The heightened American counterterrorism operations in southern Libya come against the backdrop of a four-year civil war being fought in the north, a fight in which Russia is now pushing far more directly to shape the outcome.
At least in southern Libya, the recent drone strikes have put ISIS on the defensive. “The group has not conducted attacks, even in its usual area of operations in the center and southwest, since the strikes,” said Emily Estelle, research manager of the American Enterprise Institute’s critical threats project in Washington.
In news releases, the Africa Command cited airstrikes on Sept. 19, 24, 26 and 29 that it said killed a total of 43 militants. The command said, for instance, that the strike on Sept. 19 killed eight ISIS fighters in a compound in Murzuq, Libya, nearly 600 miles south of Tripoli, Libya’s capital. Five days later, the military said it killed 11 more fighters in an airstrike in the same area.
Social media reports in Libya said that among the militants targeted in the strikes was Malik Khazmi, a major ISIS facilitator and recruiter from Bani Walid. Africa Command officials declined to confirm whether Mr. Khazmi had been among the top ISIS fighters killed.
Independent security analysts said that Mr. Khazmi had been an important ISIS recruiter and architect of its clandestine fighter networks since 2014, surfacing in pivotal combat areas like Darnah, Tripoli and Surt, before fleeing into the southern desert.
Taken together, the four missile attacks were the first American airstrikes this year in Libya against Islamic State or Qaeda fighters, after the military conducted six aerial attacks last year, most recently in November 2018.
“We need to make sure we look at ungoverned spaces where versions of ISIS can pop up,” Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, the commander of United States air forces in Europe and Africa, said in an interview at his headquarters at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. “We’re doing good work down there, pressuring them.”