WASHINGTON — The U.S. military will keep an unspecified number of ground troops in Libya to help friendly forces further degrade the Islamic State faction there, and officials are seeking new leeway to target al Qaida loyalists in Somalia, the top commander overseeing operations in Africa said Friday.
"We're going to maintain a force that has the ability to develop intelligence, work with various groups as required, or be able to assist if required ... to take out ISIS targets," said Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command. Speaking to media at the Pentagon, he indicated also the ISIS presence in coastal Libya has fallen below 200 from an estimated 5,000 or 6,000 only a year ago.
The region no longer appears to be a "backup plan" for foreign fighters unable to join the the Islamic State's primary fight in Syria and Iraq, he added. That's due in large part to an intense four-month air campaign led by U.S. Marines operating from Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Between August and December, their attack aircraft flew nearly 700 missions in support of Libyan militias battling ISIS militants in Sirte.
The last major U.S. operation in Libya occurred during mid-January, when American warplanes unleashed a massive attack on two Islamic State training camps, killing an estimated 80 militants who had fled the group's crumbling stronghold. The strike was enabled, Waldhauser said, by U.S. personnel who'd spent several weeks coordinating face-to-face with allies to ensure there would be no collateral damage.
"When you conduct precision airstrike, close-air support operations in an urban environment with the requirements to not have civilian casualties, with the requirements to be careful about infrastructure, destruction and the like, you can't do an operation like that without somebody on the ground to interface," the general added.