B-2s hit targets south of Sirte
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On the night of Jan. 18 to 19, 2017, U.S. Air Force B-2 stealth bombers took off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and blasted Islamic State terrorists thousands of miles away in Libya. The strikes hit a pair of camps 25 miles south of the coastal city of Sirte.
The “terrorists targeted included individuals who fled to the remote desert camps from Sirte in order to reorganize, and they posed a security threat to Libya, the region and U.S. national interests,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement on Jan. 19, 2017. “This action was authorized by the president as an extension of the successful operation the U.S. military conducted last year to support Libyan forces.”
The Pentagon’s official justifications showed American involvement in Libya remained fluid as tensions continued to run high in the country.
On Aug. 1, 2016, the Pentagon kicked off air strikes in and around Sirte, aimed at displacing Islamic State’s franchise. The terrorists — also commonly referred to by the acronym ISIL — seized control of the city the previous year.
Over the next five months, U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force aircraft, helicopter gunships and drones pounded militants over the course of nearly 500 air strikes. Officials in Washington stressed that those attacks were in support of Libya’s internationally recognized, but fragile Government of National Accord, or GNA.
However, records War Is Boring obtained showed that American commanders had relied on intelligence information from long-standing efforts — notably an operation nicknamed Junction Serpent — predating the GNA itself. On Dec. 19, 2016, the Pentagon’s top headquarters for operations in Africa said the latest mission, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, had come to an end.
By January 2017, the American forces that had been at the ready in the Mediterranean had finally left the area. The Pentagon had to consider on aircraft stationed further away for any subsequent attacks in Libya.
“The B-2 Spirit was chosen based on the best military capacity to strike the necessary targets,” Robyn Mack, a spokesperson for U.S. Africa Command told War Is Boring in an Email. “U.S. Strategic Command forces provide an always ready global strike capability.”
In June 2016, an old Air Force B-52 had run through the procedures for potential missions over Africa. The distinctive B-2s can carry up to 40,000 pounds of bombs and the planes can hit targets around the world thanks to mid-air refueling.
But more importantly, the Pentagon simply resurrected the old mission for the new strikes.
“This is a modification of Operation of Odyssey Lightning,” Mack explained. “The operation was reinstated to support the request of the GNA.”
Mack added that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford had recommended bringing back the mission based on Pres. Barack Obama’s previous authorization to support Libyan authorities. Overnight, an old, concluded mission became new again — and with little public debate.
“From an international law perspective, the situation is straightforward: these armed attacks are carried out at the invitation of Libya’s Government of National Accord,” Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution wrote at Lawfare in September 2016.
“From a domestic law perspective, the argument seems to hang in the first-instance on the now-familiar claim that the 2001 AUMF extends to ISIL.”
Through his presidency, Obama and his national security team argued that Congress’ post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Al Qaeda applied to Islamic State’s various branches because the group was an outgrowth Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq.
“The interesting twist the Odyssey Lightning presents, of course, is the extension of that authority to Libya and the manifestation of ISIL present there,” Chesney continued. Of course, the existing law “has always been construed by the government to have no geographic boundaries vis-a-vis Al Qaeda.”
Now that legal precedent has apparently given the Pentagon space to bring back old missions to continue operations in a particular country. How long it will continue in this particular case is unclear.
“As a matter of operational security, we never speculate on the timing of future military operations,” Mack said. “The United States remains prepared to further support Libyan efforts to counter terrorist threats … in Libya.”
On top of that, exactly who the Pentagon would be supporting with its air strikes in the near future was open to question. By 2017, the U.N.-backed authorities were still not fully in control of the country.
On Jan. 11, 2017, Libyan general Khalifa Haftar — whose Tobruk regime is the GNA’s main rival — toured Russia’s aircraft carrier Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean and spoke with Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu via satellite.
Then on Jan. 12, 2017, Khalifa Ghwell — who describes himself as the country’s legitimate prime minister — and his supporters attempted to take over various ministries in the capital Tripoli. The GNA said that apparent coup failed.
Whatever happens on the ground, on Jan. 20, 2017 Donald Trump will take over this new incarnation of the Libya operation. Only time will tell as to whether the missions expand within that country and if Obama’s previous authorizations spread to other areas where Islamic State operates.