CAIRO — U.S. fighter jets struck a suspected Islamic State camp in Libya on Friday, killing at least 40 people in an attack that illustrates growing Western resolve to act against the militant group’s most powerful affiliate.
U.S. officials said American F-15 fighter jets hit several buildings at the camp, on the outskirts of Sabratha, a restive city in western Libya, in an attempt to target an Islamic State leader linked to attacks on tourist sites in neighboring Tunisia.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the death of Noureddine Chouchane, whom officials described as a senior Islamic State facilitator, would have an “immediate impact” on the group’s ability to plot attacks against American interests.
Defense officials said Chouchane, a Tunisian national, was probably killed in the air raid, but they cautioned that it was too soon to say for certain. Authorities in Libya and Tunisia said the attack killed at least 40 people, but they had no immediate reports on Chouchane.
The early-morning raid marked only the third time since the West’s 2011 military intervention that Washington has launched an airstrike against a militant in Libya. The operation comes as Western governments accelerate planning for possible military action against the Islamic State’s Libya affiliate, seen as the most potent after the group’s parent organization in Iraq and Syria.
This week, President Obama urged greater efforts to keep the Islamic State from “digging in” across Libya, where political feuds have divided the country into rival administrations, complicating Western-led efforts to battle Islamist factions.
The growing Islamic State presence in Libya is viewed with particular urgency by leaders in Europe, already struggling to cope with new security threats and the large number of migrants arriving on its shores. Libya has become a major way station for migrants heading for Europe.
Jamal Naji Zubia, the head of the foreign news media office in Tripoli, said the raid destroyed a large farmhouse where suspected militant fighters had gathered to hear a religious leader.
Zubia — who described the Friday airstrikes as an “accurate hit” — said most of the victims were Tunisian but included that at least one was Jordanian. Zubia’s office represents one of Libya’s two rival governments.
“They are believed to be from Daesh,” Zubia said in a telephone interview, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They had gathered at the house to hear a speech from one of their Tunisian imams.”
Hours after the attack, Sabratha’s municipal council posted images of what it said showed the aftermath: piles of concrete rubble and large craters ringed by palm trees. A statement accompanying the photos said rocket-propelled-grenade launchers and other weapons had been found under the debris, but there were no such images immediately posted.
Other images showed unidentified men apparently injured in the attack receiving medical treatment.
The Libya Herald news website, citing hospital officials, said at least 41 bodies were found. The report added that the injured were all Arabs from a variety of countries but that none were Libyan.
In Tunisia, Foreign Ministry spokesman Noufal el-Obaidi placed the death toll at 40 — a mix of Tunisians and Algerians — and said six Tunisians were injured, the state-run TAP news agency reported. None of the immediate reports from Libya or Tunisia carried any immediate word on the fate of Chouchane.
His death would represent a blow to the group’s ability to launch high-profile attacks in North Africa. American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments, said Chouchane was believed to have overseen the travel and training of militants involved in two attacks in Tunisia last year.
In the first, gunmen killed 22 people at the National Bardo Museum, a popular destination for foreign travelers in the capital, Tunis. Several months later, a lone militant stormed a beach resort of the coastal city of Sousse, killing 38 people, many of them British nationals.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks, which targeted Tunisia’s tourism industry, a vital part of the country’s economy. Tunisia is a popular destination for European sun-seekers.
“We believe he trained the people who then went and carried out the attacks,” a senior defense official said of Chouchane.
Militants have been able to plot such attacks amid the chaos that has gripped Libya in the years following the 2011 uprising against dictator Moammar Gaddafi.
While a wide array of militant groups has thrived in Libya in recent years, the Islamic State’s Libya affiliate began significant operations only in 2015. Since then it has taken over the coast city of Sirte and sought to expand its influence elsewhere.
In recent months, as travel in and out of Syria has become more difficult, Libya has increasingly become a destination for fighters associated with the Islamic State. Sabratha may have been an attractive site because of its proximity to the Tunisian border and reputation as a stronghold for smugglers and militants moving between the two countries.
Islamic State fighters are now estimated to number between 2,000 and 5,000 in several different cells across Libya. Some of those are believed to be Libyans absorbed from other militant groups, while others are foreigners, including a large number of Tunisians.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have dispatched several senior deputies to Libya to oversee the growing operation there.
While the United States continues its military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, officials have begun to focus on the group’s Libya presence in recent months.
Already, the United States has launched an attack against one Islamic State militant there. In November, the Pentagon claimed it killed an Iraqi militant known as Abu Nabil al-Anbari, considered the Islamic State leader in Libya. A U.S. statement at the time said he may have been the man whose voice appeared in a February 2015 video showing the beheadings of 21 Christian workers in Libya, nearly all Copts from Egypt.
The United States has acted against other militants in Libya in the past. In June 2015, U.S. aircraft targeted Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran militant with links to al-Qaeda. The U.S. government still has not confirmed whether Belmokhtar, an Algerian, was killed in the attack.
Officials said the British government supported Friday’s attack by allowing the American jets to take off from bases in Britain. British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said the attack “makes us all safer.”
The Obama administration has been considering doing more, unilaterally or in coordination with European allies.
For months, European and U.S. leaders have been holding talks about plans for stabilizing Libya once a unity government is approved. For over a year, the United Nations has been advancing peace talks aimed at ending Libya’s political schism.
Murphy and Ryan reported from Washington. Erin Cunningham in Cairo and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.