoura and Misurata and remnants of groups that were ousted from Tripoli upon the arrival of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in early 2016.

According to a spokesperson for the 7th Brigade, the aim of the present operation is to ‘cleanse’ the capital of the corruption that the Tripoli militias are constantly being accused of. It has denied any affiliation with the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) controlling other areas of the country, or with any other major actors in Libya.

Prior to the assault by the 7th Brigade and its allies, Tripoli was controlled by five separate militias:

–  The Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) was first established in Benghazi in 2011 and is presently led by Haitham al-Taj Tajuri. It is now known as the First Security Division of the Central General Security Administration.

–  The Special Deterrence Force (SDF) is led by Abd al-Raouf Kara, a Salafist from Tripoli, who runs a detention centre in Mitiga airport, (where up to 500 suspected ISIS members are held.) In 2013 the General National Congress (GNC) legitimized the force by bringing it under nominal Ministry of Interior authority.

–  The Ghanewa Brigade – also known as the Central Security Authority in Abu Sleem – is led by Abd al-Ghani al-Kikli from Kikla in the western mountains.

–  The Central Security Force for North Tripoli, also known as the Nawasi Brigade, has a Salafist background and is led by Mustafa Kaddour.

–  The 301 Brigade is made up of Misrata forces which are based in southern Tripoli and which was established by a decree from former prime minister Khalifa al Ghwell.

These militias initially appeared to provide some stability in Tripoli, which experienced upheaval at the beginning of the second Libyan civil war in 2014. They were also supposed to protect the GNA during its early days in 2016 – but then became its only foothold in the city after the supposed national government failed to establish a proper military presence in Tripoli, or to exercise effective governance outside or inside the capital.

The resulting power vacuum resulted in reported major political influence by the militias over the GNA, with the five armed groups awarded further legitimacy when they were fully acknowledged under the umbrella of the Government of National Accord (GNA).

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj said in a statement that he had already dissolved the 7th Brigade in April and condemned it for still keeping its weapons arsenal. He further said: “We will not allow the repetition of the destruction and burning of state installations, and we will bear the responsibility of all the Libyans.”

Ceasefire talks

Initial efforts to de-escalate the clashes and reach a ceasefire failed due to the intensity of fighting, which included the use of tanks, artillery and continued random shelling which have so far killed up to 19 civilians.

Airwars has so far tracked five events in which civilians were harmed as a result of artillery shelling, resulting in up to ten deaths and 21 injuries. More information can be found on the Airwars Libya microsite.

On August 29th there were two claimed airstrikes targeting the 7th Brigade and its allied forces. One was reportedly in South Tripoli and the other a claimed strike inside a 7th Brigade military camp in Tarhuna city which killed three members of the brigade. The militia accused both the GNA and Italy of conducting that attack.

The escalation of violence also led to the closure of Tripoli Mitiga airport on August 31st, and as many as 400 inmates escaped from Ain Zara prison in the chaos. There were also reports of hijacking and looting of government institutions in both the south and west of Tripoli.

On September 4th all parties involved in the fighting agreed on a ceasefire brokered by UNSMIL. However, past events have shown that such agreements between militias in Libya can be highly unstable and the coming days will show if the situation around the capital remains peaceful.

UNSMIL Statement on the Facilitation of a Ceasefire Agreement to end Fighting in #Tripoli

Agreement: https://t.co/Nu4fvd9pSPPhotos: https://t.co/v0AyvqdNXX pic.twitter.com/ZhfFxsVTXp

— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) September 4, 2018

▲ Destruction following an airtstrike on a Tawergha refugee camp in Tripoli (via Afrigate News)

Published

July 27, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

So-called Islamic State was ousted from the Libyan city of Sirte in late 2016 by joint US and Government of National Accord forces. Using materials uncovered as part of a major new project tracking airstrikes and civilian harm in Libya, Airwars recounts the rise and fall of the terror organization through the eyes of local citizens, journalists and fighters. A version of this feature also appeared in the Daily Beast.

During its short occupation of Sirte, ISIS was often keen to film and then propagandise its actions.

In one video released on the terror group’s Telegram channel, heavily armed Al Hisbah ‘enforcers’ stalk through a Sirte marketplace, demanding that local people stop trading after the call to prayer. The ISIS police then check vendors for banned items – on the lookout for books about the devil, sex and desire.

