Two airstrikes in the past week on Islamist militias fighting for control of Tripoli, Libya, are raising questions about who was behind the attacks and whether the United States knew about or condoned them. On Saturday, Aug. 23, Agence France-Presse reported that Islamist militants in Libya pointed the finger at Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Egyptian military quickly denied any involvement. On Monday, the New York Times reported that American officials confirmed that the Egyptians and Emiratis had launched the strikes, but said they'd caught the United States by surprise.
That claim seemed incredible, though, in light of the presence in the region of the U.S. military, which would have certainly detected a series of airstrikes. "With as many Aegis-class ships as the U.S. Navy has in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean, there is no possible way the UAE could pull this off without the U.S. knowing it," said Christopher Harmer, a former Navy officer and an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. Harmer said that he had no information about U.S. involvement, "but the U.S. government knows who bombed what," he said.
Egypt and the UAE are highly motivated to strike out at Islamist fighters, whose gains in Libya are only the latest reminder that a new wave of religiously aligned political groups and militias threaten secular regimes and monarchies across the region.
"Libya is a serious situation," Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar told Foreign Policy earlier this month. Morocco has organized a political dialogue among various factions in Libya in an effort to bring the country together. Mezouar has also worked closely with Egypt on the issue, specifically discussing concerns about terrorism in his July visit to Cairo.
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki provided no additional information on the strikes during a press briefing on Monday. She reiterated the Obama administration's policy that "Libya's challenges are political, and violence will not resolve them." She added: "Our focus is on the political process there. We believe outside interference exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya's democratic transition."
When asked whether Washington would be "disappointed" if Egypt and the UAE had conducted the airstrikes, Psaki replied, "I'm not going to go down that rabbit hole."
With the United States already engaged in a war in Afghanistan and a widening air campaign in Iraq, as well as facing the prospect of more combat in Syria against the forces of the Islamic State, Barack Obama's administration is loath to get involved militarily in yet another Middle Eastern country. But it routinely pushes other countries to do the heavy lifting themselves when it comes to improving security in fragile states.
The situation is more acute in Libya, where the administration is still dealing with the political fallout from the attack on the consulate in Benghazi in 2012. The U.S. military is reluctant to get directly involved in Libya's domestic conflict, even as intelligence officials recognize the serious threat that Islamist militants operating there pose. One of the last U.S. military operations in Libya was the June capture of Ahmed Abu Khatallah, considered a key figure in the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi. But other than that, the military has opted to stay out of the country, even as diplomatic and Defense Department officials have privately encouraged other countries to do more.
Despite denials from the Egyptians and American claims that the United States knew nothing of the airstrikes, there's no doubt that the UAE's Air Force, which is newer and more advanced than Egypt's, could attack Tripoli. As of 2012, the UAE had a fleet of 60 U.S.-made F-16 Block 60 fighters, which are the most advanced of that model, according to GlobalSecurity.org, which tracks the world's militaries. The Block 60 can carry medium-range weapons, including cruise missiles that can hit targets more than 150 miles away. The UAE also has French Mirage fighters and U.S.-made Apache helicopters.
But more importantly, the UAE has a fleet of midair refueling tankers that would be crucial for launching any airstrikes over long distances. In August 2013, Airbus delivered the third and final A330 MRTT aircraft to the country, completing an order it placed five years earlier. The tanker was to be fitted with equipment for refueling both the F-16 and the Mirage, allowing either aircraft to strike targets far beyond its own limited range.
"In terms of capability, the UAE is the second-most capable air force in the Middle East, behind the Israeli Air Force," Harmer said. "It has a very young, new, and well-equipped air force … [and] they have a lot of Western pilots and maintenance personnel training their aircrews and maintaining their equipment." Although Egypt denies attacking Libya, it didn't say that Cairo prevented the UAE -- or anyone else -- from using its air bases as a staging point.
It's also possible that the UAE acted without Egypt's knowledge. Harmer said that the UAE has no stealth aircraft in its fleet, but it's conceivable that its jets could have evaded detection by Egyptian air-traffic control, which he described as poor. But they would have certainly been detected by U.S. naval vessels, Harmer added.
Aside from the hardware at the UAE's disposal, recent political maneuvering signaled some sort of military confrontation between Libya and countries in the Middle East and the Gulf. Earlier this month, representatives from the governments of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and the United States met "to express their deep concern about the political and security challenges facing Libya," according to a joint statement issued by the U.S. State Department. "We call upon all Libyans to reject terrorism and violence and to replace it with political dialogue to end the instability that is spreading across the country," the statement read.
Regional anxieties over the rise of lawlessness and extremism in Libya peaked recently with neighboring Muslim countries seeking out new ways to address the crisis. In July, Cairo hosted a meeting of the Arab League Council intended to examine the troubling developments in Libya at the request of Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi. This month, Morocco deployed military units at several strategic locations in the country because of threats posed by jihadists in Libya, according to Radio France Internationale.
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