US, allies set on action against ISIS in Libya

A fire from an oil tank at the port of Ras Lanuf, Libya, on Friday, The ISIS branch in Libya is taking advantage of the deteriorating security conditions there, says an expert.
A fire from an oil tank at the port of Ras Lanuf, Libya, on Friday, The ISIS branch in Libya is taking advantage of the deteriorating security conditions there, says an expert.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • Worried about a growing threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group in Libya, the United States and its allies are increasing reconnaissance flights and intelligence collecting there, and preparing for possible air strikes and commando raids, senior US policymakers, commanders and intelligence officials said this week.

While no decision has been finalised about when the US and its allies will formally expand action in Libya against ISIS, also known as ISIL, administration officials indicated that it might be very soon. A decision probably will come in "weeks" but "not hours", General Joseph F. Dunford Jr, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Friday.

"It's fair to say that we're looking to take decisive military action against ISIL in conjunction with the political process" in Libya, he said. "The President has made clear that we have the authority to use military force."

US and British Special Operations teams have for months been conducting clandestine reconnaissance missions in Libya to identify militant leaders and map out their networks. Separate teams of US Special Operations forces have over the past year been trying to court allies from among a patchwork of Libyan militias that remain unreliable, unaccountable, poorly organised and divided by region and tribe.

In recent weeks, military commanders have intensified their warnings about the threat from ISIS in Libya, where Western officials believe the group has about 3,000 fighters. Recruits are pouring into Libya weekly, as the journey to Iraq and Syria has become more difficult with Turkey tightening its border with Syria, intelligence officials said.

Gen Dunford said the US, France, Italy and Britain are looking with urgency at how to stem the growth in the power of ISIS in Libya before it spreads throughout North Africa and the sub-Saharan countries. In particular, he said it was important to "put a firewall" between ISIS in Libya and other militant extremist groups on the African continent, while working to strengthen the ability of African militaries and governments to fight those groups themselves.

Meeting in Europe this week with counterparts from Britain, Italy and France, Gen Dunford discussed a broad array of military options to turn up the pressure on ISIS in Libya.

Officials said there was agreement that the US and its allies needed to find ways of shoring up Libya's new government of national accord, established this week with help from the United Nations but stuck, as of now, in a hotel in Tunis, Tunisia.

France, Gen Dunford said, will work closely with the US Africa Command on a plan. But that may be particularly challenging given that the new government has yet to gain support from the opposing Parliaments in Tripoli and Tobruk, separated by the length of the country.

In Libya, where a Nato bombing campaign helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi four years ago, there is no functional government. Warring factions are far more focused on fighting one another than on battling ISIS, and Libya's neighbours are all too weak or unstable to lead, or even host, a military intervention.

Last Tuesday, Libya's Presidential Council announced a new government to bring together the groups. But the Cabinet nominees still need to be approved by Libya's internationally recognised Parliament, which sits in Tobruk, in the east.

ISIS has established exclusive control of more than 240km of Mediterranean coastline near Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown.

"The ISIL branch in Libya is one that is taking advantage of the deteriorating security conditions in Libya, putting itself in the position to coordinate ISIL efforts across North Africa," Mr Nicholas J. Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, said in an interview on C-Span last month.

US President Barack Obama's top national security and foreign policy advisers have participated in several high-level meetings, called principals and deputies meetings, in recent weeks to discuss a range of diplomatic and military options for Libya.

"On ISIS in Libya, we have to be more assertive," said Mr Ben Fishman, a former top National Security Council official on North Africa affairs and editor of a new book, North Africa In Transition.

"We have to increase bombing of ISIS while we are working to support the new unity government."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline 'US, allies set on action against ISIS in Libya'. Print Edition | Subscribe