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Tracking drone strikes can be confusing, so much so that even the U.S. military has difficulty accurately tallying them. Since last fall, the Trump administration has carried out 18 airstrikes in Libya, according to official U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) press releases and confirmed media reports, but only 11 according to an AFRICOM spokesperson. Before a congressional committee in March, even AFRICOM’s own chief, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, provided an incorrect count of airstrikes in Libya in 2016. Changes in how strikes are defined and counted, a refusal to provide information on the aircraft used and where they originate from, and new Trump administration policies limiting disclosures of attacks have made already opaque operations even more secretive and difficult to track.
“Probably very few people outside the U.S. government are even aware the U.S. is fighting in Libya, let alone conducting hundreds of lethal drone strikes there. And the U.S. seems to be quite selective about which strikes it publicizes and which it doesn’t,” said Daphne Eviatar, director of security with human rights at Amnesty International USA. “Because these are unmanned aircraft that are launched remotely from bases abroad, it’s very easy for the U.S. to keep these operations secret if it chooses to. And we’re seeing increasingly that, especially outside acknowledged areas of armed conflict such as Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has been operating in secret and not even sharing publicly the rules or legal framework it’s operating under.”
Libya — subject to U.S. military interventions since 1804 and the site of the world’s first modern airstrike, by an Italian pilot, in 1911 — found itself in America’s crosshairs again a century later. During the short-lived Operation Odyssey Dawn and the NATO mission that succeeded it, Operation Unified Protector, the U.S. military and eight other air forces flew sorties against the military of then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, leading to his bloody demise and the end of his regime. It also became the end of the Libyan State itself, previously the wealthiest African nation before the NATO intervention, which had provided the Libyan people with a high standard of living equivalent to that of the Netherlands.
Since 2012, the United States, three other countries, and three Libyan armed factions have continued air operations there, conducting at least 2,158 airstrikes, including drone attacks, according to “Air Strikes and Civilian Casualties in Libya,” a report released Wednesday by New America, a Washington-based think tank, and Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group. The report estimates that the attacks killed between 242 and 392 noncombatants from 2012 to 2018, and injured as many as 524. “Hundreds of civilians have been killed by all parties to this very complex conflict in Libya, and none of them are taking responsibility,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars. “All of them are off the leash — often bombing without any accountability.”
AFRICOM stresses that it complies with the laws of war and takes “all feasible precautions during the targeting process to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage.” A Department of Defense analysis released last month found “no credible reports of civilian casualties resulting from U.S. strikes in Libya in 2017.”
“I don’t think AFRICOM has ever admitted a civilian harm event in Libya, including during the 2011 NATO campaign,” Woods said. “The U.S. is not taking responsibility where harm does occur, but neither is any other belligerent, foreign or domestic.”
New America and Airwars found that reported civilian deaths from airstrikes in Libya are fewer than in other war zones, like Syria and Yemen. U.S. attacks in Libya, for example, have resulted in 10 to 20 civilian fatalities, with as many as 54 additional civilian deaths attributable to strikes of possible U.S. origin, according to their research. Attacks by the Libyan National Army, led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, resulted in 95 to 172 noncombatant deaths — the highest reported number for any belligerent.
The toll of some attacks is still in dispute. A U.S. drone strike in Libya on June 6, for example, killed four “ISIS-Libya militants,” according to AFRICOM. AFRICOM “performed a thorough review and determined the allegations of civilian casualties to be not credible,” according to a statement released Wednesday. The Libya Observer and the Libyan Foundation for Human Rights, however, reported that only one of the dead was a militant and that the others were civilians.
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, Italy 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 more than 550 drone attacks in Libya since 2011 exceed the number of airstrikes since 2001 in Somalia, Yemen, or Pakistan. Between 2001 and 2011, the United States built up its drone forces and developed a framework for employing RPAs in combat. Since then, Libya has served as a laboratory for new tactics and a proving ground for the next era of drone warfare.
U.S. engagement in Libya began in 2011, when the so-called Arab Spring uprisings swept across the Middle East, imperiling autocrats from Tunisia to Bahrain. On March 25, 2011, the Air Force’s 324th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron and its MQ-1 Predator drones began operating from Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. Less than a month later, the U.S. military confirmed its first drone strike in Libya — an attack on a Gaddafi regime military target near the city of Misrata.
