As ISIS terrorists converged on a Libyan camp to listen to one of their radical spiritual leaders, American forces painted a big target on the outpost in Sabratha, near the Tunisian border. The attack came overnight, and killed dozens of ISIS recruits, but as the New York Times reports, the status of the real target remains to be determined:
American warplanes struck an Islamic State camp in Libya early Friday, targeting a senior Tunisian operative linked to two major terrorist attacks in Tunisia last year. The operative, Noureddine Chouchane, was most likely killed in the strike, according to the Pentagon.
The airstrikes, on a camp outside Sabratha, about 50 miles west of Tripoli, killed at least 30 Islamic State recruits at the site, many of whom were believed to be from Tunisia, according to a Western official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military operations. …
Mr. Chouchane was suspected of being a major Islamic State operative who helped organize an attack on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis that killed 22 people in March and another in June that killed 38 people at a beach in the coastal resort in Sousse. Mr. Chouchane was one of five fugitives for whom the Tunisian Interior Ministry issued arrest warrants after the museum attack.
The Western official said that the airstrikes on Friday morning were focused on Mr. Chouchane and did not represent the start of major new American war in a Muslim country. They were carried out by Air Force F-15E jets.
It’s not the first time that this area has been targeted, the Washington Post reminded readers:
The airstrikes destroyed a large farmhouse outside Sabratha, a city near the Tunisia border, where suspected militant fighters had gathered to hear a religious leader, said Jamal Naji Zubia, the head of the foreign news media office in Tripoli in a telephone interview.
A possible key target in the attack was Noureddine Chouchane, an Islamic State operative who was believe to be key plotter the Tunisian attacks against popular tourist sites. It was not immediately clear whether Chouchane was among those killed.
Eastern Libya also was the site of a June 2015 airstrikes seeking to target a most-wanted Algerian militant who had past ties to al-Qaeda, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. But U.S. officials still have not confirmed whether Belmokhtar was killed in the attack.
At first, US officials were “confident” they’d gotten Belmokhtar. Two days ago, doubts about his demise began to rise to public notice. It wouldn’t be the first time that Belmokhtar survived an attack thought to have killed him, and the lack of celebratory messages about his martyrdom has intelligence officials now skeptical that Belmokhtar has reached room temperature.
The same problem will likely exist for Chouchane, and that may present an immediate problem. These attacks may have been prompted by warnings from Tunisia that another terrorist strike was imminent, CBS reports:
Tunisia, Libya’s neighbor which shares nearly 500 kilometers of border, has been worried for weeks about what they understood to be an “imminent” strike by the coalition. Tunisia fears “terrorists”,” arms traffickers and a flux of refugees onto its territory, and recently built nearly a 200-kilometer wall of sand and trenches to fortify its border. Nearly a million Libyans crossed the border into Tunisia during the 2011 uprising against Libyan strongman Moammar Khadafi.
If Couchane was quarterbacking those attacks and if the US strike killed him, then perhaps the Tunisians got a break. If Chouchane is still alive, or if someone else was leading the next attack, then Tunisia has perhaps a bigger problem on its hands. On top of that, the sources talking to US media outlets are making it clear that this is not a prelude to a larger US intervention against ISIS in the failed state of Libya. It’s a one-off, a target of opportunity — which means that Tunisia and what little legitimate government remains in Libya will feel the brunt of the reaction to the strike.