Libya’s lawless skies
Hundreds of civilians have been harmed by airstrikes in Libya since NATO's 2011 intervention - but no party ever accepts responsibility.
A new study of the security situation in Libya between 2012 and 2018 by Airwars and the New America Foundation has identified hundreds of civilians credibly reported killed and injured by domestic and international airstrikes – but with no accountability for those deaths from any belligerent.
In total at least 2,162 strikes were identified by Airwars during the nine month research project, based on local public reporting and official claims made between 2012-2018. At least 242 civilians likely died in these actions according to local communities, yet not one of the eight belligerents identified in the new study has ever conceded casualties from its actions – an unwelcome echo of NATO’s 2011 Libya campaign, in which the alliance boasted at the time of causing zero civilian harm.
The new Libya findings were officially launched June 20th in Washington DC. “Libyans have been living with significant security concerns in the years since NATO’s 2011 intervention – though with little interest from the outside world,” said Chris Woods, the Director of Airwars. “A key way to better understand this neglected conflict is to understand what Libyans themselves are reporting – particularly when it comes to civilian harm.”
A small team of Airwars researchers – based in both the troubled nation and in Europe – poured over thousands of local Arabic-language reports dating from the years after dictator Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed in 2011.
A range of troubling patterns emerged, including intense urban bombardments; attacks on boats and ocean-going vessels; and the frequent killing of poor foreign workers and migrants alongside Libyans.
By far the most concerning trend was that of impunity among all parties to the conflict. In many respects, Libya offers a more lawless and uncontrolled version of long-criticised US counterterror operations in Somalia and Pakistan. In Libya a handful of countries now conduct strikes unilaterally – with some such as the UAE and France never choosing to declare their actions.
Research indicates that Libya has become a country where other nations and local actors have few qualms about dropping explosive munitions from above – while never taking responsibility for their effects below. New America’s report accompanying the Libya launch is aptly titled Lawless Skies.
NATO’s intense Libya air campaign ended in 2011. But peace did not return to Libya with the death of long-standing dictator Muamar Gaddafi. Instead the North African nation has lurched from crisis to crisis, sliding into civil war in 2014. Even today Libya has two rival governments. Former US president Barack Obama has described his administration’s failings over Libya as his greatest foreign policy regret.
Funded by the Open Society Foundations, Airwars has partnered with the US think tank New America for the Libya project. New America pioneered the monitoring of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan in 2010, and brings a wealth of analytical expertise to the project. Peter Bergen, the Director of the International Security and Future of War Program at New America, said of the partnership: “The two organizations believe that helping to document the largely forgotten war in Libya is a necessary public service.”
The new project seeks to highlight ongoing security concerns for ordinary Libyans – while also helping to provide more reliable data on civilian harm for policymakers and investigators.
“An important feature of the conflict in Libya post-2011 has been the rise of airstrikes by multiple domestic and international belligerents,” New America notes in its own report release June 20th. “At least four foreign countries and three domestic Libyan factions are reported to have conducted air and drone strikes in Libya since 2012.”
Many of the world’s most fearsome air forces, including those of the US, the UAE and France – as well as Egypt – have bombed targets in Libya in recent years. Yet after six years and more than 2,100 airstrikes between them, no single actor has admitted to harming civilians in Libya from the air – a startling and troubling failure of accountability.
Some international powers don’t even acknowledge they are bombing Libya in the first place. The UAE conducts drone and airstrikes from a ‘secret’ base in eastern Libya, deep inside the territory of one of the country’s two main warring factions. Yet no strikes are ever publicly declared – and no subsequent civilian harm acknowledged.
AFRICOM’s Major Karl Wiest 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.”
“One of the most notable lessons of our Libya research was the abundance of belligerents we had to deal with,” said Airwars investigator Oliver Imhof. “It was at times difficult to keep track of them all. It shows to what extent Libya institutionally has become a failed state after the 2011 revolution – even though the extent of the conflict is much less horrific than in Syria or Iraq.”
Problematic as international actions are in Libya, the majority of more than 2,000 airstrikes identified since 2012 were in fact carried out by local actors. The largest and most active Libyan air force is that of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) – which according to its own reports has conducted more than 1,000 airstrikes in recent years.
With the country’s military assets divided after the fall of Gaddafi, a smaller number of strikes has also been carried out by the internationally recognized General National Assembly (GNA). Neither the LNA or GNA has ever been known to have acknowledged killing or injuring a single civilian.
