Misrata, Libya (CNN) – It is a tiny, remote aircraft hangar, carved in the Sicilian rock decades ago, but now home to a new and vital front for the United States against ISIS.
U.S. Special Forces and surveillance flights are operating on the ground and over Libya as the West moves to boost security operations in the country to bolster Libya’s increasingly desperate fight against ISIS.
Surveillance flights over the country’s 2,000-kilometer (1,240-mile) coast have been in operation from the remote Sicilian island of Pantelleria for over a year, and Special Forces have recently increased their presence on the ground. Witnesses and Libyan officials told CNN they are in evidence near the city of Misrata, with an estimated dozen soldiers operating out of a base near the city.
The U.S. presence in Libya was acknowledged by Pentagon officials in the past few days, who admitted groups of Special Forces were “meeting a variety of Libyans.” The teams are said to be in action around the capital Tripoli, as well as Misrata and the east of the country.
The U.S. publicly only supports the latest of the three groups who claim the right to govern the country — the Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al-Sarraj and recently installed by the United Nations. But the presence of these Special Forces teams in the strongholds of the other two groups claiming to be the country’s legitimate government shows that America retains wider private contacts.
It is unclear what precisely the U.S. Special Forces’ scope of operations is in Libya, as airstrikes and other attacks have been limited. But they join an increasingly fraught Libyan battle against ISIS, who are now estimated to control about a tenth of the coastline.
CNN joined the Misrata militia along the isolated and dusty road between their stronghold port city and the ISIS bastion of Sirte on a day in which two ISIS suicide attacks, launched using armored cars, pushed the Misratans back at least 29 kilometers (18 miles).
The attacks caused significant damage in the town of Abu Grein, killing about a dozen people and injuring 110, according to lists of casualties posted outside an over-burdened hospital the next morning. The attacks — the worst ISIS have launched in months — caused Misrata to declare a state of emergency.
ISIS is thought to be focusing some of its efforts on Libya as it increasingly comes under pressure in Iraq and Syria. While the oil-rich coastal country does not have a ready Sunni-Shia ethnic divide for ISIS to exploit, its chaos and ready supply of jihadists from Africa and neighbouring Tunisia has made it very appealing to the group.
They have an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 fighters in the country, according to U.S. officials, and there have been repeated reports of senior ISIS commanders being dispatched from the Middle East to supervise their growth there.
The Western response to this threat — so close to Europe’s southern Mediterranean shores — has been slowed by the chaos in Libya’s crippled institutions.
One government that has long operated in Tripoli has recently been challenged by the arrival in the capital of the Western-backed Government of National Accord. The east of the country, however, has a separate claim on the administration, and is backed by the powerful military figure of General Khalifa Haftar. This week Western powers offered to help arm the GNA, but the road ahead to delivery of weapons is complex.
By Nick Paton Walsh