Op-Ed: The Pentagon’s Failed Mission and Dead Serbian Diplomats in Libya

The Pentagon denies that US airstrikes were responsible for the recent deaths of two Serbian diplomats in Libya. But it turns out the entire bombing campaign was likely a failure, missing their high-profile primary target, though the entire international media reported otherwise. If the press office of the Pentagon isn’t a reliable sources of information about whether or not US forces have killed its “primary target”, then it isn’t a reliable source of information about whether or not US forces have killed civilians, including Serbian diplomats.


On February 19th, US airstrikes from F-15E fighter jets “pulverized” a suspected Islamic State (ISIL) training camp near the coastal city of Sabratha in western Libya. The strikes killed at least 49 people, and early media reports stated that two Serbian diplomats abducted in November 2015 were among the dead.

But on Wednesday, the Pentagon denied any responsibility for the deaths of the Serbian embassy employees, claiming they weren’t killed in the US bombing. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis had a new explanation for what had happened, which was that a rival “criminal group” of some kind must have murdered the hostages before the US bombing in the foreigner-dominated neighborhood of Qasr Talil. This group of criminals then used the mass casualties that resulted from the US airstrikes on the alleged ISIL training camp as an opportunity to hide the two diplomats’ bodies among the 49 others “to pass off their deaths”.

The Pentagon’s new version of events is articulated in an article published in the Washington Post, “Serbia Says a U.S. Strike in Libya Killed Two of its Diplomats; Here’s Why the Pentagon Thinks it Didn’t”. The Pentagon uses anonymous sources to argue, among other things, that one anonymous “defense official” recalls that first responders didn’t mention seeing the two “westerners” from Serbia at the devastated site of the bombing, where a deep crater had dented the earth and at least 49 people were dead or in the process of dying. Another official says that the injuries the diplomats had on their bodies, which the official had examined by looking at a photograph, didn’t seem consistent with those caused by airstrikes.

Meanwhile, Serbia’s Minister of Information Nebojša Stefanović claims the the diplomats’ apparent cause of death was likely something very similar to an airstrike. “Two autopsies have been performed, in Libya and in Belgrade, and it has been determined that death occurred from the force of a detonation,” Stefanović said in an interview with Pink TV last week.

Serbian officials have rejected the Pentagon’s new explanation for their diplomats’ deaths. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić said that he could confirm “with 100 percent accuracy” that Serbia’s nationals in Libya “had been killed in the US air attack.”

The Serbian government believes the diplomats were held hostage by ISIL at the training camp near Sabratha before the bombing.

But the embassy employees’ ordeal began three months earlier when they were abducted. In November 2015, communications chief for the Serbian embassy Slađana Stanković and her driver Jovica Stepić were just leaving the seaside town of Sabratha, traveling in a diplomatic convoy to Tunisia when a car suddenly struck them from behind. Stepić got out to see what had happened, and he was ambushed. Both he and Stanković were forced into the back of their assailants’ vehicle. The Serbian ambassador to Libya, Oliver Potežica, was also traveling in another car in the convoy, but managed to escape.

Foreign Minister Ivica Dacić told media that the group that abducted Stanković and Stepić had demanded ransom for their safe return. “I believe we had been close to the solution for them to be freed,” Dacić said.

A UN Security Council report on Libya from November 2015 notes that kidnapping and demanding ransom has become an important source of income for ISIL.

The Pentagon’s primary “target” in its anti-ISIL bombing operation on February 19th was a Tunisian man named Noureddine Chouchane, a.k.a. “Sabir”. A press release from the Pentagon said Tunisian police had identified Chouchane as a suspected accomplice in the Sousse Attacks of June 2015, in which a man went to a five-star coastal resort near the Tunisian city of Sousse and killed 38 people with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. The majority of victims were British tourists, so the attack received a significant amount of attention in the English-language press.

Chouchane has also been labeled a suspect in the March 2015 Bardo Museum Attack. The Bardo National Museum in the Tunisian capital of Tunis showcases archaeological pieces spanning several millennia of Tunisian history; the attack involved three hostage-takers who entered the museum, and executed 22 hostages.