For the next six months, U.S. drones flying from the Italian air base stalked the skies above the north African nation, conducting a campaign of previously under-reported size and scope. “Our Predators shot 243 Hellfire missiles in the six months of OUP, over 20 percent of the total of all Hellfires expended in the 14 years of the system’s deployment,” retired Lt. Col. Gary Peppers, the commander of the 324th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron during Operation Unified Protector, told The Intercept. When OUP ended in October 2011, Peppers noted, fewer than 1,200 Hellfire missiles had been fired by U.S. RPAs across the entire world, including in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Peppers recalled that the 243 missiles fired constituted 241 individual strikes. Neither the Pentagon, AFRICOM, nor U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa could corroborate Peppers’s figures.
After Gaddafi’s overthrow and death on October 20, 2011, Libya collapsed into chaos and militia-fueled insecurity, allowing terrorist groups to flourish and the so-called Islamic State to take over the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte. By early 2013, the Italian government provided “a temporary authorization to deploy additional U.S. assets at the Sigonella base,” including MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, the larger and more lethal cousin of the Predator, according to a report prepared by the foreign policy think tank CeSI for Italy’s parliament and ministries of defense and foreign affairs.
After several years of limited activity, the U.S. air war in Libya accelerated in 2016 with Operation Odyssey Lightning. That summer, the fledgling post-Gaddafi regime — the Libyan Government of National Accord, or GNA — asked for American help in dislodging ISIS fighters from Sirte. The Obama administration designated the city an “area of active hostilities,” loosening guidelines designed to prevent civilian casualties and allowing the U.S. military a freer hand in carrying out airstrikes.
“I only asked for U.S. airstrikes which must be surgical and limited in time and geographical scope, always carried out in coordination with us,” GNA Prime Minister Fayez Serraj told Italy’s Corriere della Sera in late summer 2016.
Between August and December 2016, according to a statement from AFRICOM, the U.S. carried out “495 precision airstrikes against Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers, and fighting positions” in Sirte. Then, in March, Waldhauser, the AFRICOM chief, told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. actually “conducted over 500 strikes” during the operation.
AFRICOM spokesperson Samantha Reho clarified Walhauser’s numbers, telling The Intercept that while there were “some subsequent strikes in some desert camps in Libya on January 18, 2017 … 495 is the correct number for the [Odyssey Lightning] campaign.”
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 really significant number,” said Chris Woods of Airwars. “That’s 300 drone strikes on Sirte in just five months. That is a fierce tempo compared to other drone conflicts the United States has been involved in.” The use of drones in Sirte was more intense than across Iraq and Syria during a comparable period of time, Woods added: “This was a significant number of resources focused on a small area.”
Sirte became ground zero for testing new concepts of urban combat involving multiple drones working in sync with indigenous forces and U.S. special operators. “Some of the tactics were created and some of the persistent attack capabilities that hadn’t been used widely before were developed because of this operation,” one of the drone pilots involved in Odyssey Lightning said in an Air Force news release. According to Cunningham, about 70 percent of the Reaper strikes were close air support missions to back up local GNA forces engaged in street-to-street fighting. The drones often worked in tandem with one another, as well as with Marine Corps helicopters and jets, with the drones helping to guide the conventional aircraft as they attacked, Cunningham said.
Cunningham’s statistics were also published by the Air Force in 2017. Again, neither the Pentagon, AFRICOM, nor USAFE-AFAFRICA could corroborate Cunningham’s figures.
Cunningham explained that the ability of MQ-9s to loiter for many hours overhead allowed the U.S. to “find, fix, track, target, and engage in a very low — single-digit — number of minutes with extremely high precision,” and that it was “not unheard of to see times of less than one minute from a target-find to weapons-effects.” AFRICOM estimated that 800 to 900 ISIS fighters were killed during Operation Odyssey Lightning, according to Long War Journal, but Cunningham said that not one allegation of a civilian casualty due to U.S. strikes surfaced. New America and Airwars, however, found reports of civilian deaths due to U.S. attacks on Sirte.
Waldhauser told Congress that Odyssey Lightning “can serve as a model for future U.S. operations in the region.” But he admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year that expelling ISIS from its stronghold in Sirte and general disorganization among terrorist groups have “not translated into a stable Libya.” Despite hundreds of airstrikes in support of the GNA and $635 million in U.S. assistance since 2011, Libya is one of the most fragile states on earth, deemed so dangerous that its U.S. Embassy is located in neighboring Tunisia. “Libya remains politically and militarily divided, with loyalties shifting based on tribal interests and personalities involved in the struggle for power,” said Waldhauser. “Given this turmoil, the risk of a full-scale civil war remains real.”
In July 2016, just before Odyssey Lightning commenced, the Obama administration issued a report acknowledging 473 drone strikes by the “U.S. Government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities” between January 2009 and December 2015. The report noted that “areas of active hostilities” in that seven-year period included Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but didn’t state which other countries might have met that definition and when. By December 2016, those three war zones had been joined by “certain portions of Libya.” But within a month, Libya had been removed from the list.
At the same time, a number of organizations that track drone strikes, as well as news outlets, offered up estimates of how many such attacks the outgoing president had overseen, all of them focused on countries that were far from any traditional American battlefields. USA Today reported “at least 526” drone strikes during the Obama years. The Council on Foreign Relations cited “542 drone strikes that … killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism came up with “563 strikes, largely by drones, [that] targeted Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen … compared to 57 strikes under [President George W.] Bush.”
The 541 drone strikes in Libya during the Obama years, therefore, equal or possibly exceed the number of attacks carried out in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen at the same time.
“These drone strike numbers are shockingly high and not widely known,” Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, told The Intercept. “They underscore that the Obama administration’s record on transparency about its use of lethal force abroad was deeply inadequate.”
When it comes to analyzing drone strikes, Libya apparently fell through the cracks. RPA attacks go largely uncounted in designated “areas of active hostilities,” which included Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria — and, at times, Libya — under Obama. With already limited media and NGO resources focused on countries like Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, few noticed as Libya became one of the most targeted nations on earth.
The situation in regard to “areas of active hostilities” has become even more muddled today.
Daphne Eviatar of Amnesty International USA notes that while it has been reported that the Trump administration has loosened restrictions on drone strikes outside armed conflict zones — Libya among them — the government has refused to publicly acknowledge this shift in policy.
“When it complied with the congressional mandate to report on changes to its legal framework earlier this year, the bulk of the information, including any changes in the rules on who can be targeted and protection of civilians, was classified,” said Eviatar. “That was a huge step backward from the Obama administration, which, after years of its own secrecy, in 2016 finally did at least explain the legal and policy framework it was operating under.”
“Strikes and counterterrorism operations are conducted under authorities provided by Congress in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and in accordance with international law,” Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokesperson, told The Intercept. “There is no additional or specific information on authorities that are publicly available.”
“I do not see a role in Libya,” said President Donald Trump last April. “I think the United States has, right now, enough roles.”
And for the first eight months of the Trump administration, there were no acknowledged U.S. drone strikes. But last fall, that changed. Three days of attacks in September, two in October, and two in November were followed by strikes this year in January and March. Two more strikes this month bring the total to 18 airstrikes, according to AFRICOM press releases and confirmed media reports. The command has, however, officially redefined these 18 attacks to 11 strikes in order “to better align with AFRICOM’s internal operational reporting,” spokesperson Samantha Reho told The Intercept.
Referencing a September 24, 2017, press release that noted that U.S. forces had conducted “six precision airstrikes in Libya” two days earlier, Reho explained that the command now “counts that incident as one strike with six separate engagements, whereas we initially wrote it as six strikes.” An AFRICOM official, speaking on background, claimed that the higher counts were a “blunder” and the command changed policies after realizing that the numbers reported to Congress did not match those being released to the public.
AFRICOM’s change in how it defines and counts airstrikes comes at a time when the Trump administration has sought to keep such information under wraps. In a break from past policy, AFRICOM no longer proactively announces attacks in Libya, increasingly offering comment about airstrikes only when questioned. According to New America and Airwars, less than 50 percent of reported airstrikes by all parties to the conflict are officially declared, and the United States is the most transparent. But the bar is set very low. The U.S. military refuses, for example, to provide even basic information about acknowledged attacks. “We usually don’t disclose which bases and aircraft are involved and where they originate from for strikes,” Klinkel, the Pentagon spokesperson, told The Intercept.
“President Obama left a legacy of expansive claims of war authority without congressional authorization in multiple parts of the world, with lethal strike and civilian casualty counts largely shrouded in secrecy until the end of his administration,” said Shamsi of the ACLU. “That legacy is now in the hands of President Trump, who is using it to the detriment of our system of checks and balances, the transparency needed for democratic accountability, and meaningful recognition of harm to civilians.”
* This article was automatically syndicated and expanded from The Intercept.