US kills IS leader in Libya airstrikes

US air strikes on Islamic State strongholds in coastal cities of Derna and Sirte on Friday heighten tensions • Claims it killed IS leader

ISIS fighters parading in Libya's coastal city of Sirte
ISIS fighters parading in Libya's coastal city of Sirte

A day after reportedly killing “Jihadi John” in Syria, the Pentagon yesterday announced it had killed the top ISIS operative in Libya, Wisam al Zubaidi.

The Pentagon announced Saturday that a U.S. air strike killed the leader of ISIS in Libya Abu Nabil, aka Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi. The US Air Force has launched a series of air strikes against Islamic State positions in Libya, marking the first American intervention against the Islamist group outside of Syria and Iraq.

This is not the first time ISIS have been the target of air strikes in Libya but the latest attacks came hours after EU and African Union leaders met in Malta to iron out a deal on migration. 

According to two senior US administration officials the US targeted a top ISIS leader in an air strike on Friday. Among others, F-15 fighter jets targeted an Iraqi national who once led al Qaeda operations along the Fallujah-Ramadi corridor, from 2004 until 2010, the US news website The Daily Beast reported.

The location of the attack is not yet clear but it is thought that the attack happened in Sirte, which is a mere 560km away from Malta.

The Iraqi moved to eastern Libya to lead ISIS operations there, and while it is believed that the intended target was killed, the US military did not confirm whether he is dead.

Pentagon claims IS leader killed

US officials said the strikes in Libya are unrelated to the series of terror attacks that took place across Paris on Friday.

The Pentagon said the strike demonstrated that it would “go after ISIS leaders wherever they operate.”

Friday’s air strikes signify a new chapter in the US fight against ISIS, which has set foot in the North African country after taking control of large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria.

Islamic State fighters have filled the vacuum created by the ongoing violence in Libya, which is home to some 1,500 armed groups and two rival governments vying for control of the country’s territory and vast oil reserves.

ISIS fighters have taken control of deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte and the coastal city of Derna. Security sources in Tripoli estimate Islamic State has at least 500 fighters inside Sirte, and numbers are growing thanks to the arrival of foreign recruits.

The group’s presence in Libya caught the world’s attention in January, when it carried out a bomb attack that killed 10 people in the Maltese-owned Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli.

A month later, ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach, prompting Cairo to launch air strikes in response.

Islamic State also claimed responsibility for two attacks carried out by Tunisian gunmen trained in Libya against foreign tourists at a hotel in Sousse and the Bardo museum in Tunis earlier this year.

Although news out of Sirte is hard to verify, Islamic State fighters have reportedly imposed Sharia law in the city, carrying out punishments such as crucifixions and public floggings.

Taking over city institutions and banks, Islamic State forces merchants and shopkeepers to pay a tax that would normally go to the state, and an Islamic court is in place.

Barbers are banned from shaving off beards and smoking Shisha pipes in cafes has been stopped. Female students have been forced to wear one-piece robes.

A former bank employee and other residents said the local Islamic State organisation appeared to be struggling to manage the city financially. Prices of local goods are rising and other products are disappearing.

Twice in the last month, though, residents in Sirte say they saw unidentified warplanes attacking districts controlled by Islamic State.

Despite its successes in the country, ISIS does face challenges in Libya. Virtually all of Libya’s Muslims are Sunni, meaning the country doesn’t have the same sectarian tension found in Iraq and Syria, which ISIS has used to its advantage.

It also faces stiff competition from other longstanding Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda.

Corinthia Hotel attack

It was already known that ISIS adherents had proclaimed Derna as part of the caliphate in late 2014, but the attack of February 2015 on the Corinthia Hotel was a major manifestation of typical ISIS tactics: sending suicide bombers gunning down innocent people in a hotel lobby.

On that day, ISIS claimed that the Corinthia attack an operation to avenge the death of al Qaeda suspect Nazih al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi, in a US hospital in January. Libi, an alleged former al Qaeda operative, was snatched by the CIA in 2013 in Libya, for his alleged role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Those two bombings killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured thousands more.

Early in January, Libi died at the age of 50 in a New York hospital of complications from liver surgery as he was waiting to stand trial. His son Abdullah’s raucous display of outrage, surrounded by Islamic State flags, on the return of his father’s body could have portended the attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, which houses diplomats and security contractors.

“Let Obama know that our appointment with him will be in front of Allah,” Abdullah al Ruqai is seen telling journalists angrily, in a YouTube video, on his father’s death. “I won’t forgive anyone who participated in the kidnapping of my father even if it was by mere words.”