US, Europe step up war on ISIS in Libya
BEIRUT - A Western drive to crush the Islamic State’s Libya stronghold and prevent possible terrorist attacks on Europe across the Mediterranean gathered momentum with Italy’s decision to allow the United States to launch drone strikes from Sicily.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced on February 22nd that US forces could launch “defensive missions” from Sigonella airbase near Catania on the eastern side of the island, about 480km north of Libya, approved on a case-by-case basis by the Rome government. The United States has a naval air station at Sigonella.
Renzi said that “if we have proof that there are ‘kamikaze’ attackers preparing potential strikes, naturally Italy will do its part” along with the United States and other Western European states that believe the Islamic State (ISIS) is exploiting the power vacuum that has gripped Libya since the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011.
Italian defence officials said the US operations could extend as far east as the caliphate the Islamic State (ISIS) proclaimed in Syria and Iraq in June 2014.
Nearly five years after the United States, Britain and France launched air strikes against Qaddafi’s regime to help rebels topple his military dictatorship, the Americans seem set on mounting a new military offensive to prevent oil-rich Libya becoming an extension of the ISIS caliphate.
France, which is fighting jihadists in the nearby African Sahel region, has begun flying reconnaissance missions over Libya to identify bases used by ISIS and its collaborators.
US intelligence estimates ISIS strength in Libya has grown from 2,000 to 5,000 fighters, many of them veterans of the wars in Syria and Iraq. The militants are concentrated around the coastal city of Sirte and threaten Libya’s main oil region.
There are no immediate plans for US ground operations in Libya but the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Marine General Joseph F. Dunford, said on January 22nd that the United States and France were getting ready for “decisive military action” in Libya.
American F-15E fighter jets, launched from Britain on February 19th, attacked an ISIS camp outside Sabratha, in western Libya, reportedly killing more than 40 militants. US officials said these included Tunisian ISIS figure Noureddine Chouchane, who masterminded two deadly attacks in Tunisia in 2015.