WASHINGTON — American warplanes struck an Islamic State training camp in Libya near the Tunisian border Friday, and a Tunisian described as a key extremist operative was likely killed, the Pentagon announced. In Libya, local officials estimated that more than 40 people were killed with more wounded, some critically.
In a written statement, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the training camp was near the Libyan town of Sabratha and that the targeted extremist was Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian national whom Cook called "an ISIL senior facilitator in Libya associated with the training camp." ISIL is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.
Another U.S. official said up to 60 militants were present at the camp at the time of the strike by Air Force F-15E strike aircraft based in Europe.
Cook said Tunisian officials in May 2015 had named Chouchane as a suspect in a March 18, 2015, attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis.
"He facilitated the movement of potential ISIL-affiliated foreign fighters from Tunisia to Libya and onward to other countries," Cook said. "Destruction of the camp and Chouchane's removal will eliminate an experienced facilitator and is expected to have an immediate impact on ISIL's ability to facilitate its activities in Libya, including recruiting new ISIL members, establishing bases in Libya, and potentially planning external attacks on U.S. interests in the region."
Another official said the U.S. believes that Chouchane was killed. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe details of the sensitive operation, said it did not herald the start of a sustained U.S. air campaign in Libya but rather was an example of opportunistic strikes targeting key ISIS operatives.
One U.S. official said Friday's airstrike was taken "with the knowledge of Libyan authorities," but the official would not be more specific about the coordination.
A witness in the city said he heard two explosions at 3:30 a.m. coming from the nearby village of Qasr Talel. He said the house that was targeted belongs to Abdel-Hakim al-Mashawat, known locally as an Islamic State militant. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety.
The official Facebook page of the Sabratha local city council also put the death toll at more than 40 with more wounded, some critically. "There are torn body parts buried under the rubble," it said in a posting. It noted that the victims were not all Libyans. The witness said he saw a hospital list that noted victims were from Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.
Sabratha is one of the main launching points for smugglers' boats heading to Europe. It also has been a transit point for Tunisians and North African jihadists before joining ISIS affiliates in their strongholds in the central city of Sirte and eastern cities such as Benghazi.
President Obama earlier this year directed his national security team to bolster counterterrorism efforts in Libya while also pursuing diplomatic possibilities for solving its political crisis and forming a government of national unity. While ISIS has emerged in other places, including Afghanistan, Libya is seen as its key focus outside of Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. military has been closely monitoring ISIS movements in Libya, and small teams of U.S.military personnel have moved in and out of the country over a period of months. British, French and Italian special forces also have been in Libya helping with aerial surveillance, mapping and intelligence gathering in several cities, including Benghazi in the east and Zintan in the west, according to two Libyan military officials who are coordinating with them. The Libyan officials spoke on condition of anonymity recently with The Associated Press on this matter because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
U.S. officials predicted early this month that it would be weeks or longer before U.S. special forces would be sent, citing the need for more consultations with European allies. Additional intelligence would help refine targets for any sort of military strikes, but surveillance drones are in high demand elsewhere, including in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Adding to the concern in Washington and Europe is evidence that the number of Islamic State fighters in Libya is increasing — now believed to be up from about 2,000 to 5,000 — even as the group's numbers in Syria and Iraq are shrinking under more unrelenting U.S. and coalition airstrikes.
Obama discussed the situation when asked during a news conference Wednesday at the closing of a summit in California where he hosted leaders of several nation members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations group, or ASEAN.
"With respect to Libya," he said, "I have been clear from the outset that we will go after ISIS wherever it appears, the same way that we went after al-Qaida wherever they appeared."
"We will continue to take actions where we've got a clear operation and a clear target in mind," the president said. "And we are working with our other coalition partners to make sure that as we see opportunities to prevent ISIS from digging in, in Libya, we take them. At the same time, we're working diligently with the United Nations to try to get a government in place in Libya. And that's been a problem."
"The tragedy of Libya over the last several years is Libya has a relatively small population and a lot of oil wealth and could be really successful," he said. "They are divided by tribal lines and ethnic lines, power plays."
"There is now, I think, a recognition on the part of a broad middle among their political leadership that it makes sense to unify so that there is just some semblance of a state there, but extremes on either side are still making it difficult for that state to cohere," Obama told reporters.
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 an approximately 200-kilometer-long wall of sand and trenches to fortify its border. Nearly a million Libyans crossed the border into Tunisia during the 2011 uprising against Libya's former leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi had asked that Tunisia be consulted before any decision to strike.
In a recent interview with AP, Prime Minister Habib Essid said ISIS stretched its tentacles to Sabrata.
Tunisians make up the largest number of ISIS foreign fighters — an estimated 5,000 in Syria, Iraq and Libya, according to Tunisian officials. Some reportedly joined Libya from Syria, others by crossing the Tunisian border.