When the people of Sicily woke up on Sunday to partake in the traditional Easter activities, an aircrew of a US Special Operations flight was departing the island to prevent a different kind of resurrection across the Mediterranean.
The Gulfstream plane took off from Sicily’s western city of Trapani and by midday it was combing the sky over eastern Libya for security intelligence. A mission which was carried out on behalf of the US air force by a commercial US company called Tenax Aerospace. Similar reconnaissance missions have been conducted across Libya on a weekly- and sometimes daily- basis. Such operations, we were told, are warmly welcomed by Libya’s “rival military actors from the west and the east” to ensure that the Islamic State is not allowed to return, according to two Libyan security experts who spoke to our website.
The list of countries known to have conducted special air and ground operations in Libya over the last few years includes Italy, the United Kingdom, France and the United Arab Emirates. However, the United States is by far the most active player over the Libyan sky, operating both offensive and reconnaissance sorties from a number of military bases in Italy, Greece and Tunisia.
Photos published by social media accounts dedicated to monitoring the movement of military aircraft have shown weekly flights operated to both Misrata and Benghazi by the US Special Operations Command. The frequency of these flights indicates close operational cooperation between the US and Libya’s two biggest military actors, the Military Council of Misrata and the east's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).
We have reached out to the United States Africa Command in order to shed some light on the nature and extent of this cooperation and we received the following statement from Major Karl J. Wiest, the spokesman of Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany:
“While we are unable to comment on any possible ongoing operations, I can tell you U.S. forces have conducted two airstrikes in 2018 against terrorist organizations in Libya in coordination with Libyan Government of National Accord.
With our partners, the United States will not relent in its mission to degrade, disrupt, and destroy terrorist organizations and bring stability to the region. We are committed to maintaining pressure on the terror network and preventing terrorists from establishing safe haven.
ISIS and al-Qa’ida have taken advantage of under-governed spaces in Libya to establish sanctuaries for plotting, inspiring, and directing terror attacks; recruiting and facilitating the movement of foreign terrorist fighters; and raising and moving funds to support their operations.
These terrorists have used safe havens and freedom of movement in Libya to launch external terror attacks into neighboring countries. In 2013, al-Qa’ida in Libya conducted an attack against the In Amenas oil consortium in Algeria, killing three U.S. citizens. An al Qa’ida-affiliate was also responsible for the U.S. Consulate attack in September 2012 that killed our Ambassador and several others. Left unaddressed, violent extremist organizations like this could continue to inflict casualties on the local civilian population and security forces, and plot attacks against U.S. citizens and allied interests in the region.”
For obvious operational reasons, it was not expected that AFRICOM, or indeed any of the foreign governments whose forces have footprints in Libya, would be willing to reveal the nature of their secret operations. It is not just the Libyan public who are being kept in the dark about such operations: The New York Times reported last month that the Pentagon had only disclosed half of the airstrikes conducted in the last 14 months against the Islamic State in Libya.
The majority of the US flights to Misrata and Benghazi come from Italian bases, usually Sigonella and Trapani, while others came from Souda Bay, a base on the Greek island of Crete. Despite repeated statements from the Tunisian government denying reports that some of the US sorties against the Islamic State in Libya were launched from Tunisia, the photos below show two US military aircraft leaving Tunisia last month for missions over Libya.
And as if the situation is not chaotic enough, recent reports have claimed that Russia too is starting to show interest in Libya’s ungoverned space. Moscow, which is believed to have struck a recent deal with the Egyptian government granting it access to a military base there, has been officially warned last year by Michael Fallon, the then British Defence Secretary, against intervening in Libya. “We don’t need the bear sticking his paws in. Putin is testing the West, he’s testing the alliance. At any point where he sees weakness, he pushes home,” Mr Fallon told participants of Munich Security Conference in February of last year to warn them about Russia's growing interest in Libya.