Bat­tle with Is­lamic State heats up again in Libya

Ter­ror­ist group re­lo­cates after ter­ri­tory losses in Syria, Iraq

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUÑOZ AND GUY TAYLOR

The U.S. mil­i­tary is ramp­ing up op­er­a­tions and bomb­ing raids against the Is­lamic State in Libya, where the ter­ror­ist group’s fight­ers have in­creas­ingly found refuge as their ter­ri­to­rial base shrinks in Syria and Iraq.

U.S.-backed mili­tias largely crushed the Is­lamic State’s Libya op­er­a­tion in late 2015, but signs that the group is gain­ing a new foothold in the North African na­tion be­gan emerg­ing last month. Im­ages of Is­lamic State fight­ers mov­ing through the vast deserts around their for­mer strong­hold in Libya’s north­ern coastal city of Sirte cir­cu­lated through the ter­ror­ist group’s so­cial me­dia and on­line pro­pa­ganda sites in mid-Septem­ber.

Libya is seen as a promis­ing base for the ter­ror­ist group be­cause a deep fac­tional split has pre­vented the cre­ation of a func­tion­ing national gov­ern­ment in Tripoli since the ouster of dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi in 2011.

While the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has pub­licly re­sisted a ma­jor U.S. mil­i­tary role in Libya, the

Pen­tagon wasted lit­tle time re­spond­ing to the flurry of Is­lamic State ac­tiv­ity there. On Sept. 22, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials an­nounced that Amer­i­can fighter jets had been dis­patched to pound an Is­lamic State en­camp­ment roughly 150 miles south of Sirte, Gad­hafi’s home­town.

U.S. Africa Com­mand said in a state­ment that the en­camp­ment was be­ing “used by ISIS to move fight­ers in and out of the coun­try, stock­pile weapons and equip­ment and to plot and con­duct at­tacks.” It was the first time in roughly eight months that Amer­i­can war­planes had bombed an Is­lamic State tar­get in Libya.

Is­lamic State and al Qaeda “have taken ad­van­tage of un­governed spa­ces in Libya to es­tab­lish sanc­tu­ar­ies for plot­ting, in­spir­ing and di­rect­ing ter­ror at­tacks,” AFRICOM said in a state­ment late last month.

Sid­diq al-Soor, who heads the Libyan gov­ern­ment’s pub­lic pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice in Tripoli, told re­porters last week that Is­lamic State forces in the coun­try were still op­er­at­ing a “desert army” after los­ing their Sirte base, cit­ing in­for­ma­tion gleaned from an Is­lamic State fighter who was cap­tured after U.S. airstrikes in the Wadi Skir re­gion. He said some of the fight­ers, in­clud­ing leader Ab­dul Qader alNa­jdi of Iraq, had ties to al Qaeda as well as Is­lamic State, ac­cord­ing to a re­port in the Voice of Amer­ica.

The Sirte out­post was vi­tal to Is­lamic State in part be­cause it is the heart of Libya’s oil-pro­duc­ing re­gion, a po­ten­tial source of vi­tal fund­ing for the group.

For­mer U.S. Spe­cial En­voy for Libya Jonathan Winer said in an in­ter­view Wednesday that it is clear Is­lamic State, which set it­self off from ri­val ji­hadi groups like al Qaeda by its abil­ity to take and hold ter­ri­tory, is try­ing to re­store its foothold in Libya.

“They’ll nurse their wounds [from Iraq and Syria] and try to come back to North Africa,” he said.

Mr. Winer, who served in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, said of­fi­cials were wary even be­fore 2015 that Is­lamic State would seize on the post-Arab Spring se­cu­rity vac­uum in Libya to es­tab­lish an op­er­a­tions hub there. “We were wor­ried about it back then,” he said. “That was our fear.”

A top Euro­pean in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial told The Washington Times over the sum­mer that many Euro­peans who had trav­eled to fight with Is­lamic State in the re­gion were re­lo­cat­ing to Libya as the prospect loomed of de­feat in Syria and Iraq.

While the Euro­pean fight­ers may be seek­ing even­tu­ally to re­turn to their home coun­tries, a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of them are at least tem­po­rar­ily stay­ing in Libya, Europol Direc­tor Rob Wain­wright said.

The sit­u­a­tion is com­pounded by the fact that Tu­nisia, which in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials once de­scribed as the top source coun­try of Is­lamic State for­eign fight­ers, bor­ders Libya to the north­east. Tu­nisian fol­low­ers of Is­lamic State may now also be mass­ing inside Libya be­cause they fear im­pris­on­ment if they re­turn home.

Thou­sands of Libyans are also known to have gone to Syria and Iraq for Is­lamic State. Mr. Winer, now a scholar at the Washington-based Mid­dle East In­sti­tute, noted Wednesday that Libya has been sec­ond only to Tu­nisia as a source coun­try for the ter­ror­ist group’s ranks.

U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials put the num­ber of Is­lamic State fight­ers ac­tive in Libya at 500, down from an es­ti­mated 6,000 when the ter­ror­ist group was run­ning Sirte, the Voice of Amer­ica re­ported.

Sleeper cells

Is­lamic State sleeper cells are al­ready creep­ing back into neigh­bor­hoods and vil­lages sur­round­ing Sirte, said Emily Estelle, a Libya an­a­lyst at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute’s Crit­i­cal Threats Pro­ject.

“We are def­i­nitely see­ing a resur­gence in Libya” she said Wednesday. “They have spent the bet­ter part of a year putting them­selves back to­gether.”

