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Published

June 20, 2018

Written by

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)

Published

June 20, 2018

Written by

Airwars Staff

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.

▲ Library image: Reaper drones conducted 60% of almost 500 US airstrikes on the Libyan city of Sirte in 2016, coordinated through AFRICOM (Image: US AIR Force)