Pentagon expands ISIS airstrikes to support Libyan forces

Pentagon expands ISIS airstrikes to support Libyan forces
© Getty Images

The Pentagon announced Monday it had begun airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) Libyan stronghold of Sirte, an expansion of the U.S. air campaign against the terrorist group. 

The U.S. military has conducted two previous airstrikes against specific ISIS targets in Libya, but the latest strikes are the first in support of the current Libyan government's military campaign against ISIS.

The Pentagon said the support for the Libyan government could extend beyond the recent strikes.

ADVERTISEMENT

"As we've said for some time, the United States supports the GNA [Government of National Accord, and] we would be prepared to carefully consider any request for military assistance," said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook. 

"We have now responded to that request, and will continue to work closely with the GNA to help the government restore stability and security in Libya," he added. 

"We don't have an endpoint at this particular moment in time," said Cook about the length of the air campaign. 

"But we'll be working closely with the [Libyan government] and we certainly hope that this is something that does not require a lengthy amount of time," he added.  

Each strike that is part of the new mission will be approved by the commander of U.S. Africa Command, Cook said. 

The U.S. has been striking ISIS in Iraq and Syria in support of local forces since the fall of 2014. Those strikes expanded into Afghanistan in January and now against ISIS in Sirte, Libya.

Some lawmakers expressed alarm over the U.S. military's expanding role in the fight against ISIS, as well as the administration's reliance on a 2001 war authorization that was intended for al Qaeda in the Afghanistan War. 

“I am deeply concerned about the expansion of U.S. airstrikes in Libya. The U.S. military continues to become more engaged in the Middle East despite the lack of a congressional debate or specific authorization," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).  

"We must stop relying on an outdated and overly broad authorization that was passed nearly 15 years ago," she added. 

Cook said the military support for the Libyan government was authorized by President Obama, on the recommendations of Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford. 

The approval came after the Libyan government requested support in recent days to go after precise targets while avoiding civilian casualties, Cook said. 

He said the targets so far have included a tank and two ISIS vehicles. 

Cook said Libyan forces would identify targets but the U.S. military would vet them before striking. 

Cook said the Libyan government has reduced the number of ISIS fighters in Libya, but that U.S. airstrikes would be able to make a difference in the campaign. 

He said the current numbers of ISIS fighters in Libya is estimated to be about 1,000, with possibly several hundred in Sirte. 

Cook said U.S. ground forces would not be assisting with the air operations at this time.

The Libyan expansion comes after the U.S.-led military coalition has taken back roughly half of the territory seized by ISIS. But those battlefield successes have sparked concerns that ISIS will attempt to establish new safe havens in Afghanistan and Libya. 

Cook said the airstrikes in Libya will deny ISIS a new base from which to attack the U.S. and allies. 

"We want to, again, strike at ISIL anywhere it rears its head and that Libya is one of those locations," Cook said, using another acronym for the group.