Saturday, February 20, 2016

Two Serbian nationals held by ISIS are believed to have died in the US airstrike in Libya. Reuters

Damage caused by the US airstrike in Sabratha, Libya. Reuters 

Two Serbian nationals, taken hostage by ISIS, are believed to have been killed in a US airstrike in Sabratha, Libya. Reuters. The attack, that killed around 50 people, was targeting a ISIS training camp and an ISIS coordinator named Noureddine Chouchane, who is thought to be responsible for two terrorist attacks in neighboring Tunisia. The airstrike may have killed two Serbian men, Sladjana Stankovic, a communication officer and Jovica Stepic, a driver, who were abducted last November. The two men were captured in an incident when Serbian embassy personnel, including the ambassador, came under fire in Sarbatha. Their deaths have yet to be confirmed but the Serbian government has already filed a protest against the United States. Serbia had been negotiating for the men's release but neither the family or the government was able to pay what they were asking for.  On the ground in Syria, there are conflicting reports about if ISIS was even at the location bombed. The Libyan government claimed that some of the survivors claimed to be ISIS members, but the local mayor said the building was just a house used for meetings, not training. 

My Comment:
I covered this story yesterday, but this is a major development. I had no idea that ISIS had captured Serbians in Libya. Perhaps the Serbian government was keeping it quiet? Either way, I am hoping that this report is wrong and that these two men are still alive. It doesn't look good though. And of course this happens right after I decided to give credit for Obama for pulling off this attack. The presence of these two hostages and their probable death certainly changes the calculus for ordering this airstrike. I have no idea whatsoever if the United States government knew that these two men were present in the building that was destroyed. 

If they didn't know then this is nothing more then a tragic mistake. But what if they did know and sent the strike anyways? Could it be justified? I think you could make the argument that it might have been. I went over yesterday how big the threat this camp could have been. It was very possible that the ISIS fighters that were there were preparing for another major terrorist attack in either Tunisia or Europe. Chouchane has been accused of plotting the two major terrorist attacks in Tunisia last year so he certainly was a threat. Killing him may have prevented a serious terror attack that could have killed dozens of people. That alone justified the airstrike if the government didn't know these two hostages were there. 

Is that worth the lives of these two hostages though? That's a tough call, and I am glad that it isn't one I have to make. I am sure that the Serbian government and the families of these two men are furious with the United States government right now, and that is probably with the assumption that this was an accident, not on purpose. If it was on purpose expect them to be apoplectic. It's again important to note that I have no idea if the government knew about these two men before they launched the mission. I think it is much more likely that this was just a tragic mistake, though I can see a scenario where the United States took the option anyways because the threat was so severe. 

I do feel rather bad for the F-15 pilot that conducted this mission. In any case I doubt he or she knew that these hostages were there. Having the lives of those two men on your hands would be tough for anyone to deal with. People get PTSD just from killing the enemy, so killing innocents is probably even worse...

I wonder if the presence of these men at this camp was a deliberate attempt by ISIS to use them as a human shield. After all, ISIS has used human shields before to try stop airstrikes, so it wouldn't be without precedence. If it was, then we are going to have to think long and hard about how we order these airstrikes. It's a win win scenario for ISIS if they are using that tactic. Either they are much safer from airstrikes, or their enemy gets a huge PR embarrassment when they attack you. And it's not like there is much else for these hostages to do when they are waiting to be ransomed off. I almost wonder if it wouldn't be worth it for ISIS to stop trying to ransom Western hostages for this very reason. This camp was certainly worth protecting for ISIS so I would not be suprised if that was the role they were playing there. 

As for the Libyans on the ground, I am not sure if I have a whole lot of respect for the local government in Sarbatha. First of all, the claim by the mayor that the building destroyed was not a training camp strikes me as a pointless statement. It might not have been a traditional training camp but it was where ISIS fighters were first introduced to Libya and inducted into the organization. It was also probably a place were operations were planned, due to the presence of Chouchane. Though the deaths of the two Serbs was tragic, this was a legitimate target. Arguing about if it was a terrorist training camp or simply a meeting place is semantics at best. 

Second, it sounds like everyone on the ground knew that this was a terrorist held building. But nobody did anything about it. Sure, ISIS is a very scary bunch of people. Killing everyone there could have had consequences. And sure, the Libyan government has more then enough problems of their own right now. But nobody on the ground thought about sending in their own troops to attack this place? Had that happened perhaps the hostages would have lived. Of course it is possible that someone did do something and fed intelligence to the United States, but even so, I think a ground operation might have been called for.

As I said yesterday, this strike won't have much of a long term impact, outside of Serbia. ISIS is still very strong in Libya and haven't really come under any kind of sustained attack. Sooner or later someone is going to have to step up there and take ISIS on. It might be one of the Libyan governments, one of the militias on the ground, or the United States and/or Europe in the skies. But right now it is no one and as long as that is the case, ISIS will continue to expand. This is a temporary setback for their greater plans in Libya at worst. They may have lost a good planner and a bunch of recruits but that is a drop in the bucket for ISIS. 

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