ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
American warplanes destroyed a terrorist training camp today in Libya. The attack was aimed at a top leader in the Islamic State, and it also killed a number of other people whom the Pentagon says want to launch attacks on Europe or the United States. Here's how White House spokesman Josh Earnest described it.
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JOSH EARNEST: I can confirm for you that early this morning, the United States military conducted an airstrike in Libya targeting both an ISIL training camp near Sabratha and a specific leading ISIL figure named Noureddine Chouchane.
SIEGEL: Well, joining us now with the latest on this story is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello Robert.
SIEGEL: Who was this ISIS leader the U.S. was going after, and who were the others in the camp when it was hit?
BOWMAN: Well, Robert, U.S. officials say they're pretty certain Noureddine Chouchane was in this camp and was killed. He's a Tunisian national and a suspect in two massive ISIS attacks in Tunisia last year. There was one at the Bardo Museuem in Tunis in March that killed a couple of dozen people, another at a seaside resort in June that killed 38 people. And most of those killed were Westerners. They were targeted because they were Westerners.
Now, the U.S. says Chouchane was using this camp, and some 60 fighters were there to plan additional attacks against Western targets. So in the predawn hours, two American F-15 warplanes flew from England and destroyed the camp's living quarters. There's a handful of buildings, and people who have seen the cockpit film footage say that all the buildings were completely destroyed - there was basically nothing left.
SIEGEL: Tom, we often hear about airstrikes against ISIS in Syria or in Iraq, but this was about 1,500 miles away. How big is the ISIS presence in Libya and what kind of danger does it pose?
BOWMAN: It's pretty big. There are estimates of some 6,000 or so fighters, many of them in the city of Sirte. A lot of these fighters are young Libyans just looking for work, trying to make a buck, and others come from all around North Africa. And a number of their commanders, by the way, are coming from Syria. So there's growing fear about their strength for two reasons - Libya is rich in oil, billions of dollars' worth of oil, and the concern is ISIS will get its hands on this oil revenue to finance their attacks. Also Libya of course is next to Egypt and just across the Mediterranean from Italy. So you could see attacks in those countries. There's a great deal of concern about that.
SIEGEL: Does all this mean that there could be more of these airstrikes in Libya, or could there be U.S. military action beyond airstrikes?
BOWMAN: Definitely airstrikes, absolutely. American airstrikes have targeted ISIS in Libya before. Just last fall, another ISIS leader was killed. And I'm told there are several more training camps and we'll likely see more strikes in the coming weeks and months. So the U.S. is watching all this carefully and will strike what they call targets of opportunity whenever they can.
SIEGEL: Since the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi back in 2011, Libya has been fractured. Secretary of State John Kerry has talked about Western efforts to form a government and bring some sense of normalcy there. Is that likely to happen anytime soon?
BOWMAN: Well, no one knows for sure. There are now two competing governments and various armed militias, tribes and clans. Secretary John Kerry and others have said they're hopeful a single government can be formed soon maybe in the coming weeks. American Green Berets have been on the ground reaching out to some of the factions there. But don't confuse them with combat troops. So we're only talking about airstrikes now. If there are any troops that go in there it will likely be the Italians. The U.N. is asking Italy to oversee this effort. And if a government is formed, you're likely to see up to 5,000 Italian troops maybe go in to provide security and also train a Libyan army.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Pentagon Correspondent Tom Bowman.
Thank you Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.