Exclusive: U.S. Strikes Hit Suspected ISIS-Al Qaeda Gathering
Supposed rival extremists were together when the U.S. tried to take out an infamous jihadi chieftain. So just how much are ISIS and al Qaeda really at odds?
A weekend volley of U.S. airstrikes on a farmhouse in eastern Libya didn’t just target a notorious, one-eyed al Qaeda leader. Mokhtar Belmokhtar—nicknamed “the Uncatchable”—was gathered together with a “Star Wars bar” of al Qaeda and ISIS members, a senior administration official tells The Daily Beast.
“He was meeting with more than 20 locals and core al Qaeda and ISIL members,” the official said, using an alternate acronym for the terror group. “He was apparently trying to bring them together,” to get the disparate militant groups to cooperate, the official added, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss sensitive operation publicly.
The jihadi gathering—and subsequent attack on that get-together—highlighted how close on-the-ground ties are between the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s affiliate in Libya and militants in the North African nation aligned with its supposed rival, al Qaeda. It’s one of numerous instances in past year of ISIS and al Qaeda foot-soldiers moving closer to one another when it serves both their purposes. From Syria to Paris, members of the two extremist outfits, bitter enemies at the top levels, are forming ad hoc tactical alliances.
The farmhouse struck by the U.S. was 12 miles from the town of Ajdabiya. The house was frequented by militants from supposedly competing groups, including members of a militia implicated in the 2012 assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, security officials in Libya told The Daily Beast. They spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to describe the operation publicly.
On Sunday the Pentagon announced that the U.S. had mounted its first airstrike in Libya since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising against the country’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Officials said the main target of the strike was the militant leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar—the mastermind behind the deadly attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria in 2013 that left 38 hostages dead.
The strike was carried out by two F-15 fighter jets that launched multiple 500-pound bombs in the attack, as first reported by The Associated Press and confirmed by a Pentagon official Monday.
The White House declined requests for comment Monday on the suspected presence of al Qaeda and ISIS fighters meeting together.
It remains unclear whether the one-eyed jihadi militant was killed. Officials with the internationally recognized Libyan government now based in the eastern towns of Tobruk and Beida say the infamously elusive militant was killed. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said the outcome of the strike on the farmhouse—owned by a local luminary of Ansar al-Sharia, the militia involved in the storming of the U.S. mission in Benghazi—is still being assessed.
Washington has good reason to be careful in announcing Belmokhtar’s death. The terror leader’s demise has been reported—and retracted—before. The most credible account came in March 2013 when Chad’s president announced the veteran jihadist leader had been killed by his forces in northern Mali. The 43-year-old Belmokhtar, also known as Khaled Abou El Abbas, is thought to have survived an assassination attempt in Qasr Ben Gashir in northwestern Libya last year. A militant spokesman Monday once again denied Belmoktar had been killed.
No U.S. ground forces personnel took part in the weekend attack, the senior Obama administration official said, and while U.S. officials hope the Libyan security forces might be able to extract DNA samples from the scene, it’s a long shot.
“We’d have to figure out who everyone was and deconflict,” the DNA matter, because of the number of people and the destructive power of the missiles used, the official added. That may be beyond the Libyan security forces’ ability in an area that’s hard for them to reach safely.
According to locals in Ajdabiya contacted by email and Skype, at least seven militants were killed in the airstrike. More militants were killed when anti-jihad locals shot at them as they tried to take the wounded from the U.S. air strike to a local hospital for treatment. The locals say most of those killed in the air strike and the subsequent firefight appeared to be members of Ansar al-Sharia, whose militants have been fighting alongside the Islamic State in Benghazi.
Last week, according to local media, a prominent Ansar al-Sharia leader in the eastern city of Derna swore allegiance to ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Belmokhtar was part pirate and part jihadist. He made a name for himself as far back as the 1990s as a successful cigarette smuggler in the Sahel, earning himself the nickname “Marlboro Man.” An Algerian native with a storied two-decade history of armed militancy, Belmokhtar was one of the leading figures of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but was overlooked for promotion. After being repeatedly reprimanded by al Qaeda for failing to follow orders, he broke away partially from the terror group's franchise, forming a group called the “Signed in Blood” battalion. Almost immediately after standing up the group, it launched a series of deadly terror attacks and took over BP refineries in Algeria.
Even so, the Algerian-born Belmokhtar did not renounce his allegiance to al Qaeda, according to Andrew Black, who wrote a study on Belmokhtar for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington D.C.—based think tank.
In recent months he was spotted in Sirte—the coastal Libyan town that was overrun last month by ISIS fighters. He has been suspected of running training camps in Libya and there were reports in 2012 that he had visited Tripoli.
President Barack Obama had approved putting Belmoktar’s name on the Defense Department’s “kill capture” list after he was indicted back in 2013 in the death of the three Americans in the gas plant attack, but Obama needed to be consulted again to sign off on this strike.
“It had been approved quite a while ago,” the senior administration official said. “You delegate authority under certain criteria. If the criteria changes—different location or number of people on target, then it goes back to the boss and he makes decision on whether to accept it. It was rapid,” approved within hours of it reaching the White House.
The government in Beida issued a statement that said that the U.S. had consulted with it in advance of the airstrike. The senior Obama administration confirmed the claim, saying, “the government of Libya was consulted and gave direct support.”
Libya is divided between two rival governments. The one in Beida is calling for more international help to fight jihadi groups.
While American officials were hopeful the strike marked an intelligence coup, they said Belmokhtar’s potential death would do little to limit Libya’s rampant violence.
“If he is indeed dead, we believe it will be a significant blow to his cell however Libya remains a state of significant unrest,” a senior defense official said.
Locals in Ajdabiya says fighters from ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia, which has been linked with al Qaeda, have tended to mix in recent months and an assortment of jihadis have been spotted guarding checkpoints.
While some in the Obama administration were skeptical that ISIS and al Qaeda allies were mingling in Ajdabiya, security officials from both rival governments in Libya say the recent mixed jihadi meetings at the farmhouse are suspected to have focused on a likely twin offensive using Sirte and Ajdabiya to push into the heart of the Sirte Basin, which contains about 80 percent of Libya’s proven oil resources. In recent weeks fighters from both ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia and allied groups have mounted several attacks on the Sirte Basin’s oil fields.
With its recent success in seizing Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, the gravitational pull within the jihadi world in Libya seems to be in the Islamic State’s favor. In a recent study for the Hudson Institute, a U.S. think tank, analyst Aaron Zelin argued that ISIS is gaining clout because of the perception it “is winning, has momentum, and is the ‘cool’ jihadi group.”
-- with additional reporting by Nancy A. Youssef