Daesh militants
Image Credit: AFP file

Washington: For the third time in a week, the US military carried out an air strike on Thursday against Daesh fighters in southern Libya amid indications the terrorist group was seeking to exploit the country’s civil strife to increase its recruiting.

The Pentagon’s Africa Command said in a statement Friday that the strike - which other officials said was carried out by an Air Force Reaper drone based in neighbouring Niger - killed 17 militants in an unidentified location in southwest Libya.

The strike was the latest in a flurry of attacks in a largely ungoverned portion of the country. Earlier, the Africa Command said that on September 19, an air strike killed eight Daesh fighters in a compound in Murzuq, Libya, nearly 600 miles south of Tripoli, the capital. Five days later, the military said it killed 11 more fighters in an air strike in the same area.

Taken together, the three missile attacks were the first US air strikes this year in Libya against Daesh or Al Qaida fighters, after the military conducted six aerial attacks last year, most recently in November 2018.

Nathan Herring, a spokesman for the Africa Command at its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, declined to provide further details about the latest strike, saying analysts were still assessing its results.

Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya,” cited social media reports in Libya saying that the strikes had targeted Malik Khazmi, a major Daesh facilitator and recruiter from Bani Walid.

Wehrey, who last visited Libya in June, said that Khazmi had been an important Daesh recruiter and architect of its clandestine fighter networks since 2014, surfacing in pivotal combat areas like Derna, Tripoli and Sirte, before fleeing into the southern desert.

Until a drone strike against Al Qaida fighters in southern Libya in March 2018, the Pentagon had focused its counterterrorism attacks in the country almost exclusively on Daesh fighters and operatives farther north. Over several months in 2016, the military conducted nearly 500 air strikes in the coastal city of Sirte to destroy Daesh’s stronghold there.

Many Daesh leaders, like Khazmi, fled south before the fall of Sirte, and from there have been trying to exploit the country’s security vacuum and civil strife to increase recruiting and reconstitute an effective guerrilla force, analysts said.

Wehrey cautioned that in the remote and politically fractured landscape of southern Libya, the line between who is a militant or terrorist or militiaman is frequently blurred, and there is the potential for these strikes to err and inflame ethnic and tribal tensions.

“There’s been collateral damage in the past,” he said.