U.S. forces remain at the ready to fight Islamic State militants in Libya, even after the fall of the terrorist group’s last remaining stronghold in Sirte and the apparent conclusion of U.S. airstrikes.
Since Aug. 1, the U.S. military has conducted hundreds of precision air strikes against ISIS to support the United Nations--backed Libyan Government of National Accord and their battle against the extremist group.
Yet despite the official declaration that ISIS's hold on Sirte ended in early December, U.S. military officials say the campaign in Libya - known as Operation Odyssey Lightning - continues.
“Yes, it is still underway,” U.S. Africa Command spokeswoman Robyn Mack confirmed in an email Wednesday. “In coordination with the GNA, we are continuing to monitor Sirte and its environs and are providing support as necessary to enable the final clearance of the city.”
While details on current sorties remain unavailable due to operational security concerns, a “range of capabilities at various locations in the region” allow continued support to GNA-aligned forces, she said.
The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the Amphibious Ready Group Wasp has already departed the Mediterranean Sea and will return to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, next week after concluding its six-month float aboard the Amphibious Ready Group Wasp.
Over the last few months, the 22nd MEU’s AV-8B Harriers and AH-1W Super Cobras from the Wasp and San Antonio provided close air support to friendly ground troops in the Libyan coastal city.
Since the beginning of Odyssey Lightning, American forces conducted 495 airstrikes against ISIS.
A small number of U.S. troops also continue to move in and out of the country to coordinate with local forces to “strengthen the fight against [ISIS] and other terrorist organizations,” Mack added.
Speaking at Aviano Air Base, Italy, on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter officially announced the clearing of Sirte and the conclusion of U.S. airstrikes.
The loss of Sirte is a crushing blow to the jihadist militants. Since early 2015, the city was the center of gravity for the jihadist group in Libya and home to several thousand fighters.
But fears remain that ISIS militants, although decapitated, retain a strong presence in Libya with militants dispersed through the country.
“Many [ISIS] members, including fighters and support personnel, have fled Sirte since the offensive began a few months ago and are likely looking to hide among the population, relocate to other Libyan towns or attempting to leave Libya altogether,” Mack said.