Despite its lack of international recognition, the LNA is in fact far more transparent about its actions than most foreign militaries engaged in Libya. Most of its strikes were officially declared at the time via media and social media outlets. With the exception of the United States (which itself has declared more than 500 recent airstrikes in Libya), no other belligerent regularly reports on its actions.
The array of domestic and foreign actors – and often challenging local reporting of events – can at times be far more confusing than Airwars’ longstanding monitoring in Iraq or Syria.
“We have events in Derna, Benghazi and al Jufra Distract where multiple local sources claimed variously that Egypt, the UAE and sometimes France were involved,” said Osama Mansour, Airwars’ chief Libya researcher.
RT Arabic showing footage of an alleged Egyptian airstrike on Derna on February 15th 2015, reportedly leading to seven civilian deaths
Patterns of civilian harm
The ending of NATO’s 2011 Libya campaign did lead to an initial lull in military actions by all parties. The number of alleged civilian casualty incidents tracked by Airwars was minimal through the end of 2013. However in 2014 – as the nation slipped deeper into chaos – local accounts and public reporting indicated at least 242 strikes – with the following year seeing 201 more strikes.
Yet as so-called Islamic State gained a foothold in Libya – and as the nation’s two rival factions went to war – more than 1,000 airstrikes were reported in 2016. Since then, 536 separate strikes were monitored in 2017, and 121 have been recorded so far in 2018.
Several additional patterns have emerged during the monitoring of strikes. As seen elsewhere in the region, urban areas have often borne the brunt. Nearly a third of all monitored strikes took place in Sirte – largely related to the 2016 US campaign there targeting ISIS.
However, despite heavy bombardments of residential neighbourhoods by various actors in both Benghazi and Sirte, the number of reported civilian deaths in these urban locales is relatively low when compared to recent conflict modelling in Syria and Iraq. This pattern is not limited to urban airstrikes, and may have several explanations — including lower population densities, and possibly more limited public reporting in Libya.
“Notably, the airstrikes that did not result in casualties among civilians were often declared by militaries, whereas in the event of any casualties everyone kept mute,” noted Mansour.
— إمحمد بالريش (المرنقي) (@belreish) September 24, 2015
Heavy alleged LNA bombardment of residential neighbourhoods in Benghazi in 2015, reported via Twitter
While American airstrikes in Libya often capture international attention, domestic actors are in fact responsible for most bombings. Airwars has monitored 1,122 strikes allegedly involving the LNA (Libyan National Army) — more than half of all actions documented by Airwars. These allegedly led to the deaths of between 95 and 172 civilians – the largest non-combatant death toll tied to any one belligerent.
The UN-recognised GNA (General National Assembly) has also reportedly conducted at least 68 strikes, leading to a minimum of between 7 and 9 civilian fatalities. However, a number of incidents that cite the GNA also accuse other belligerents, including the United States. Including such contested incidents, between 44 and 66 additional civilians deaths may in fact be associated with GNA attacks.
In 2016, the Obama administration listed Sirte as an “area of active hostility,” thereby avoiding strict limitations and civilian protections imposed by the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance. Hundreds of strikes followed in Sirte under Operation Odyssey Lighting, between August 1st and December 19th of that year.
US strikes have focused primarily on ISIS targets, though they have at times operated in support of the GNA. The US is the most transparent of all actors in Libya, generally announcing when it has carried out actions. AFRICOM officially declared 495 strikes during the Sirte campaign, with a further 15 strikes before and afterwards.
For those actions, researchers tracked between 6 and 13 likely civilian deaths – none of which have been acknowledged by the US. US aircraft may also be implicated in up to 14 additional events in which at least 34 more civilians reportedly died – though these claims have also been attributed by some local sources to the GNA.
AFRICOM’s Major Karl Wiest 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.”
Major Wiest added that the US command had also itself investigated two claimed civilian harm events in Libya, but had deemed them non-credible: “From the Fall of 2016, the command has assessed two (2) recorded CIVCAS allegations related to operations in Libya. After thorough investigations, both claims were deemed not credible. In fact, the evidence gathered in one of the investigations strongly suggested that our adversaries in the region were simply lying about alleged civilian casualties in order to bolster their public perception. Evidence found at the time of the respective investigation to support this finding included our adversaries publishing photographs from another area of responsibility while claiming they were new CIVCAS incidents in Libya.”
AFRICOM declined to offer additional information when asked to identify the two events by date and location.
Additional state actors
Egypt meanwhile has launched an increasing number of strikes in Libya, often in the vicinity of a shared frontier. Strikes also take place on occasion in heavily populated areas. In February 2015, Egypt reported bombing alleged ISIS targets in Libya in response to the gruesome murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in the country. The attack, which took place in Derna, reportedly killed at least 7 civilians and injured at least 21, according to local accounts.