But Chouchane was likely not killed in the US airstrikes on the ISIL training camp just outside Sabratha on February 19th, according to Libyan and Tunisian media sources. That didn’t stop the international media or the Pentagon press office from suggesting otherwise. The news in the week after the US bombing portrayed the operation as a “success”: “ISIS terrorist behind murder of 30 Brits in Tunisia beach attack is ‘killed in airstrike’” (The Metro), “Isis commander linked to Sousse and Bardo Museum attacks in Tunisia targeted by US air strikes on Libya camp — Up to 40 Isis recurits were reportedly killed by strikes on Isis territory near Sabratha” (The Independent), “US Airstrike in Libya ‘Likely Killed’ Planner of Tunisian Terror Attacks” (ABC News). “Dozens killed in Friday’s air strikes on the IS camp reportedly included Tunisian extremist Noureddine Chouchane (BBC). And the Pentagon: “Early this morning the U.S. military conducted an airstrike in Libya targeting an ISIL training camp near Sabratha and Noureddine Chouchane, a.k.a. ‘Sabir,’ a Tunisian national who was an ISIL senior facilitator in Libya associated with the training camp.” 

The operation, meant to kill a very dangerous criminal (albeit without any kind of fair trial), was a probable failure. That the international media failed to question the Pentagon’s narrative is a chilling indictment of the complacency found within the supposedly impartial Third Estate’s relationship with the US government.

If the press office of the Pentagon isn’t a reliable source of information about whether or not US forces have killed its “primary target” in its bombing campaigns, then it isn’t a reliable source of information about whether or not US forces have killed civilians, including Serbian diplomats.

Remarkably, Tunisian and Libyan news sources say that Chouchane wasn’t killed until just this past Friday — a week after the US bombing. And his alleged killers weren’t Americans with F-15E fighter jets either. Chouchane is thought to have been fatally wounded in clashes with Tripoli authorities and “armed locals”, who’ve stepped up anti-terrorist operations “in and around Sabratha” in recent weeks. The Libya Herald reports that a photograph of a dead Tunisian man wearing a vest with an ISIL patch was circulated on social and traditional media this weekend and the individual in the picture is believed to be Chouchane.

Several sites seem to confirm that “the prime target of the Pentagon’s airstrike a week ago” died and was killed by Libyans, meaning American airstrikes on the alleged ISIL training center did not achieve their stated objective. In the process, at least 49 people whose identities are unknown to the American public were killed. Whether two of them were diplomats from Serbia we may never know for sure. The Pentagon released one particularly suspicious statement denying any part in the deaths of the two diplomats from Serbia: “Our forces watched this training camp for weeks leading up to the operation, and at the time of the strike there were no indications of any civilians present.” If the compound was really under such dedicated surveillance for weeks, how did it manage to fail so miserably (at least according to local media reports) at meeting the operation’s primary objective — even if it was to kill a suspected terrorist without a trial? 


Immediately after the reportedly failed operation on February 19th, the Pentagon released a similarly unpersuasive statement addressing accusations that US forces were responsible for the deaths of the Serbian embassy employees:

“When conducting our operations, the US military goes to extraordinary lengths to limit the risk of civilian casualties, and in our campaign to defeat ISIL we will continue to do so.”

Nearly two weeks after the bombing, the identities of the individuals who died in the airstrikes, whether high-level military targets or civilians, remain unknown.


Update: The Libya Herald has reported the following:

As Sabrathan forces paraded this evening in the town’s Liberation Square, operations were continuing for a seventh day to flush out IS fighters. The Sabratha media centre expressed annoyance at reports from the authorities in Tripoli, that the fighting was over.

The centre also denied that the body of Tunisian terrorist, Noureddine Chouchane, the target of the US air strike nine days ago, had been stolen from the hospital morgue. It said it was still in a fridge. The centre did not however spell out if this was the body of the man killed on Friday, who was believed to resemble Chouchane.



Cover photo credit: Google.

Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!

Balkanist is an experimental, occasionally bilingual platform featuring politics, analysis, culture, and criticism for a smart international audience underwhelmed by what is currently on offer. Our aim is to provide bold, uncompromising coverage of the Balkan region and everything to its East.