The United States is considering “decisive” military action against Islamic State fighters entrenched in Libya, but delivering a fatal blow to the militant group will likely require more than airstrikes, experts say.
And many questions remain to be answered about any U.S. involvement in a country that has been embroiled in factional fighting since U.S.-led airstrikes four years ago helped to topple the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, who was captured and slain by rebels.
“What is the strategy?” asked Shashank Joshi, a security analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London. “One-off degradation? Is there a ground component? Who provides the forces? “There are lots of unanswered questions.”
Speaking recently, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not offer details about the plan now under review, but he hinted at potential escalation in Libya that would likely involve an intensification of surveillance of Islamic State fighters and airstrikes like those conducted by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, where the group has its roots.
“It’s fair to say that we’re looking to take decisive military action against ISIL in conjunction with the political process” in Libya, Dunford told a group of traveling reporters last week, using an abbreviation for the radical group. “The president has made clear that we have the authority to use military force.”
The U.S, along with key allies, is now examining military plans that would aim to strike hard against Islamic State militants in Libya, who have taken advantage of the lawlessness to gain a foothold there.
The fear is that the Islamic State can exploit the chaos in Libya to build another sanctuary - this time in an oil-rich country awash in weaponry that borders Western-backed Egypt and Tunisia - that could serve as a springboard to Europe only 300 miles across the Mediterranean to the north.
A decision on the plan, which involves allies such as France, the United Kingdom and Italy, is “weeks” rather than ”hours” away, but the goal is to “put a fire wall” between the Islamic State fighters in Libya and other extremist groups in Africa, Dunford told The New York Times.
But in Libya, the U.S. and its allies will encounter a fighting environment that is every bit as complicated as Iraq and Syria — if not more so, experts say. Shifting alliances among extremist groups and the many militias that hold battle space in Libya will make decisive action difficult, particularly with a reliance on airstrikes.
“Libya is a mess,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer with the Soufan Group, a prominent global security firm. “The militias and extremist groups are aligned and at odds at different times. There’s so many of them. It’s like Syria, but with a more local established militia flair. And there is no clear line of demarcation between them.”
Most of those militias sprouted up in Libya as local defense forces during the Arab Spring uprising against Gadhafi. After the uprising succeeded, the militias refused to hand over weapons. Instead they flourished, in large part because the U.S. and its allies declined to send a stabilization force to Libya, believing the weak central government could establish control on its own.
But any militia that helps a Western coalition could be viewed as foreign lackeys, which could damage their credibility on the ground.
The presence of other religious extremist groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaida, add more complications. In Libya, airstrikes with the aid of U.S. special operations spotters on the ground could blunt Islamic State momentum, not deliver a decisive result, according to experts.
Instead, airstrikes could end up repeating the same mistakes of years ago - creating another power vacuum that some other Islamic extremist constellation could fill.
“But as seen in Syria, it’s an expensive way to buy time,” Skinner said of airstrikes. “It will soften them up but won’t remove them from the towns it controls.”
Meanwhile, chaos in Libya is drawing in more and more fighters from the region. There are now an estimated 3,000 Islamic State militants operating in Libya, concentrated mainly in the coastal town of Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown.
The U.S. has been conducting routine surveillance, launching occasional strike missions against high-value targets, and has quietly deployed special operators to survey the landscape and work with Libyan government partners.
In November, the U.S. conducted an airstrike in Libya that killed the country’s top Islamic State leader. Nearly two years ago U.S. special operators in Libya captured a key suspect in the 2012 attack against U.S. interests in Benghazi in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans died.
Joshi, the security analyst, said Dunford’s comments indicate a growing consensus among the U.S. and its allies in Europe — where officials are concerned extremists could join the steady stream of migrants crossing from Libya to European shores — about the need for some form of military action in Libya.
The West has long had plans to work with Libyan security forces in an expansive training regimen, but years of internal political strife have put such plans on hold.
U.S. Africa Command’s Gen. David Rodriguez and others have said that a condition for deeper engagement is reconciliation between rival Libyan government factions.
AFRICOM declined to comment on specific operations or planning, but officials on Wednesday said the command continues to asses Islamic State activity in Libya.
“I’ll tell you that AFRICOM stands ready to perform the full spectrum of military operations as required,” said Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, an AFRICOM spokesman.
While questions remain about how enduring a recent U.N.-brokered deal between Libya’s rival governments will be, the still-fragile political bargain could be a trigger for more Western involvement.
Airstrikes could help contain fighters in Libya, but quarantining the militants to Libya may not be possible, Joshi said. Already, groups aligned with the Islamic State have sprouted in places such as Tunisia and the Sinai Peninsula. Other groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, have pledged allegiance to the group, but there is little evidence that Boko Haram has anything beyond domestic ambitions.
Still, despite the complications on the ground, Libya’s emergence as a hub for militants demands a response, Skinner said. “As horrible as the prospect is of doing action in Libya, the prospect and consequences of letting Libya fall deeper into chaos are far worse.”