Amnesty International later investigated the incident and determined that “the Egyptian Air Force failed to take the necessary precautions” in launching the attack. According to local sources monitored by the Airwars/ New America project, Egypt has carried out at least 93 strikes in Libya, which have killed at least 13 civilians.
The Egyptian government only occasionally confirms its strikes, often after attacks in border areas where smuggling or terrorist activity is alleged. A reported strike on August 21st, 2017 is indicative: video posted on the Army Facebook page shows the destruction of what the military said were nine SUVs carrying weapons and explosives in the border area. On some occasions, such as an October 30th, 2017 strike in the Kufra district along the border, there are local reports that the targets hit are in fact civilian vehicles. However given the scarcity of information, it is at times hard to confirm such cases. The Egyptian military has itself not admitted to harming any civilians in Libya.
بالفيديو | مصر تعلن تنفيذ 10 ضربات جوية على الحدود مع ليبيا
Geplaatst door قناة ليبيا اليوم – Libya Today TV op woensdag 22 november 2017
Libya Today TV showing footage of Egyptian strikes near the border
Egypt has also played host to UAE assets engaged in their own cross-border raids. The UAE also carries out drone and air strikes in support of the LNA from within Libya. On many occasions, both the Gulf nation and the LNA might be blamed for casualties, making precise tracking more difficult. However, Airwars has monitored at least 41 strikes allegedly carried out by the UAE, leaving at least 11 civilians dead.
“While Egypt mostly seems to be interested in securing its border from smugglers and alleged terrorists with airstrikes, the reasons for Emirati involvement in Libya are less obvious due to its geographical distance,” said Imhof. “However, its current interventionist foreign policy seeking to fight political Islam and jihadism could be an explanation.”
France does not confirm its own actions in Libya, though local reports often accuse Paris of being behind attacks – particularly in the south. Often, blame for such incidents is split between France and the LNA – and in some instances they have blamed one another. A January 10th 2016 strike reportedly killed at least 15 people — likely combatants. The LNA blamed France, while the French government in turn blamed the LNA. On November 14th of that same year, France allegedly killed at least four civilians in Wadi al Shatii district – though again, this could not be confirmed.
Overall, France has been cited for five alleged strikes in the reporting period, while it was mentioned in three more reports that also blamed the LNA – strikes that allegedly left at least 20 civilians dead.
One of the most troubling aspect of airstrikes in Libya is how many actions are by unknown belligerents. 165 Strikes without any named belligerents were assessed by Airwars. Of those, 25 were incidents of concern according to Airwars researchers, and 12 allegedly left civilian casualties.
On February 7th 2016 for example, an unknown aircraft bombed the Bab Tobruk neighborhood of Derna. Four civilians were reported killed. Though no group or nation claimed responsibility, local sources, including members of the GNA, accused the UAE of involvement.
Researchers contacted all eight local and international belligerents for comment on reported civilian harm from their actions in Libya. Only the US’s AFRICOM responded. These strikes – and the lack of clarity around them – are indicative of what New America has termed ‘Lawless Skies’.
A number of troubling patterns emerged from Airwars monitoring of civilian harm in Libya. Maritime traffic is frequently a target – with researchers tracking 66 strikes that reportedly hit vessels, including boats and ships off the coast of Libya.
The great majority of Libyans live in coastal areas, and the waters north of the country are used by an array of Libyan and foreign vessels, including – according to local sources – boats transporting weapons. In some cases such attacks are acknowledged by the LNA, which has posted videos of target vessels, for instance off the coast of Benghazi.
#سرت صور لناقلة النفط انوار أفريقيا التي قصفت اليوم قبالة ساحل المدينة و إصابة الطاقم الذي بها.. و بعض المعلومات تؤكد أن نسور الجو #الجيش_الليبي قصفت الناقلة.
Images of a burning oil tanker and its injured crew members, hit by an alleged LNA airstrike on May 11th 2015 (via Omar al-Warfali)
Airwars also identified a likely under-reporting of civilian casualties among non-Libyan populations. While the killing of Libyan citizens in airstrikes often garners local headlines, the deaths of ‘foreigners’, especially Sudanese or Chadian civilians, tend only to be footnoted, or are even reported only in Sudanese or Chadian media. Yet scattered accounts suggest a significant toll. UNSMIL reported that on May 15th 2018, three Eritreans were killed and eight more injured when their vehicle was bombed along the Libyan-Egyptian border by “unidentified air assets” – most likely an Egyptian airstrike.