In the next scene, ISIS fighters can be seen gleefully destroying their discoveries – smashing shisha pipes with hammers; and destroying cigarette cartons, and even a drum kit. All were forbidden at Sirte in this extreme interpretation of Islam – one in which Al Hisbah actively persecuted the local population.

ISIS members destroying shisha pipes in Sirte, Libya

Sirte had been the hometown of Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gadhafi, the once-feared leader ousted and slain in a bloody 2011 uprising. The power vacuum left by Gadhafi’s death – later described by Barack Obama as the greatest foreign policy mistake of his presidency – proved ripe territory for an expansive Islamic State, which by 2015 already controlled great swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Videos like those from 2015 and 2016, when ISIS ruled Sirte, depict how it established totalitarian rule in the city within a short period of time. Before then, a loose alliance between the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA), the militant group Libya Dawn and the Al Qaeda affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia had controlled the city between them. Yet their forces were quickly overrun by ISIS – in part due to the political turmoil which engulfed Libya following the collapse of the provisional government in late 2014.

“We forced the hijab on women and we caught the smugglers,” ISIS officials can be seen explaining to a small crowd of people. “We’re providing courses about Islam for prisoners and the people”. Religious education became mandatory in Sirte under ISIS rule.

Foreign fighters

Radical Islamism did not have a particularly strong tradition in Libya prior to NATO’s intervention, with the country deciding on a secular government in 2012. That meant ISIS had to supplement its local support by recruiting members from other countries, in order to consolidate Sirte as its Libyan stronghold. People from Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Sudan, Egypt, Algeria or Syria were offered what they believed to be the ideal environment to practice an extreme version of Islam.

ISIS members parading Sirte’s streets after successly capturing the city (Source: propaganda video)

Once it had seized the city, ISIS quickly established its own police force – introducing gender segregation at schools; banning alcohol; and introducing Draconian punishments such as cutting off limbs and beheading people. In its propaganda videos, the terror group proudly depicts crucifixions and the beheading of Christians. These savage punishments were usually followed by interviews with young ISIS members who described their motivations.

“This is a message to fight to all the Muslims in Libya – to fight the Jews and Crusaders. ISIS scares them by controlling more and more cities, and applying Sharia law”, a masked fighter brags in one video. His call to extremism is followed by footage of a tribunal against an alleged thief, which ends with the accused having his hand cut off.

Sometimes it appears no detail is too small to warrant the attention of ISIS’s thought police. Videos posted to the terror group’s Telegram account show Al Hisbah patrols obsessing over Western-made products in a local supermarket, including a bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo.

Al Hisbah checking for Western-made products in a supermarket

Libya stronghold

ISIS had for a while had also established footholds in the Libyan cities of Sabratha and Derna. But airstrikes – and ground assaults from the more moderate Derna Shura Mujahideen Council – soon saw the terror group concentrated in just one city: Sirte.

At their peak, between 3,000 and 5,000 ISIS members reportedly controlled the city. Similar to its big brother in the Levant, ISIS’s presence in Libya sparked both local and international fear – this time of the jihadists spreading throughout Libya and then across North Africa. The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya reacted in May 2016 with the formation of the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous operation (in Arabic, ‘Impenetrable Wall’), which immediately advanced on the city.

However after some initial success in gaining control over outer neighbourhoods of Sirte (reportedly with British special forces support), Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous struggled to break through ISIS’s inner line of defence – which heavily employed snipers and suicide attacks. This in turn prompted the GNA to request air support from the United States, which officially joined the battle on August 1st 2016.

With US air support the GNA was now able to advance more quickly, launching its Macmadas operation on August 12th. By the end of that month the troops had captured additionally neighbourhoods from ISIS – though the operation was briefly halted because of reported concerns for civilian lives.

ISIS suffered heavy losses in the attacks, including senior figures. Waleed al-Farjani, a senior judge of the Islamic court in Sirte was killed together with the Egyptian Abu Omar al-Muhajir on August 15th, for example.

Waleed al-Farjani in 2015 – killed a year later in a likely US airstrike (Image: Amaq via Al Marsad)

ISIS continued to lose its senior members in Sirte right up to the end. Fayez Al-Bidi, an imam from Benghazi, was reportedly killed in an airstrike around December 4th. Al-Bidi, a former leader of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia, had fled from military operations against his previous organisation to Sirte – where he became a senior ISIS figure and was reportedly in charge of the terror group’s main prison.

