Last Monday, the Department of Defense held a press conference in which Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook disclosed to reporters that the United States military – at the request of the officially recognized governing body of Libya, the Government of National Accord (GNA) – has begun a campaign of precision airstrikes on ISIL targets inside the northern city of Sirte.
“GNA-aligned forces have had success in recapturing territory from ISIL thus far around Sirte,” Cook stated at the briefing, “and additional U.S. strikes will continue to target ISIL in Sirte in order to enable to GNA to make a decisive, strategic advance.”
The GNA is the interim government created by the U.N. and installed back in March in an effort to combat the instability, infighting – both political and military – and all-around chaos that have engulfed Libya in the years following the US intervention in 2011.
That intervention resulted in the death of leader Muammar Gaddafi and forced his family to flee to neighboring regions. One son, however, was captured by rebels in the southern desert of Libya. He was subsequently convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by a Tripoli court.
But none of that is news. Gaddafi’s reign is long over and his son was sentenced over a year ago. As for the turmoil within Libya, it continues unabated, but with no major shifts to report on – save for one.
A WEAKENING ISIL IN LIBYA
Two weeks ago, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford – one of the two men who recommended Monday’s airstrikes against ISIL – stated at a press conference he is “encouraged by developments” regarding ISIL in Libya.
He went even further, however:
“I don’t think that there’s any doubt that the Islamic State in Libya is weaker than it was some months ago; there’s no question about it.”
Additionally, he stated that ISIL’s numbers in Sirte – the very city targeted in the recent airstrikes – have been reduced to just a few hundred.
Given this information, some reporters at Monday’s press briefing felt obliged to ask a very simple question: Why now?
“Could you give us a sense of ‘Why now?,’” one journalist asked Press Secretary Cook, further inquiring as to whether there was “something critical about Sirte right now that the airstrikes could be a game changer?”
Cook responded: “I think what’s changed right now is the specific requests we got from the GNA.”
Which doesn’t answer the question.
Cook would give similarly deflective answers to similarly direct questions regarding timing throughout the briefing. Worse, he refused to divulge details about how those requests were being vetted by the US before agreeing to strike.
LEGAL AUTHORIZATION FOR THE STRIKES
The airstrikes were approved by President Obama, Cook said, and came at the recommendation of Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman Dunford.
When asked about the legal authority under which the strikes are being conducted, Cook cited the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), a resolution passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, which gave then-President Bush broad discretion in how he went after those responsible for the attack.
But the AUMF, which allows the president to sidestep the War Powers Resolution and send the military into other countries without congressional consent, has come under heavy fire from adherents to the Constitution. It was the AUMF that greenlit the Iraq War in 2003, for instance – not a declaration of war from Congress, as the Constitution requires.
Since that time, the resolution has been repeatedly invoked as justification to launch military campaigns in countries throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. Where the terrorists go, so goes the War on Terror, essentially.
In fact, that’s pretty much how Senator Lindsey Graham summed it up during a 2013 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he stated his opinion that “the battlefield is anywhere the enemy chooses to make it.”
As to Monday’s targets, Cook said the airstrikes took out a couple of military vehicles and a tank. This revelation prompted one clearly skeptical reporter to put another common sense question to the press secretary.
“Forgive me for asking a dumb question,” she begins, “but why would taking out a tank and two ISIS vehicles be so critical to the liberation of Sirte that required airstrikes?”
Cook responded with talk about precision and the need to avoid civilian casualties. Which, again, fails to address the root question being asked by the reporters: What’s happening in Libya right now that’s critical enough to require a new campaign of airstrikes?
THE RETURN OF THE SON
While there may be nothing happening on the ground in Libya that would necessitate, of a sudden, US airstrikes – except, puzzlingly, a reduction in the number of ISIL fighters those strikes are meant to take out – something has occurred recently that might have the US biting its nails.
Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif – the one captured and sentenced to death – was, inexplicably, released from prison.
On July 7, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s lawyers told France 24 that the most prominent son of the former Libyan leader had been released in April and was “well and safe and in Libya.”
Saif was considered to be Gaddafi’s likely successor, and had fully backed his father’s stance following the US intervention in 2011. And now that he’s free, Saif wants to “contribute to the political unification of Libya,” one of his attorneys says.
And he has the juice to do it.
Saif, who earned a Ph.D. in global governance from the London School of Economics, was a high society player in England, where he lived before returning to Libya to support his father.
The Guardianwrote in 2011 – just after the Hague named him as war crimes suspect – that Saif “was a magnetic presence for British politicians, bankers and business people who wanted to deal with oil-rich Libya but not with the international pariah his father had become.”
It’s of great significance where this “magnetic” and highly connected favored son has been living since his release. Zintan, the town in southern Libya where he was captured and imprisoned, is also where Saif has been making his home.
But Zintan is also home to one of the two major militia groups within Libya who’ve been battling for years to fill the power vacuum in the fragmented nation. Both Zintan and their rival Misrata refuse – like other political and military factions within Libya – to recognize the U.N.-installed GNA.
Given that the Zintanis fiercely opposed the Gaddafi regime, however, many are questioning the motives behind Saif’s release, and the apparent safe haven given him in Zintan.
Professor Yehudit Ronen, expert on Libya at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, recently spoke to the Jerusalem Post:
“His recent release has aroused discussion in Libya and abroad. Does the Zintan armed militia that released him envisage his return to the center of Libyan political stage?” she said. She further asked if the Zintanis “wish to seize his political charisma, experience and diplomatic talents and connections to gain the upper hand in Libya’s chaotic and violent struggle, which has reached in fact a tragic stalemate?”
So it seems the heir to the leader the US waged a brutal military campaign to oust may be rejoining the game. And, with him apparently wishing to “contribute to the political unification of Libya,” it’s quite possible the US sees these recent events as a potential threat to the GNA, the installed government it wants in power.
Remember, the legal authority used as justification for Monday’s largely ineffectual airstrikes is the AUMF, a resolution that essentially grants the president the power to send the military wherever he wants. So, with ISIL’s influence diminishing in Libya – by Chairman Dunford’s own account – it’s logical to ask if the strikes were less about fighting terrorism and more about establishing the framework for prolonged campaign against another, albeit potential, Gaddafi-led force in Libya.
This article originally appeared on UndergroundReporter.org.