WASHINGTON — The United States military carried out an airstrike against Islamic State fighters in southern Libya on Thursday in a reminder of the terrorist group’s continuing operations and resilience far from its main guerrilla strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
The Pentagon’s Africa Command said in a statement on Friday that the strike — which other officials said was carried out by an Air Force Reaper drone based in neighboring Niger — killed eight militants in a compound in Murzuq, Libya, nearly 600 miles south of Tripoli, the capital.
It was the first American airstrike 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 will not allow them to use the current conflict in Libya as protection,” Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the head of the Africa Command, said in statement, noting that the strike was coordinated with the Libyan government in Tripoli.
Counterterrorism analysts inside and outside the government have pointed to recent signs of the Islamic State gathering new strength in Iraq and Syria, after American-backed campaigns recaptured territory that made up the group’s religious state, or caliphate. The group’s far-flung affiliates — in places like West Africa, Libya and the Philippines — have also demonstrated resilient insurgent operations.
“The strike serves to remind us that while ISIS and Al Qaeda are not at the forefront of the fighting in Libya these days, these groups still remain a threat to Libya, neighboring countries and the international community,” said Bill Roggio, the editor of The Long War Journal, a website run by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that tracks military strikes against militant groups.
American counterterrorism operations in southern Libya entered a new phase when a military drone strike in March 2018 killed a top recruiter and logistics specialist for Al Qaeda’s branch in northwest Africa. That attack killed two militants, including one identified by American officials as Musa Abu Dawud, a high-ranking official in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Until that strike, the Pentagon had focused its counterterrorism strikes in Libya almost exclusively on Islamic State fighters and operatives farther north. Over several months in 2016, the military conducted nearly 500 airstrikes in the coastal city of Surt to destroy the Islamic State’s stronghold there.
Drones remain the weapon of choice to attack the militants in Libya. The military launches its MQ-9 Reaper drones from bases in Sicily and in Niamey, Niger’s capital. It is also building a new $110 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, which is much closer to militant hotbeds in southern Libya than the base in Niamey. Initial operations started last month after several delays.
The C.I.A. is broadening its drone operations in the region, moving aircraft to northeastern Niger to hunt Islamist militants in southern Libya. Nigerien and American officials told The New York Times last summer that the C.I.A. had been flying drones on surveillance missions for several months from a corner of a small commercial airport in Dirkou.