Last week the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied carrying out an airstrike targeting al-Qaeda in southwest Libya despite the internationally recognized regime in Tripoli insisting they had involved their American colleagues in a joint attack.
The spokesperson for the chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya said on Wednesday that a site with a number of al-Qaeda militants in Ubari, southwestern Libya, was raided by joint U.S.-Libyan forces. According to The Libya Observer, “Mohammed El Sallak [of the Government of National Accord] declined to give further details but said the airstrike was conducted within the joint cooperation between the Presidential Council and the United States to fight terrorism. The airstrike coincided with the meeting of Foreign Minister Mohamed Sayala with his American counterpart Mike Pompeo at the Global Coalition To Defeat Daesh meeting last week.”
It’s unusual for the Libyan government to make such a statement before the U.S. does. AFRICOM, which frequently acknowledges their airstrikes in Libya, insisted they had no part in the operation. The contradiction was quickly picked up by the opposition of the GNA and used as further evidence of its incompetence, though airstrikes have gone unclaimed in Libya in the past. Some have claimed the contradictory messages suggest a cover-up by the U.S. or the GNA. Officials from the GNA referring to the airstrike as a cooperative effort between the U.S. and the Presidential Council, rather than mentioning AFRICOM explicitly, adds to the confusion.
In recent weeks, the GNA’s rival, the Libyan National Army (LNA), has taken over large portions of Libya’s southern region, including the country’s largest oil field, facing only slight resistance. Seeking to project a picture of strength and confidence upon a region overrun by radical militias and economic hardship, the LNA’s public relations efforts have been kicked into overdrive. They’ve published striking images of senior officers being flown in and its chief spokesman holding negotiations with tribal dignitaries.
The LNA also established a no-fly zone on the region. It’s possible the U.S. did not wish to openly admit involvement in the airstrike given that it would have violated the no-fly zone. In light of the LNA’s recent successful operations, it’s also possible the GNA wanted to claim responsibility for the attack immediately in order to give the impression the U.S. is still in support of their administration rather than their rival’s.
Another alternative argument is that an entirely different foreign party carried out the strike. France has carried out airstrikes in Libya in the past, though they’ve been in the south, targeting Chadian rebels. Southwest Libya is a renowned place for radicals to base themselves—al-Qaeda in particular. Perhaps France was running cross-border operations in Libya to stem the flow of weapons and fighters in Mali.