The western Libyan authorities claimed, on Friday February 26, to have killed Tunisian militant Noureddine Chouchane in clashes outside the city of Sabratha. The Defense Ministry of the General National Congress (GNC), the Islamist extremists who overran Tripoli in 2014 and ousted the internationally recognized House of Representatives to the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk, announced Chouchane’s killing and declared that “The entire city [Sabratha] and its outskirts have been liberated, and the so-called ISIS organization was defeated.”
Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian Militant wanted in connection with the Bardo National Museum attack in March 2015, was the intended target of a U.S. airstrike outside Sabratha a week ago on February 19 after which the U.S. Defense Department confirmed it had conducted. Pentagon officials have stated they believe the airstrike had been successful and killed Chouchane but were unable to confirm his death.
Two Serbian diplomats were confirmed to have also been killed in the airstrike, the captured diplomats were being held hostage by the militants in the building hit by the airstrike.
According to local Libyan sources the U.S. airstrike killed over 50 suspected militants, a number which has since increased, most of whom are claimed to have been Tunisian. Tunisian authorities have opened an inquiry in the airstrike in order to identify those killed, Kamel Barbouch, spokesman for the First Instance Tribunal in Tunis, announced today that an investigative judge will be traveling to Libya shortly to look into Tunisian militants taken into custody since the raid and to establish the identities of those killed by the U.S. airstrike.
A Libyan television channel released a list of names of forty Tunisian militants the Sabratha Municipal Council claimed were killed in the U.S. airstrike. The list, which had included Chouchane, raised eyebrows for its inclusion of Seifallah Ben Hassine (aka Abou Iyadh), the head of Ansar al Sharia Tunisian branch and wanted by both U.S. and Tunisian officials for an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis in 2012. In addition to the embassy attack, Abou Iyadh is also wanted by Tunisian authorities for his involvement in the assassinations of politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013. Ben Hassine is believed to have been killed by a June 205, U.S. airstrike in Southern Libya, which had targeted Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar, the one eyed Algerian militant who has survived several strikes against him and several reports of his death.
It seems Abou Iyadh or Seifallah Ben Hassine is, at least in terms of rumors of his eluding death and capture, whether dead or alive, acquiring a legend and repute akin to Bel Mokhtar’s. This week on February 24, a court Tunis, convicted Seifallah Ben Hassine in absentia to sixteen years in prison for his role in the October 17, 2013 ‘Goubellat’ attack which killed two National Guard in an ambush on Jebel (mount) Touail in the Governorate of Beja.
The GNC’s Ministry of Health held a press conference on Friday in which it said 39 members of Sabratha’s militia’s had been killed and over a hundred injured since fighting began last week after the airstrike.
What appears certain is that the most intense fighting occurred Wednesday, when around two hundred militants, whom the Libyan authorities claim are from Islamic State (other reports have indicated Ansar al Sharia), briefly controlled Sabratha’s city center.
Earlier in the day, Sabratha’s militias had conducted operations to clear the city of militants, reports indicated that the operation, in addition to having been botched was compromised. Poor communication between several of Sabratha’s militias caused confusion as they lost track of friendly and hostile movements in the city and the militants they were searching for appeared to have tipped off ahead of the raids. During the operations a Sabrathan Municipal security office was overrun and eighteen members Sabratha’s security forces were killed, twelve of whom were beheaded.
On Thursday, the Tripoli authorities claimed to have captured Islamic State’s ‘Emir of Sabratha’ ‘Mohammad Saad al-Tajouri” (a.k.a Abu Sulaiman) and two others, Salem Amaari (a.ka. Abu Zaied) and Ahmed Duhaim Al-Kamani (a.k.a Abu Hamza Tajouri) outside Tripoli. According to the Libya authorities they had recently arrived from Sirte and were making their way to join the fighting in Sabratha.
The Tripoli authorities also released the videotaped confession this week of two captured Tunisian militants, in which one of the men identified as “Mohamed Ben Mohsen Ben Mohamed El Gharbi” claimed Islamic State was preparing an assault on the Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane.
A day after the airstrike the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior announced that Tunisian National Guard units had arrested in Ben Guerdane, five individuals believed to have received training in militant camps near Sabratha, who were describe as “dangerous” and “planning to carry out terrorist plots” in Tunisia. The Ministry statement did not specify the date the arrest was made, nor the date the suspects are believed to have left Sabratha.
Tunisian security officials believe all three gunmen behind the Bardo and Sousse attacks (Yassine Labidi and Saber Khachnaoui at Bardo, Seifeddine Rezgui at Sousse) had trained in militant camps outside Sabratha. The Islamic State affiliated, Jund al-Khilafah, claimed responsibility for the Bardo and Sousse attacks, and in November Jund al-Khilafah also claimed to be behind the suicide bombing in Tunis which killed twelve members of Tunisia’s Presidential Guard. Tunisian officials have stated that the explosives used in the Tunis bomb attack were of a ‘similar type’ to explosives seized earlier in 2015 which had been fabricated in Libya.
The mayor of Sabratha Hussein Daoudi has repeatedly denied the presence of Islamic State fighters in his city or training camps outside of it, even in the immediate aftermath of the attack Sabratha’s mayor, was quoted in the New York Times as downplaying the presence of camps outside his city, saying, “A number of them living in a secluded area like this is, of course, suspicious,” adding “It must have been a sleeper cell, not a training camp. Daoudi (aka Hussein al Dhaouadi, Hussein al-Thwadi) also initially told Reuters the airstrike had hit “a building in the Qasr Talil district in which foreign workers were living.” Daoudi also said that “41 people had been killed and six wounded” and that “officials visited the site of the strike and found weapons in the building.”
With the Libyan press Daoudi was more forthcoming, the Libya Herald quoted Daoudi on the day of the airstrike as saying “properties that had been hit were suspected to be occupied by Islamic State,” and “that some of the occupants had only recently arrived in the town.”
Daoudi, and the Sabratha Municipal Council have since called for aid from neighboring cities to help reestablish control of the security situation in Sabratha. Since the airstrike the Sabratha Municipal Council has ceased making claims that there were neither training camps outside the city nor militants inside the city. Although is has daily declared the city liberated between announcing causalities in the attempts to clear the city and declaring the city liberated.
In December of 2015, Sabratha’s municipal council arrested a suspected member of Islamic State (as opposed to the Islamic State affiliated groups that outside Sabratha) a convoy of armed Islamic State fighters entered the city to demand the release of the detained fighter, the suspect was then released and the convoy left the city center.
Daoudi himself was arrested in Tunisia in October when he visited Tunis for a UN conference in his role as mayor. Tunisian counter terrorism officials had wanted to interrogate Daoudi over his suspected ties to the militant groups outside his city. After his arrest militias close to him rounded up approximately one hundred Tunisian guest workers at random demanding and obtaining Daoudi’s release.