June 15, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The U.S. Military Strikes in Libya

• The U.S. military conducted its first airstrike in Libya since the 2011 air campaign that helped drive Muammar Qadhafi from power, a sign of how dangerous the gathering of extremists in the country has become

• The target of the strike was reported to be longtime jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, former commander with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and mastermind of the deadly 2013 attack on an Algerian natural gas facility

• Though he left AQIM, Belmokhtar reiterated his loyalty to al-Qaeda Central and its leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, despite a few of his current associates proclaiming allegiance to the rival Islamic State just last month

• Belmokhtar had been in Libya since 2013, likely taking advantage of the violent chaos and security vacuum to plug into the crowded jihadist environment along the eastern shores of Libya.


For very good reasons, Libya is on the radar of U.S military and counter-terrorism operations. The country has become a cauldron of violent extremists and armed militias taking advantage of the absence of government control. On June 14, the U.S. conducted an airstrike in the eastern coastal town of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi. The reported target of the raid was long-time Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, formerly a senior commander with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and now co-leader of a group called al-Marabitoun. Previous reports of the demise of Belmokhtar have proven to be inaccurate, but if he were killed in this strike, it would be a significant counter-terrorism accomplishment in a country and region that badly need one.

Dubbed ‘Mr. Marlboro’ because of his lucrative cigarette smuggling operations that helped fund the precursor groups to AQIM, Belmokhtar has a notable terrorist history, beginning like so many others in the al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. He then returned to Algeria where he fought with the extremist Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) during the horrific Algerian civil war. By the time AQIM was formed in 2006, Belmokhtar was already a senior and ruthless terrorist. Operating in Mauritania, Mali, and Chad, in addition to Algeria, the one-eyed Belmokhtar killed police and soldiers and kidnapped foreigners for ransom.

Belmokhtar left AQIM under pressure in 2012, but remained loyal to al-Qaeda Central and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Quickly forming his own group, al-Muwaqi’on Biddam, Belmokhtar masterminded the audacious and tragically successful January 2013 attack on the BP natural gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria, killing at least 40 hostages. The In Amenas attack demonstrated that when extremists have control over the countryside, even hardened or guarded facilities are exceedingly vulnerable.

It was inevitable that Belmokhtar would find his way to Libya, which has become the perfect laboratory for extremist groups to expand and evolve. Early reports about the airstrike indicate that Belmokhtar was meeting with local al-Qaeda officials in Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, suggesting once again that the U.S. had timely and accurate information on a high-value target in Libya. While this is the first post-Qadhafi U.S. airstrike, the U.S. has previously conducted two other raids in Libya to capture high-value targets Abu Anas al-Libi and Abu Khatallah. Whether in spite of the chaos or precisely because of it, the U.S. has maintained a level of intelligence and situational awareness in Libya that has resulted in three significant counter-terrorism successes since 2013.

Unfortunately, the situation in Libya is far worse now than in 2013 and far beyond the ability of pinpoint raids or airstrikes to meaningfully moderate. Al-Qaeda has deep ties in Libya, working with groups such as Ansar al-Sharia; likewise, many of the Islamic State’s Libyan fighters who have returned from Syria and Iraq have utilized local ties to make advances in recent months. However, the battle between al-Qaeda's leader Zawahiri and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for leadership of the global jihadist movement has made its way into Libya. This week, the Islamic State fought with al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Derna, with senior officials killed on both sides. While there is consistent animosity between most of the respective Libyan extremist groups, there is tremendous animosity towards the Islamic State by groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and the Abu Salim Brigade. Within this fluctuating environment, Belmokhtar was able to find new networks with which to continue his 23 years of violence. Though his death, should it be confirmed, will do little to address the broader chaos in Libya, it will remove a dangerous individual from a crowded battlefield and bring a sense of justice to the families of Belmokhtar’s many victims.


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