Military leaders said Saturday that a U.S. bombing mission had killed the head of the Islamic State in Libya, in the first known American strike against the militant group outside Iraq or Syria.
The reported death of Wissam Najm Abd al Zubaydi, an Iraqi known by his nom de guerre as Abu Nabil, occurred Friday, one day after a separate U.S. air assault in Syria killed Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State executioner known as “Jihadi John.”
Abu Nabil is believed to have been the spokesman in a video released nine months ago in which as many as 21 handcuffed Egyptian Coptic Christians in orange jumpsuits were beheaded on a Libyan beach. “The sea you have hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah, we will mix it with your blood,” the spokesman said before the beheadings.
The two killings of senior Islamic State combatants in as many days suggests that the United States is following through on recent vows by President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter to accelerate the war against the jihadist organization, starting with the dispatch of several dozen Special Operations troops to Syria in late October.
But the expansion of the U.S.-led air campaign to Libya brings into question Obama’s assertion Friday that the 15-month-long bombing operation, with more than 8,100 air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, has limited the group’s activities to those two countries.
“I don’t think they’re gaining strength,” Obama told ABC News on Friday. “What is true is that from the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.”
Obama, using a common acronym for the Islamic State, added: “They have not gained ground in Iraq, and in Syria, they’ll come in, they’ll leave, but you don’t see this systemic march by ISIL across the terrain.”
In summer 2014, Islamic State head Abu Bakr al Baghdadi dispatched Abu Nabil, a former Iraqi policeman, and other associates to Libya to organize local jihadists and to set up an Islamic State base there instead of sending the militants to Syria or Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reported in February.
The Pentagon did not say Saturday where in Libya Abu Nabil was killed. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told McClatchy that two F-15 fighter jets carried out the strike. Military officials had said Friday that Jihadi John was taken out by a U.S. drone.
“Nabil’s death will degrade ISIL’s ability to meet the group’s objectives in Libya, including recruiting new ISIL members, establishing bases in Libya and planning external attacks on the United States,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
Cook added that “this is the first U.S. strike against an ISIL leader in Libya, and it demonstrates we will go after ISIL leaders wherever they operate.”
Cook made a point of saying that the raid was “authorized and initiated” before the terrorist attacks in Paris late Friday that killed at least 128 people at multiple locations in the French capital. The Islamic State took responsibility for those attacks on Saturday.
But even before the Paris onslaught, there were growing signs that the war against the Islamic State had spread beyond Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State is suspected of being responsible for twin suicide bombings that killed at least 95 people Oct. 10 in the Turkish capital of Ankara, and the group claimed responsibility for double suicide explosions Thursday in Beirut that killed at least 43 people.
An Islamic State affiliate also claimed responsibility for the crash of a Russian airliner Oct. 31 in Sinai. No cause of the crash has been determined, but U.S. and British officials have said they suspect a bomb placed aboard the aircraft caused the crash, which killed 224 Russian citizens just weeks after Russia began bombing Islamic State targets in Syria.
Libya has been wracked by civil war since U.S.-backed rebels killed dictator Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011. Some defense analysts have said that Obama’s reluctance to act more aggressively in Syria is tied partly to the chaos that has followed American intervention in Libya.
Eleven months after Gaddafi’s death, Islamist militants attacked U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, killing Ambassador Chris Stephens and three other Americans.
Many Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates accuse former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now running for the White House, of having ignored warnings that security at the Benghazi consulate was inadequate. However, multiple Senate and House committees have investigated the attack and cleared Clinton of wrongdoing.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose