The Intercept is out with an article that compiles and cross-references various estimates of how many armed drone strikes the United States has conducted in Libya. The authors assess that the number is somewhere around 550 strikes since 2011, although the authors also note that the U.S. government frequently contradicts itself on drone strike numbers, and the various think tanks and non-profits that keep count also produce varying (although not that disparate) figures.
The Intercept’s count of 550 U.S. drone strikes in Libya over the last seven years is based primarily on five U.S. military sources. The first is a retired Air Force squadron commander who said his unit executed 241 drone strikes out of a U.S. base in Sicily in 2011, when the air campaign in Libya began. The second is an Air Force wing commander based in Nevada who told the audience of the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium that drones conducted approximately 300 strikes in the second half of 2016, when the U.S. was attacking the Libyan city of Sirte to oust Islamic State militants. The third is a 2017 Air Force news story that provided roughly the same figures. The fourth and fifth sources are AFRICOM and Pentagon officials, who confirmed that 11 strikes carried out in Libya during the Trump administration involved remotely piloted aircraft.
The Intercept article also builds on a new report from the New America Foundation and Airwars that counts 2,158 airstrikes (manned and unmanned) by “at least four foreign countries and three domestic Libyan factions” between September 2012 and June 10, 2018. The New America/Airwars report focuses heavily on civilian casualties, an area where the U.S. government figures and the independent estimates are quite different.
In any case, what stood out to me from the Intercept’s article is that figure about drone strikes in Sirte, where the Islamic State exercised substantial control beginning in early 2015. U.S. airstrikes in 2016 were supporting Operation Bunyan Marsus under the auspices of Libya’s Government of National Accord, which succeeded in largely expelling the Islamic State from Sirte by December 2016.
It’s become a stock phrase of mine in presentations and a few current paper drafts to say that when jihadists control territory, particularly urban territory, it is only a matter of time before more powerful actors line up to expel them from that territory – see Mosul, Gao/Timbuktu/Kidal, Damboa, Mogadishu, etc. I still think that’s true, but the Sirte campaign shows just how many resources those other actors sometimes need to mobilize. Operation Bunyan Marsus lasted from May 2016 to December 2016. AFRICOM’s “Operation Odyssey Lightning,” targeting the Islamic State in Sirte, ran from 1 August 2016 to 19 August 2016 and entailed “495 precision airstrikes against Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers and fighting positions.”
The Intercept adds
Of those 495 strikes, more than 60 percent — approximately 300 — were carried out by MQ-9 Reapers, with the balance conducted by manned Marine Corps aircraft flown from Navy ships off Libya’s coast, according to Col. Case Cunningham, the commander of the 432nd Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the headquarters of the Air Force’s RPA operations.
That’s a lot of strikes. And to me, the immediate inference is that the Islamic State must have enjoyed some significant popular support in Sirte. Other sources suggest a similar conclusion. The reasons are too complicated to fully examine here, but a crude version would posit that in Sirte, Muammar Qadhafi’s hometown (of sorts), the Islamic State assembled a coalition that was unhappy with the 2011 revolution’s aftermath, including tribes (Qadhadhfa), local jihadists (Ansar al-Sharia defectors), former regime loyalists, people aggrieved by the conduct of Misratan militias who wrested Sirte from regime control, etc. Here is one journalist’s account (Arabic) from February 2015:
[In 2011] I saw Qadhafi’s green flags in Sirte, and in Neighborhood Number 2, the biggest of the city’s neighborhoods that became famous for its legendary endurance against the forces of Misrata. Whoever goes now to that neighborhood will find the black flags of ‘the Islamic State’ having replaced Qadhafi’s green flags.
The Islamic State in Libya had a significant foreign contingent, including hundreds of Tunisian fighters and a handful of prominent leaders from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the mashriq. But to control Sirte and to hold parts of it for as long as they did against major firepower, they must have had some significant local support.
Now, I want to be careful with arguments like this – I am not saying that ordinary Muslims, in Libya or elsewhere, are crypto-jihadists, eager to raise the black flags whenever they get half a chance. That would be morally offensive and analytically wrong.
I am saying that the way analysts and policymakers talk about jihadism often discounts local agency. There were very particular circumstances in Sirte that facilitated whatever popular support the Islamic State found or built there, but I think analysts (including me!) have more work to do in figuring out why ordinary people in those very particular circumstances might support jihadist projects. A lot of the existing analytical paradigms – “they’re rational actors,” “they’re radicalized,” “jihadists exploit local chaos” – don’t really cut it for me anymore.