The U.S. military is ramping up operations and bombing raids against the Islamic State in Libya, where the terrorist group’s fighters have increasingly found refuge as their territorial base shrinks in Syria and Iraq.
U.S.-backed militias largely crushed the Islamic State’s Libya operation in late 2015, but signs that the group is gaining a new foothold in the North African nation began emerging last month. Images of Islamic State fighters moving through the vast deserts around their former stronghold in Libya’s northern coastal city of Sirte circulated through the terrorist group’s social media and online propaganda sites in mid-September.
Libya is seen as a promising base for the terrorist group because a deep factional split has prevented the creation of a functioning national government in Tripoli since the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
While the Trump administration has publicly resisted a major U.S. military role in Libya, the Pentagon wasted little time responding to the flurry of Islamic State activity there. On Sept. 22, military officials announced that American fighter jets had been dispatched to pound an Islamic State encampment roughly 150 miles south of Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown.
U.S. Africa Command said in a statement that the encampment was being “used by ISIS to move fighters in and out of the country, stockpile weapons and equipment and to plot and conduct attacks.” It was the first time in roughly eight months that American warplanes had bombed an Islamic State target in Libya.
Islamic State and al Qaeda “have taken advantage of ungoverned spaces in Libya to establish sanctuaries for plotting, inspiring and directing terror attacks,” AFRICOM said in a statement late last month.
Siddiq al-Soor, who heads the Libyan government’s public prosecutor’s office in Tripoli, told reporters last week that Islamic State forces in the country were still operating a “desert army” after losing their Sirte base, citing information gleaned from an Islamic State fighter who was captured after U.S. airstrikes in the Wadi Skir region. He said some of the fighters, including leader Abdul Qader al-Najdi of Iraq, had ties to al Qaeda as well as Islamic State, according to a report in the Voice of America.
The Sirte outpost was vital to Islamic State in part because it is the heart of Libya’s oil-producing region, a potential source of vital funding for the group.
Former U.S. Special Envoy for Libya Jonathan Winer said in an interview Wednesday that it is clear Islamic State, which set itself off from rival jihadi groups like al Qaeda by its ability to take and hold territory, is trying to restore its foothold in Libya.
“They’ll nurse their wounds [from Iraq and Syria] and try to come back to North Africa,” he said.
Mr. Winer, who served in the Obama administration, said officials were wary even before 2015 that Islamic State would seize on the post-Arab Spring security vacuum in Libya to establish an operations hub there. “We were worried about it back then,” he said. “That was our fear.”
A top European intelligence official told The Washington Times over the summer that many Europeans who had traveled to fight with Islamic State in the region were relocating to Libya as the prospect loomed of defeat in Syria and Iraq.
While the European fighters may be seeking eventually to return to their home countries, a significant portion of them are at least temporarily staying in Libya, Europol Director Rob Wainwright said.
The situation is compounded by the fact that Tunisia, which intelligence officials once described as the top source country of Islamic State foreign fighters, borders Libya to the northeast. Tunisian followers of Islamic State may now also be massing inside Libya because they fear imprisonment if they return home.
Thousands of Libyans are also known to have gone to Syria and Iraq for Islamic State. Mr. Winer, now a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, noted Wednesday that Libya has been second only to Tunisia as a source country for the terrorist group’s ranks.
U.S. military officials put the number of Islamic State fighters active in Libya at 500, down from an estimated 6,000 when the terrorist group was running Sirte, the Voice of America reported.
Islamic State sleeper cells are already creeping back into neighborhoods and villages surrounding Sirte, said Emily Estelle, a Libya analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.
“We are definitely seeing a resurgence in Libya” she said Wednesday. “They have spent the better part of a year putting themselves back together.”
While the growing Islamic State faction in Libya consists of mostly local fighters, its ranks will likely expand over the coming weeks and months as veterans of the wars in Iraq and Syria are absorbed into the group, she said.
The growing Islamic State force in Libya is a combination of “Desert Brigades,” lightly armored and highly mobile units that spearheaded the terrorist group’s drive across Syria in 2014 and 2015 and clandestine sleeper cells, Ms. Estelle said.
One of these cells carried out a suicide attack last week in the northwestern Libyan city of Misurata, killing five and wounding 20. Such revenge attacks are targeting paramilitary groups and militias that backed the campaign to drive Islamic State out of Sirte last year, Ms. Estelle said. Militias in Tripoli and elsewhere in eastern Libya are also likely targets in what could be a brutal terrorist campaign in the weeks to come.
President Trump has repeatedly expressed a vow to destroy Islamic State but is reluctant to expand the U.S. commitment to Libya.
“I do not see a role in Libya,” Mr. Trump said at a press conference in April. “I think the United States has right now enough roles.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in May that the U.S. military’s strategic approach centered on severing the “connectivity between ISIS affiliates” and driving down the group’s “capability to a point where local forces, with tailored support from the international community, are able to provide security.”
“We’re doing this,” Gen. Dunford said at the time, “in Libya, Somalia and Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.”
The security vacuum and political uncertainty that took root after the fall of Gadhafi in 2011 made the North African nation a prime target for Islamic State as the terrorist group rose to power in 2014. Islamic State fighters solidified their foothold in the country in 2015 after seizing Sirte that year.
An established Islamic State outpost just over 700 miles from southern Europe’s borders prompted the Obama administration to take action. The effort, a combination of U.S. air power and training for Libyan forces on the ground, led to the retaking Sirte a year later.
But Islamic State’s jihadi message continued to attract converts, and many inside Washington viewed a U.S. military training mission for Libyan paramilitary forces as a failure, producing only a handful of U.S.-trained rebels at a cost of millions of dollars to the Pentagon. There were reports that U.S. weapons and hardware tied to the effort were finding their way into extremists’ arsenals.
The Pentagon quietly restarted a version of the Libya training mission in May in the run-up to the latest Sirte offensive. U.S. forces have been rotating in and out of two main bases around the northeastern coastal city of Misurata, roughly 130 miles west of the country’s capital of Tripoli, and Benghazi on the country’s western coast since last year.
While the status of that effort remains unclear, U.S. strategy going forward in Libya should be focused on disbanding the vast array of competing militias that constitute the country’s security forces and help foster an “effective military under civilian control,” Mr. Winer said.
That effort should be subsidized by targeted U.S. airstrikes and counterterrorism operations, he said, adding that Washington should look to “create security and stability where you can and execute counterterrorism [operations] where you should.”
That light U.S. military footprint, compared with the American presence in Iraq and Syria, will allow Washington to contain Islamic State’s efforts to regroup in North Africa “without compromising the legitimacy of the Libyan government,” Mr. Winer noted.
But as Tripoli’s tenuous hold on power comes under growing pressure from Russian-backed militias under the Libyan National Army in eastern Syria, the legitimacy of Libya’s government remains in question, hindering U.S. efforts to battle Islamic State’s growing presence, said Ms. Estelle.
“If infighting continues, we are just going to see [a U.S.] air campaign. That is all we are going to see,” she said.