Hospitals, power stations and other critical infrastructure have also been targeted or struck by several parties to the conflict in Libya. On Janaury 12th 2016, the LNA reported airstrikes against targets in Benghazi – attacks that the UN Mission in the country (UNSMIL) later condemned for hitting a power plant in the city. In October of that same year, the LNA reportedly targeted a hospital in Benghazi.
The new project by Airwars and New America marks the most comprehensive modelling of airstrike harm since NATO’s 2011 intervention. Even so, its findings may represent an undercount of civilian casualties.
A key part of Airwars’ role is to permanently archive reports and claims – including photographs and videos – in case they are removed from the internet. In Iraq and Syria for example, up to 50 per cent of local reports disappear from the Web within 12 months. People are killed and towns overrun, Facebook and Twitter accounts banned, and videos and news sites blocked.
Those vulnerabilities are likely to extend to Libya, and it is probable that much media and social media material has already been lost, in particular from the earlier years after Gaddafi was deposed.
“Public reporting often seems low in Libya compared to Syria and Iraq, even for recent cases,” says Oliver Imhof. “We simply don’t know how much material was lost over the years, especially during the early years of the conflict.”
The LNA’s 2016 Facebook page – a key resource for confirming hundreds of publicly declared airstrikes – was luckily archived in its entirety by Airwars before being deleted recently by the LNA. Without those archives, a troubling lack of accountability for military actions in Libya would be worse than it already is.
US discloses more on previously secret Libya airstrikes
Fresh details revealed about once-unacknowledged US airstrikes in Libya
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
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.
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.
AFRICOM response to reported civilian harm from US airstrikes in Libya
The US command for Africa says it has investigated two claimed civilian harm events in Libya - but has rejected both.
As part of our new Libya monitoring project, Airwars and New America reached out to AFRICOM, the US military command for Africa, highlighting all known alleged civilian casualty events in which US aircraft had been implicated. We also included a list of all reported airstrikes by unknown belligerents between 2012 and 2018, and asked whether US forces had participated in any of those events.
AFRICOM’s full response from spokesman Major Karl Wiest is published below – lightly edited to remove personal details.
AFRICOM response to Airwars
“Thank you for contacting U.S. Africa Command and for allowing our team to assess the data you provided.
Before responding to the questions you posed, I would like to be clear that U.S. Africa Command has many processes in place to ensure the safety and protection of the local population remains a top priority. These procedures, combined with precision strike capabilities, safeguard civilians and infrastructure in areas of operation. The protection of civilians is fundamentally consistent with the effective, efficient, and decisive use of force in pursuit of U.S. national interests. As a matter of policy, U.S. forces therefore routinely conduct operations under policy standards that are more protective than the requirements of the law of war that relate to the protection of civilians. U.S. forces also protect civilians because it is the moral and ethical thing to do. Although civilian casualties are a tragic and unavoidable part of war, no force in history has been more committed to limiting harm to civilians than the U.S. military.
As for your questions, since 2012 U.S. Africa Command has conducted post-strike assessments of all U.S. Military actions. From the Fall of 2016, the command has assessed two (2) recorded CIVCAS allegations related to operations in Libya. After thorough investigations, both claims were deemed not credible. In fact, the evidence gathered in one of the investigations strongly suggested that our adversaries in the region were simply lying about alleged civilian casualties in order to bolster their public perception. Evidence found at the time of the respective investigation to support this finding included our adversaries publishing photographs from another area of responsibility while claiming they were new CIVCAS incidents in Libya.*
Also, 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.
Lastly, U.S. Africa Command does not maintain a list of Host Nation or other Nations’ strikes, nor do we track the military engagements of host nations. As such, we are unable to accurately assess the associated credibility of the unknown belligerent incidents on the spreadsheet you provided.”
In addition, in response to local reports that three civilians were killed along with an ISIS commander in a confirmed US strike on June 6th 2018, AFRICOM issued the following statement on June 20th:
“In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike near Bani Walid, Libya, on June 6, killing four (4) ISIS-Libya militants, as previously released. Following reports alleging civilian casualties resulting from this operation, U.S. Africa Command performed a thorough review and determined the allegations of civilian casualties to be not credible. As with any allegation of civilian casualties, U.S. Africa Command reviewed all available relevant information concerning the incident. The command complies with the law of armed conflict and takes all feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage.”
* AFRICOM has declined to provide locations and dates for the two reported civilian harm incidents in Libya cited here that it has investigated.