- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2015

The Obama administration insisted Monday it is beating back the Islamic State on several fronts even as the terrorist group demonstrates it is capable of carrying out brutal attacks far beyond Iraq and Syria.

Days after terrorists claiming loyalty to the Islamic State executed dozens of Ethiopian Christians on a Libyan beach and carried out a suicide attack in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, that claimed more than 30 lives, White House officials seemed to downplay the spread of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS. Officials said the U.S. and its allies continue to make key gains in the fight against the Islamic State across Iraq and Syria and cautioned against assuming the group is advancing further in the Middle East or Libya.

But Libyan officials have said the Islamic State is running rampant across the country. At home, leading Republicans on Capitol Hill say the administration is disregarding major Islamic State gains, including the group’s fight for the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

The White House, while not outright denying the Islamic State’s spread, wasn’t ready to admit the group is gaining power and influence in the region.

“That’s a difficult thing to assess,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “We’re mindful of this threat, and it’s one of the reasons that the president has marshalled so much international support for the effort to try to snuff out this ISIL threat in Iraq and in Syria, and not allow it to continue to spread across the region in a way that could further destabilize an already volatile region of the world.”

Military officials went slightly further. The Pentagon acknowledged Monday the Islamic State has gained a “toehold” in Libya, which remains in a state of dysfunction following the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

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“They probably have at this point gained at least a toehold in Libya based on the extraordinary amount of unrest and the almost completely deteriorated security situation,” Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren said.

Video of the Christian killings in Libya — carried out by gunfire and the Islamic State’s usual method of beheading — drew condemnation around the world. Pope Francis on Monday sent a letter to Ethiopia’s Tewahedo Orthodox Church and expressed “distress and sadness” at the slayings. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement he “utterly deplores the targeting of people on the basis of their religious affiliation.”

Fallout from the massacre and subsequent new questions about the Islamic State’s reach came on the same day President Obama met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zyed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates. The two leaders talked at length about the fight against the Islamic State, the White House said.

Monday also brought more proof the terrorist group wants to recruit on American shores. Federal authorities have charged six Minnesota men with terrorism after they attempted to flee the U.S. and join the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, Islamic State fighters continue to clash with Iraqi forces around the key city of Ramadi.

But military officials also have downplayed that fight. Last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Ramadi is not “central to the future of Iraq.”

His comments drew rebuke from leading figures in the GOP.

“This unbelievable statement is an insult to all those brave Americans who served and sacrificed in Ramadi, and the families and loved ones who miss them so dearly,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said in a statement Monday.

Libyan officials deny the U.S. assertion that the Islamic State merely has a toehold in the region and say that, in reality, the situation is far worse.

“These are not just pockets, but nodes in a network sharing weapons, fighters, money and command and control,” Aref Ali Nayed, a top adviser to Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and the nation’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, told the Washington Times earlier this year.

Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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