Rome conference examines ISIS threat in Libya
ROME - For the US-led international coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), it is a question of does it want the good news or bad news first?
On the one hand, ISIS is in retreat in Iraq and Syria. On the other, the group is expanding in Libya and continues to demonstrate a dangerous ability to target global capitals.
Representatives of the 23 countries of the US-led coalition met on February 2nd in Rome to discuss developments in the war against ISIS and what needs to be done to eradicate the self-styled caliphate.
US Secretary of State John Kerry informed the meeting that over the last six months ISIS fighters have lost 40% of their territory in Iraq and 20% of their territory in Syria thanks to an escalating aerial campaign targeting the group’s heartland.
Despite recent victories, Kerry said the battle was far from over and warned against overconfidence in a war that is being fought on more than one front.
“We are surely not here to brag about anything. We’re here to recommit. We’re here to re-evaluate. We’re here to make judgments about things we have started that we could do better,” he said.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who opened the meeting with Kerry, also warned against taking ISIS lightly, saying: “We know that we have in front of us an organisation that is very resilient and able to plan strategically and we should not underestimate it.”
“If anything we need to be even more wary and more watchful because we know that the more ISIS is squeezed in its core territories, the more tempted it is to pursue its terrorist activities elsewhere. We are witnessing renewed activity in Libya and sub-Saharan Africa,” he added.
Kerry warned of the possibility of ISIS “metastasising” from Syria and Iraq to Libya. ISIS has a presence in the North African state, controlling part of the country’s central coast, centring on Sirte. The group also claims to have chapters in Bayda, Benghazi, Al- Khums, Tripoli and Derna.
ISIS has spoken of the “immense potential” that Libya offers the group, thanks to the lack of any real security control and the presence of huge caches of unsecured arms from the Libyan civil war.
If the group were to gain a foothold in the North African state, it could threaten the security of next door neighbours, especially Tunisia, and serve as a gateway to Europe, which is increasingly concerned about ISIS attacks following the Paris shootings in November. Despite this, there have been positive political developments in Libya amid efforts to establish a national unity government to bring together the country’s two warring administrations.
“In Libya, we are on the brink of getting a government of national unity. That country has resources. The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue,” Kerry said.
US President Barack Obama would not hesitate if need be to take “unilateral action to protect the American people”, a White House spokesman said on February 3rd, though he declined to comment on whether any decisions had been made on the possibility of sending ground troops into Libya.
Western air strikes in Iraq and Syria have specifically targeted ISIS oil facilities in a bid to cripple the group’s finances, a strategy that has witnessed some success with ISIS cutting the salary of its fighters by half.
The West has indicated greater willingness to commit troops on the ground in Libya, as opposed to Iraq and Syria, with the objective to stamp out ISIS before it is able to gain a significant stranglehold in the country.