As Islamic State forces lose ground in Iraq and Syria, fighters loyal to the group have seized territory in oil-rich Libya, levying taxes at gunpoint and creating sanctuaries to launch possible attacks in North Africa and Europe, U.S. officials say.
The Pentagon has sent special operations teams to gather intelligence and launched at least one airstrike. But the White House so far has resisted calls from some senior aides to escalate the U.S. military role in another Muslim country to counter the potential threat.
Spy satellites and reconnaissance drones have shown the terrorists building fortifications around Surt, on the central Mediterranean coast and on training bases for foreign fighters farther inland, the officials said.
A U.S. intelligence estimate last week concluded that Islamic State has attracted more than 5,000 fighters in Libya, double the official estimate last fall, making it the terror group’s largest and most potent affiliate outside Syria and Iraq.
Islamic State threatens to gain a “stranglehold” in Libya and potential “access to billions of dollars of oil revenue,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned, one of several alarms the administration has raised in recent days.
He spoke at a conference Tuesday in Rome where the United States and 22 other nations agreed to support the formation of a unity government in Tripoli, the capital, in a tenuous effort to restore stability and take on the terrorists.
Libya has had no functioning central government since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign helped to oust ruler Muammar Gadhafi in 2011.
It has faced political chaos and a low-grade civil war nearly ever since, with two rival governments battling for control, and squabbling militias exploiting the power vacuum.
“In the absence of a true government, (militant groups) have grown unchecked,” said a U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s like Syria all over again.”
Islamic State “has a bad habit of growing in places that are ungoverned,” Tina Kaidanow, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator said last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
She cited an urgency at the White House and among its allies to move quickly before the group expands beyond its current foothold, which extends about 100 miles east and west of Surt.
“We don’t want to see the growth of (Islamic State) outpace what will be a long-term effort to build out a successful Libyan government,” she said.
The group’s rise comes as foreign fighters from Tunisia and elsewhere in Africa have moved to Surt and other strongholds in Libya, rather than to the war zones in Syria and Iraq, where the terrorists have suffered several military setbacks in recent months from the U.S.-led coalition.
The Pentagon wants to ensure that Libya doesn’t “get on a glide slope” where Islamic State “gathers a piece of territory from which it’s able to tyrannize people and plot operations elsewhere,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters Thursday at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
“That’s the situation we want to avoid in Libya,” he said.
Any military intervention probably would be led by France and Italy, the former colonial power. Options include sending troops from Italy to help protect the new government, using U.S. and French advisers to train Libyan counterterrorism forces, and launching airstrikes.
For now, British and American special operations teams and intelligence services have focused on identifying Islamic State leaders, assessing their networks and strongholds, and reaching out to local militias willing to fight them, officials said.
But intelligence officials say the militias are unreliable, poorly organized and divided by region and tribe, as well as by outside support, the same complex problem that has crippled U.S. attempts to unify opposition groups in Syria.