AP Interview: Military says Libya strike bore critical intel

MUNICH (AP) — Senior U.S. military officials say the massive airstrikes that killed more than 80 Islamic State militants in southern Libya last month generated critical computer data, documents and information from prisoner interrogations that the U.S. can use to track and target more fighters.

Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that the U.S. got significant intelligence from the camps after the bombings, adding that “there’s some things we’re working on.” Waldhauser declined to go into detail about intelligence that was gathered.

But a senior U.S. military official described some of the information gathered and said that several Islamic State fighters who survived the Jan. 18th strikes were taken by Libyan militia forces and interrogated.

The official said the intelligence collected at the IS camps confirmed that the fighters had direct communication with the core Islamic State group in Syria and provided information about how they move through tunnels in the country. The official was not authorized to discuss the details publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

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“We did get some actionable intelligence and we continue to work with that and develop what we can from it,” Waldhauser told The Associated Press at the Munich Security Conference, which began Thursday. “We are watching, we are paying attention to where we can see numbers of them gathering and that is a focus to a large degree of our intelligence development.”

U.S. Air Force B-2 bombers attacked the Islamic State military camps in Libya’s lawless southern region, targeting fighters who former Defense Secretary Ash Carter said “were actively planning operations against our allies in Europe.” The senior U.S. military official said that none of the information appeared to suggest an imminent attack against the west.

In addition to the Libyan militia troops, there were special operations forces from the United Kingdom that took part in the intelligence collection, according to the military official. The official said that all of the IS members at the camps were foreign fighters and that none were Libyan.

Waldhauser said the military had watched the camps since late last fall, but that the fighters move around southern Libya and don’t stay in any one place for long.

He called the strike a “devastating blow” to the group.

“It was successful from the standpoint that we really did, I think, send a very strong signal to ISIL that remains in Libya that we will watch you and we will come after you,” Waldhauser said, using another acronym for Islamic State.

He said the foreign fighter flow across the porous borders of the countries surrounding Libya, including Chad and Tunisia, continues to be a concern.

Overall, Waldhauser said, there are still “a couple hundred” IS members left in Libya. The total was well over 5,000 last year, but that number began to drop as Libyan forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, began to successfully push them out of the central coastal city of Sirte.

Libyan forces ousted the last IS militants from their holdouts in Sirte in December.

During the January airstrikes by the U.S., the B-2 bombers flew more than 30 hours roundtrip from Missouri and dropped about 100 precision-guided munitions. It was an unusual mission since the U.S. doesn’t often send the bombers on counterterrorism strikes.

The bombings, which also included strikes by Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones, destroyed a lot of the camps, and likely a lot of potential intelligence information. The camps were about 45 kilometers, or 28 miles, southwest of Sirte.

It also was the first time the B-2s were used in combat since the 2011 air campaign that forced Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power and led to his killing.

Libya plunged into chaos and lawlessness after Gadhafi’s ouster and the subsequent civil war. Two rival administrations operate in the east and west of the vast, oil-rich nation.