While the grow­ing Is­lamic State fac­tion in Libya con­sists of mostly lo­cal fight­ers, its ranks will likely ex­pand over the com­ing weeks and months as veter­ans of the wars in Iraq and Syria are ab­sorbed into the group, she said.

The grow­ing Is­lamic State force in Libya is a com­bi­na­tion of “Desert Brigades,” lightly ar­mored and highly mo­bile units that spear­headed the ter­ror­ist group’s drive across Syria in 2014 and 2015 and clan­des­tine sleeper cells, Ms. Estelle said.

One of these cells car­ried out a sui­cide at­tack last week in the north­west­ern Libyan city of Misurata, killing five and wound­ing 20. Such re­venge at­tacks are tar­get­ing para­mil­i­tary groups and mili­tias that backed the cam­paign to drive Is­lamic State out of Sirte last year, Ms. Estelle said. Mili­tias in Tripoli and else­where in east­ern Libya are also likely tar­gets in what could be a bru­tal ter­ror­ist cam­paign in the weeks to come.

Pres­i­dent Trump has re­peat­edly ex­pressed a vow to de­stroy Is­lamic State but is re­luc­tant to ex­pand the U.S. com­mit­ment to Libya.

“I do not see a role in Libya,” Mr. Trump said at a press con­fer­ence in April. “I think the United States has right now enough roles.”

Gen. Joseph Dun­ford, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told re­porters in May that the U.S. mil­i­tary’s strate­gic ap­proach cen­tered on sev­er­ing the “con­nec­tiv­ity be­tween ISIS af­fil­i­ates” and driv­ing down the group’s “ca­pa­bil­ity to a point where lo­cal forces, with tai­lored sup­port from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, are able to pro­vide se­cu­rity.”

“We’re do­ing this,” Gen. Dun­ford said at the time, “in Libya, So­ma­lia and Syria, Ye­men and Afghanistan.”

Next steps

The se­cu­rity vac­uum and po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty that took root after the fall of Gad­hafi in 2011 made the North African na­tion a prime tar­get for Is­lamic State as the ter­ror­ist group rose to power in 2014. Is­lamic State fight­ers so­lid­i­fied their foothold in the coun­try in 2015 after seiz­ing Sirte that year.

An es­tab­lished Is­lamic State out­post just over 700 miles from south­ern Europe’s bor­ders prompted the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to take ac­tion. The ef­fort, a com­bi­na­tion of U.S. air power and train­ing for Libyan forces on the ground, led to the re­tak­ing Sirte a year later.

But Is­lamic State’s ji­hadi mes­sage con­tin­ued to at­tract con­verts, and many inside Washington viewed a U.S. mil­i­tary train­ing mis­sion for Libyan para­mil­i­tary forces as a fail­ure, pro­duc­ing only a hand­ful of U.S.-trained rebels at a cost of mil­lions of dol­lars to the Pen­tagon. There were re­ports that U.S. weapons and hard­ware tied to the ef­fort were find­ing their way into ex­trem­ists’ ar­se­nals.

The Pen­tagon qui­etly restarted a ver­sion of the Libya train­ing mis­sion in May in the run-up to the lat­est Sirte of­fen­sive. U.S. forces have been ro­tat­ing in and out of two main bases around the north­east­ern coastal city of Misurata, roughly 130 miles west of the coun­try’s cap­i­tal of Tripoli, and Beng­hazi on the coun­try’s west­ern coast since last year.

While the sta­tus of that ef­fort re­mains un­clear, U.S. strat­egy going for­ward in Libya should be fo­cused on dis­band­ing the vast ar­ray of com­pet­ing mili­tias that con­sti­tute the coun­try’s se­cu­rity forces and help foster an “ef­fec­tive mil­i­tary un­der civil­ian con­trol,” Mr. Winer said.

That ef­fort should be sub­si­dized by tar­geted U.S. airstrikes and coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions, he said, adding that Washington should look to “cre­ate se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity where you can and ex­e­cute coun­tert­er­ror­ism [op­er­a­tions] where you should.”

That light U.S. mil­i­tary foot­print, com­pared with the Amer­i­can pres­ence in Iraq and Syria, will al­low Washington to con­tain Is­lamic State’s ef­forts to re­group in North Africa “with­out com­pro­mis­ing the le­git­i­macy of the Libyan gov­ern­ment,” Mr. Winer noted.

But as Tripoli’s ten­u­ous hold on power comes un­der grow­ing pres­sure from Rus­sian-backed mili­tias un­der the Libyan National Army in east­ern Syria, the le­git­i­macy of Libya’s gov­ern­ment re­mains in ques­tion, hin­der­ing U.S. ef­forts to bat­tle Is­lamic State’s grow­ing pres­ence, said Ms. Estelle.

“If in­fight­ing con­tin­ues, we are just going to see [a U.S.] air cam­paign. … That is all we are going to see,” she said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

FIRE­POWER: Amer­i­can fighter jets are pound­ing Is­lamic State ar­eas in Libya. The ter­ror­ist group is gain­ing a new foothold in the North African na­tion, par­tic­u­larly the strate­gi­cally lo­cated city of Sirte.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Fight­ers of Libyan forces af­fil­i­ated with the Tripoli gov­ern­ment rested and reloaded weapons dur­ing com­bat op­er­a­tions against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants last month in Sirte, in a deadly new of­fen­sive to re­take the last dis­trict un­der con­trol of the ter­ror­ist group.

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