Fayez Al-Bidi (Image: alzoberalzober on Twitter)

Civilians at risk

While there is no doubt that much of Sirte was destroyed in the subsequent fighting – and that trapped civilians were harmed – there are still no reliable numbers on how many died.

Reporting on the military operation and on civilian harm was difficult for locals and journalists for various reasons. The Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces cut off communication channels, so that people trapped in the city could not reach the outside world. And only a small number of journalists had access to the battleground, which made critical reporting almost impossible.

Nonetheless, some people on both sides sides were able to capture aspects of the battle for Sirte – in doing so creating accounts of life in a city which would be almost completely destroyed in the expanding fight against ISIS.

The first known report of likely civilian harm from US strikes was published on August 12th 2016. Various sources claimed that a teenager named Mohammed al-Qadhafi [a variant spelling of Gaddafi] died as a result of an airstrike on his family home, near the Gulf Challenge School.

With the battle for the city now fully underway, Alsharq Al-Awsat reported on September 8th 2016 that civilians had become trapped in Sirte’s ‘600’ neighbourhood – and that ISIS was using them as human shields. The GNA’s forces brought a temporary halt to their operation – though the Libya Herald claimed that the interruption was due not to the risk of civilian harm, but because ISIS fighters had managed to get behind the GNA frontline.

Video of an airstrike on Sirte posted by Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces

ISIS desperately tried to fight off the advancing enemy during the campaign. It even reportedly used female snipers – a highly unusual move for the otherwise ultra- conservative terror group. Later Al Jazeera reported that the group was employing female suicide bombers as well.

Another credible report of possible civilian harm from the US-backed GNA assault came from Twitter on October 12th 2016. Majdi Alshrif and Hameda MK posted images of dead and injured children, which they claimed had been taken in the rubble of a collapsed house. On that same day the US self-reported ten airstrikes in Sirte, while local sources also described artillery shelling by Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous in the 600 neighbourhood.

A child reportedly injured in airstrikes in Sirte (Image: Amaq via Hamida mk)

Throughout the month of October there were repeated reports of civilians being trapped in besieged areas due to the lack of a safe passage. On October 21st, Ahmed El Sharkawy claimed on Facebook that women and children were trapped under rubble in the city. A week later, the assault had to be halted again, as ISIS was once more said to be using civilians as human shields according to GNA spokesperson Rida Issa.

In November, the fight for the remaining neighbourhoods of Sirte still under ISIS control intensified further – with the jihadists refusing to give up despite now being fully encircled by GNA troops. The besiegers in turn not only faced continued suicide attacks, booby traps and mines; but also had to avoid civilian casualties – including ISIS hostages and human shields. Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Rida Issa as saying that “[…] GNA troops could hear ‘the cries of civilians every time a strike is carried out’ but he did not know their number, only that ISIS had entrapped them.”

Women and children were among the victims – many of them family members of ISIS fighters. Al Aan TV interviewed Tasnim Alkhudry, a radicalised woman detained in a Sirte prison who gave a frank account of events in the besieged areas: “I was convinced by their ideology, so I moved to this city as my sister was living there. After living among them and losing our husbands, we discovered that ISIS members have engaged in hugely unacceptable behaviour.

“Apparently the Islamic State was not a genuine Islamic state that can protect vulnerable people like kids and women. The State was crossing the boundaries of fair behaviour. Therefore, when the war started in Sirte we were able to observe breaches of the rules of Islam – and the use of children and women as human shields.”

Al Aan TV interview with Tasnim Alkhudry

ISIS defeated

By December 6th 2016, ISIS was finally defeated at Sirte. It now became easier for journalists and investigators to gain access – with the significant damage to the city aloso now visible to all.

During the final days of the campaign and its immediate aftermath, the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces reported saving hundreds of people from the rubble, including many children. Libya’s Channel published troubling footage of a small child wandering slowly out of a destroyed home, for example. Al Jazeera also showed powerful images of injured children receiving medical aid, and the many destroyed neighbourhoods of Sirte.

