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U.S. Warplanes Strike ISIS Target In Libya


American warplanes struck multiple targets in Libya overnight. They hit an Islamic State training camp, and U.S. officials say they may have killed an Islamic extremist leader. U.S. officials say as many as 60 people were killed at the training camp. NPR's Tom Bowman joins us now from the Pentagon. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What are U.S. officials saying happened in Libya? And it's a place, I must say, that many of us did not know that the U.S. military was in.

BOWMAN: That's right. Well, what U.S. officials are saying is that two American F-15 warplanes flew out of England and completely destroyed this camp just west of Tripoli. They estimate there were around 60 or so ISIS members training here. And from intelligence information, officials say these fighters were planning attacks in the West. And they were watching this site for weeks, if not longer, with drones and other means and intercepting conversations. So they had a pretty good sense of what was going on there.

MONTAGNE: And who do U.S. officials think they killed in this strike?

BOWMAN: Well, besides the dozens of ISIS fighters, they say a man they know was at the site is Noureddine Chouchane. He was a top ISIS leader and responsible for a couple of major attacks next door in Tunisia last year.

MONTAGNE: And we don't have a confirmation as of yet or this is pending?

BOWMAN: They're saying they know he was at the site. He's likely dead and no sense of any, you know, confirmation of this. And there are no American troops on the ground there. But we are told there are intelligence operatives who could collect DNA and make a positive identification. Now, if that's impossible because of the destruction and condition of the camp, you could start to see ISIS put up martyrdom videos for this guy as they've done in the past when other leaders have been killed.

MONTAGNE: Which is a kind of confirmation in and of itself.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: Remind us who this man Noureddine Chouchane is.

BOWMAN: Well, Renee, he was a mastermind of two attacks last year in neighboring Tunisia - one at a museum, another at a beach resort. At the National Bardo Museum back in March, 22 people were killed. And then in June, another 38 people were killed at a beach resort - in the coastal resort at Sousse. And these attacks absolutely rocked Tunisia, and the targets were chosen specifically because they would cause foreign casualties. There was - they opened fire with automatic weapons at the beach resort, and a lot of these folks they killed were British. And before the Paris attacks, this Chouchane was considered really one of the ISIS leaders that intelligence officials were most concerned about targeting the West.

MONTAGNE: And, Tom, you mentioned there were no U.S. military on the ground in this attack. But what has the U.S. military been doing in Libya?

BOWMAN: Well, what they've been doing is looking for targets of opportunity. Last November, there was an attack killing an ISIS operative in Libya. So we expect to see more of these kinds of attacks. We don't expect to see this as a major military operation but basically looking for what they call targets of opportunity. That's precisely what happened in this case. There's no sense of any, you know, major troops heading toward Libya. Right now what they're trying to do is form a government. And once that happens, you're going to see a lot of Western assistance to that government. But it's been very difficult for them to form a government. Right now there are two competing governments in the country and they're trying to come together.

MONTAGNE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.