Pressure put on Obama to open military front line against IS in Libya

Militia fighters aligned with the forces that took over the government in Tripoli, Libya, fired an artillery piece at Islamic State militants near Surt last year. Credit Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Militia fighters aligned with the forces that took over the government in Tripoli, Libya, fired an artillery piece at Islamic State militants near Surt last year. Credit Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The New York Times

President Obama is being pressed by some of his top national security aides to approve the use of American military power inLibya to open up another front against the Islamic State.

But Mr. Obama, wary of embarking on an intervention in another strife-torn country, has told his aides to redouble their efforts to help form a unity government in Libya at the same time the Pentagon refines its options, which include airstrikes, commando raids or advising vetted Libyan militias on the ground, as Special Operations forces are doing now in eastern Syria. The use of large numbers of American ground troops is not being considered.

The debate, which played out in a meeting Mr. Obama had with his advisers last week, has not yet been resolved, nor have the size or contours of any possible American military involvement been determined.

“The White House just has to decide,” said one senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “The case has been laid out by virtually every department.”

The number of Islamic State fighters in Libya, Pentagon officials said this week, has grown to between 5,000 and 6,500 — more than double the estimate government analysts disclosed last fall. Rather than travel to Iraq or Syria, many new Islamic State recruits from across North Africa have remained in Libya, in militant strongholds along more than 150 miles of Mediterranean coastline near Surt, these officials said.

The top leadership of the Islamic State in Syria has sent half a dozen top lieutenants to Libya to help organize what Western officials consider the most dangerous of the group’s eight global affiliates. In recent months, United States and British Special Operations teams have increased clandestine reconnaissance missions in Libya to identify the militant leaders and map out their networks for possible strikes.

Military planners are still awaiting orders on whether American involvement would include striking senior leaders, attacking a broader set of targets, or deploying teams of commandos to work with Libyan fighters who promise to support a new Libyan government. Any military action would be coordinated with European allies, officials said.

Where the Islamic State Is Active in Libya

Source: Data on episodes of violence compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project based on news reports By The New York Times
Source: Data on episodes of violence compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project based on news reports By The New York Times

Teams of American Special Operations forces have over the past year been trying to court Libyan allies who might join a new government in a fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But commanders say they are dealing with a patchwork of Libyan militias that remain unreliable, unaccountable, poorly organized and divided by region and tribe.

“How long will the United States and the Europeans wait until they say, we have to work with whatever militias we can on the ground?” said Frederic Wehrey, a Libya specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who frequently visits the country.

When Mr. Obama assembled his national security advisers last Thursday to discuss escalating the fight against the Islamic State, he asked them to prepare whatever military measures were necessary to combat the militants in Libya while not undercutting the international effort to help form a national unity government.

For Mr. Obama the challenge is to avoid embarking on yet another major counterterrorism campaign in his last year in office while also moving decisively to prevent the rise of a new arm of the Islamic State that if left unchecked analysts say could attack the West, including Americans or American interests.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter summed up the balancing act between nurturing the fragile and fitful political process and gearing up for what would most likely be a Special Operations war this way last week: “We’re looking to help them get control over their own country.”

But, he added, “We don’t want to be on a glide slope to a situation like Syria and Iraq. That’s the reason why we’re watching it that closely. That’s the reason why we develop options for what we might do in the future.”

A dozen American and European military, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said in interviews that they had little doubt that the Islamic State in Libya posed an ominous threat.

“You could see a very large holding, an area that is effectively governed by ISIS in Libya, and Libya’s proximity to serve as a gateway into southern Europe,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said this week in calling for military strikes against Islamic State leaders.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in Rome this week that the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State must intensify its efforts to thwart the group from gaining a “stranglehold” in oil-rich Libya, mainly by backing the creation of a national unity government there. “The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue,” Mr. Kerry said.

Forming a unity government would most likely lay the groundwork for the West to provide badly needed security assistance to the new Libyan leadership. Options under discussion include sending Italian and other European troops to Libya to establish a local stabilization force and reviving a Pentagon plan to train Libyan counterterrorism troops.

There is no functioning government now in Libya, where a NATO bombing campaign helped overthrow Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi nearly five years ago. Warring factions are far more focused on fighting one another than on battling the Islamic State, and Libya’s neighbors are all too weak or unstable to lead or even host a military intervention.

Lawmakers in Libya’s internationally recognized Parliament last week overwhelmingly rejected a proposed United Nations-backed unity cabinet, dealing a blow to diplomatic efforts to swiftly reconcile the country’s splintered factions.

Senior administration officials say the parallel tracks of supporting the political process in Libya while fighting the Islamic State are “mutually reinforcing.” But at some point, current and former administration officials said, the United States may have to act unilaterally or with allies if faced with a credible threat from the Libyan franchise.

“Weighing our actions based on how it impacts the Libyan political environment is an almost impossible juggling act,” said Juan Carlos Zarate, a former top counterterrorism official under President George W. Bush. “We may not have a choice if ISIS continues to control greater swaths of territory and assemble more terrorists.”

While no decision has been reached about when the United States and its allies will formally expand action in Libya against the Islamic State, administration officials said this week it could come very soon. A decision will probably be made in “weeks,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said late last month.

“It’s fair to say that we’re looking to take decisive military action against ISIL in conjunction with the political process” in Libya, General Dunford said. “The president has made clear that we have the authority to use military force.”

Indeed, the United States killed a senior Iraqi leader of the Islamic State — Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, also known as Abu Nabil, who was also believed to be the group’s top commander in Libya — in an airstrike in November near the eastern Libyan city of Darnah.

“They’re welcoming foreign fighters to flock there, the way, in years past, they did in Syria and Iraq,” Mr. Carter said of the Islamic State in Libya last week. “And they’re trying to take over the reins of the economy and tax it the way you see ISIL doing — you see the same kind of ambitions on their part that you see realized in full flower in Syria and Iraq.”

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