On December 16th, Elkul reported that the Misurata Central Hospital had received 47 injured children and 16 injured women during the whole campaign. And a few days later MC Doualiya published an article saying that “dozens of bodies are still under the rubble, the smell is very foul and it is feared that it will cause diseases such as plague,”. They quote a local citizen talking about unrecovered bodies: “There are terrorists, but also women and children who died of hunger and thirst under the rubble.”

Even so, there is still no official casualty count for those innocents caught up in the fighting at Sirte. AFRICOM ran the US air campaign which resulted in almost 500 strikes in 2016. When questioned about specific alleged civilian harm events during the battle, a spokesman told Airwars that “With regards to the specific incidents you highlighted and asked our team to review, they are not assessed as credible with the information currently available.”

Privately however, one senior US military official indicated to Airwars that civilian casualties from US actions may indeed have occurred at Sirte – but that no estimates could presently be reached based on the available evidence.

Libya’s Channel shows Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces rescuing families

The battle for Sirte again makes clear why tracking harm from the perspective of affected civilians themselves is so important. Local reporting clearly suggests that non-combatants weren’t just trapped in the city, but were actively held hostage in besieged neighbourhoods by ISIS. Even so, the US still conducted 495 airstrikes at Sirte, while its ground allies the GNA also conducted airstrikes as well as intense artillery shelling during the siege.

By Airwars estimates at least 37 civilians were killed and 69 more injured as a result of airstrikes during the campaign. To date, none of the belligerents have been willing to concede any civilian harm from any of their actions.

Media sources also reported around 2,500 ISIS fighters slain. Around 700 GNA fighters were also reported killed, and between 3,200 and 4,000 injured.

More than 18 months after the end of the Sirte campaign, some unclaimed bodies are still kept in refrigerated containers near Misurata. Families are often reluctant to be associated with relatives who fought with ISIS. Al Aan TV filmed the containers and said there were still hundreds of unidentified corpses within – some of them women and children.

Additionally, many children were reportedly left orphaned by the battle, with their parents said to have fought and died with ISIS. The scars left by ISIS’s brief occupation of Sirte – and the brutal assault to free the city – may be borne for generations to come.

Children orphaned by the fighting at Sirte were the subjects of an Al Jazeera report

▲ ISIS religious enforcers smash a drum kit during their brief occupation of the Libyan city of Sirte (Screen grab via propaganda video)

Published

June 20, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

Airwars has obtained fresh details regarding four confirmed US airstrikes in Libya in recent months – actions which the US military command AFRICOM had originally chosen not to declare.

The four airstrikes – three in late 2017 and one in January of this year – were first admitted in March by the US following queries from the New York Times. Up to that point, AFRICOM had only publicly reported half of eight US airstrikes in Libya since Donald Trump had taken office in January 2017.

Until now, AFRICOM has not stated where the four attacks took place. By matching the approximate public locations given by AFRICOM with local Libyan reports of airstrikes in the vicinity on matching dates, Airwars has been able to build up a far more detailed picture of one of the strikes and its intended targets. No civilian harm was reported in the vicinity on the dates of any of the attacks. And only one of the events had previously been reported beyond Libya at the time as a possible US action.

The new information came to light as part of a joint research project by Airwars and New America, tracking reported civilian harm from domestic and foreign airstrikes in Libya from 2012 to the present day. That project was launched in Washington DC on June 20th.

AFRICOM declaration on the four strikes

September 29th 2017 ‘In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike in Libya killing a small number of ISIS militants on Friday, Sept. 29. The strike occurred approximately 100 miles southwest of Sirte.’
October 9th 2017 ‘In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike in Libya killing a small number of ISIS militants on Monday, Oct. 9. The strike occurred approximately 250 miles south of Sirte.’
October 18th 2017 ‘In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike in Libya killing a small number of ISIS militants on Wednesday, Oct. 18. The strike occurred in the Wasdi al Shatii district of Libya.’
January 23rd 2018 ‘In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike on Friday, Jan. 23 against ISIS near Fuqaha in central Libya, destroying two vehicles.’

Of the four incidents, only the January 23rd 2018 airstrike had been reported within the US as a possible American action at the time, by both CNN and Fox News. As Fox’s Lucas Tomlinson had noted, “US drone strike kills ISIS fighters traveling in two vehicles in central Libya Tuesday seven hours south of Sirte where US launched nearly 500 airstrikes in late 2016.”

