Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, listens to opening statements during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2017.

Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, listens to opening statements during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2017. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – Fewer than 200 Islamic State fighters remain in Libya but pose enough of a threat that the United States intends to retain a small special operations force in the troubled nation indefinitely, the U.S. Africa Command chief said Friday.

In the months since American B-2 Spirit stealth bombers pulverized the terrorist group’s desert encampments south of the coastal city of Sirte on Jan. 18, Islamic State fighters have scattered farther into the desert, Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser told reporters Friday at the Pentagon. Small groups of the militants have maintained communication lines with one another, but they have not gathered in large groups since that assault, which the Pentagon estimated killed about 80 of them.

“They have not left,” the general said of the Islamic State group. “We continue to watch, we continue to observe to develop the intelligence, and if requested by … the Government of National Accord for assistance, we’ll help them with that.”

The United States backed the Government of National Accord, the UN-recognized Libyan government, with airpower for months, as militia fighters supporting the GNA fought an urban battle with the Islamic State group in Sirte. U.S. warplanes and helicopters conducted more than 500 airstrikes that helped free Sirte from the terrorist group in December. The jihadist group had held the city – and more than 150 miles of Libya’s Mediterranean coast -- since early 2015, and had intended to establish a headquarters there for its African operations.

Waldhauser stopped short of providing a solid estimate on the Islamic State group’s actual size within Libya, but he said it was fair to characterize their strength as between 100 and 200 fighters.

U.S. defense officials once estimated the terrorists boasted some 4,000 militants inside Libya. Waldhauser said Friday that he believes American estimates might have been low.

Though the group is only a fraction of what it once was in Libya, the uncertain governance of the nation gives the militants room to regroup.

While the UN recognizes the GNA as the legitimate government of the nation, several groups – including the Libyan National Army whose leader Khalifa Haftar has recently established ties to Russia – continue to fight for governance.

“Anywhere you have a weak or unstable or no government, that’s a breeding ground for [the Islamic State group],” Waldhauser said. “We must make sure our pressure on the network keeps those problems tamped down.”

Thus the United States will retain its small force of special operations teams in the country who are charged with intelligence gathering and maintaining contacts with militias that support the GNA, he said.

Waldhauser declined to say how many American troops are operating in Libya, as other defense officials have done previously.

“You have to have that there,” Waldhauser said. “We are going to have to do to these things so that we can take out targets when they arise.”

The ultimate way to defeat the Islamic State group, the general said, would be to align Libya’s warring factions against the extremists through a political solution.

“It’s such a volatile environment right now inside Libya, that one of those things we need to make sure is this doesn’t evolve into an all-out civil war,” he said. “One thing that unites pretty much everybody in Libya … is the idea that no [Islamic State group] is wanted inside Libya.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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