US and allies consider strikes on ISIS in Libya
BEIRUT - The United States, Britain, France and Italy are discussing extending the air offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) to Libya to prevent the Islamist group seizing the country’s energy wealth and establishing a beachhead to launch attacks on Europe.
Four years after the Americans, their NATO allies and some Arab powers mounted a major air campaign to help Libyan rebels topple Muammar Qaddafi, a conflict that plunged the North African country into anarchy, the same Western powers are seeking to prevent ISIS setting up a new stronghold outside Syria and Iraq.
Leaders from 23 countries met in Rome on February 2nd to hammer out a military option, underlining the growing unease that ISIS has defied efforts to stamp it out.
Libya’s energy wealth, its porous borders with six countries, the abundance of arms and the security vacuum left by the 2011 civil war make it an ideal launch pad for ISIS to extend its savage, apocalyptic ideology across the Maghreb and into the Sahel.
“The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue,” US Secretary of State John Kerry warned in Rome.
Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, warned ISIS is capable of seizing “large amounts of territory… I wouldn’t be surprised if we woke up one morning and ISIS… had grabbed a large part of Libyan territory — the same kind of blitzkrieg… that we saw in Iraq.”
US President Barack Obama is ready to take action in Libya to counter the ISIS threat, the White House said on February 3rd.
“If there is a need for the United States to take unilateral action to protect the American people, the president won’t hesitate to do that,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Earnest declined to comment on whether Obama had made any decisions on the possibility of sending ground troops into Libya, but said the president has “demonstrated a willingness to take decisive action,” even in Libya.
ISIS has suffered military setbacks in Iraq and Syria of late but remains resilient in Libya, its next most important territory. Unlike Iraq and Syria, Libya is within easy reach of southern Europe.
ISIS’s Libyan branch has some 3,000-5,000 fighters who control 400km of coastline. In June 2015, they captured the port city of Sirte, 450km east of Tripoli, and launched attacks on Libya’s “oil crescent”.
Current Western military thinking appears to favour a limited strategy of air strikes against ISIS and its Libyan allies, with Sirte the main target, supported by special operations forces raids to kill or capture key leaders.