According to fresh details released by AFRICOM, that action took place “near Fuqaha in central Libya, destroying two vehicles.” No local reports blamed the United States for the attack at the time – indicating that both CNN and Fox News had been briefed by US officials.

The Airwars Libya team has also been checking local media and social media sources for information on the other three recently declared US actions.

Locals placed the site of the September 29th 2017 strike at Wadi al-Hosan. According to AFRICOM, its actions took place 100 miles south west of the city of Sirte, “killing a small number of ISIS militants.”

The TV channel Akhbar Alaan accompanied pro-American Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous (GNA) fighters to the location of the airstrike and filmed the impact. Destroyed vehicles and dead bodies can be spotted in the video – but there was no mention of civilian casualties. Libya Observer also posted graphic images.

Al-Bonyan Al-Marsoos forces find bodies of dead #ISIS militants in southeast of #Sirte killed by U.S. airstrikes. Photos: Abdul-Latif Shinbira

Geplaatst door The Libya Observer op Maandag 2 oktober 2017

For the incident on October 9th 2017, 250 miles south of Sirte, no local source could be found. According to AFRICOM the precision strike again killed “a small number of ISIS militants.”

The October 18th confirmed US strike also escaped the attention of both local and international media. This can most likely be explained by the fact that the reported target area of Wadi al Shatii is located in a remote desert area in Western Libya, close to the sparsely populated Algerian border region.

Information withheld

Among the multiple domestic and international belligerents known to have conducted recent airstrikes in Libya, AFRICOM has consistently been the most transparent. More than 500 airstrikes have been publicly declared in recent years – most during the 2016 battle for Sirte.

Even so, a number of US strikes have been kept secret – publicly revealed sometimes months later only after prompting by journalists.

Airwars assessed both those recent Libya strikes directly admitted by the US, and those which it only later declared on request – and found no discernible geographical or targeting patterns. Asked why AFRICOM withheld some strike details, Major Karl Wiest told Airwars that “When we limit our acknowledgement to responses to query, it is because of a realistic operational security concern, a significant force protection matter, or potential diplomatic sensitivities.”

Local reporting can often reveal significant additional details about US airstrikes in Libya – many of which closely resemble the drone targeted killings conducted in other US covert and clandestine theatres including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Mid to high ranking ISIS and Al Qaeda commanders are frequent targets, with precision strikes often aimed at moving vehicles.

On March 24th 2018, a US precision strike reportedly killed Musa Abu Dawud, a high-ranking Al Qaeda member, as well as five other jihadists near Ubari. Local sources produced an abundance of material, including images of destroyed cars and two dead bodies whose heads had been removed – possibly to deter identification.

#Libya – 5 militants were probably killed in a US airstrike on a house in al-Fursan neighborhood northeast of Ubari town, 120 km west of Sebha. According to witnesses, 3 bodies were taken by militants & carried with them in a car type Hyundai "Vernon" (1/2) pic.twitter.com/vVPIAgP557

— Arnaud Delalande (@Arn_Del) March 24, 2018

In another recent strike on June 6th, the US said it had targeted four ISIS members near Bani Walid. Again, plenty of local sources picked up on the event. This time however, many reported that civilians were among the dead. While there was consensus that one of those killed – Abdul-Ati Eshtewi – was an ISIS commander, most local reports also insisted that his three companions in the vehicle (Matouq Saad Milad Yaga, Mohammed Wanis Abusta and Selim Mohammed Al-Drouei) were all non-combatants.

AFRICOM nevertheless insists that no civilians have been harmed in any of its recent actions – with Major Karl Wiest telling Airwars that its Libya strikes “were conducted at remote desert locations against clearly identified and known ISIS Targets.”

Fresh revelations about airstrikes show that Libya remains an important security concern for the United States – particularly given that ISIS fighters returning from Syria and Iraq might try to regroup there. Al Qaeda’s regional branch has also re-emerged as a challenge, with two recent AFRICOM strikes aimed at its personnel.

With two competing governments, various active militias, and current fighting in Derna and the south, there was little surprise when President Trump renewed an emergency US protocol for Libya in February – the eighth successive year since America spearheaded the 2011 NATO intervention against former leader Muamar Ghadafi. How many more years the US will remain embroiled in Libyan affairs remains less clear.

▲ The remains of a suspected ISIS fighter following a clandestine US airstrike, September 2017 (via Libya Observer)