Last Friday, the U.S. launched an airstrike against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also referred to as “ISIL”) affiliate in Libya, hitting a suspected training facility and targeting one of its leaders. The operation comes as Western leaders have shifted their sights toward the group’s monumental gain in the country’s civil war. As a result of heightened national security concerns raised by the group’s presence, Libya is becoming a new front in the fight against ISIS and it has become apparent that greater Western military involvement lies on the horizon.
U.S. Department of State spokesman Mark Toner has explicitly stated, after the airstrike last Friday, that he did not believe this operation would mark “the opening of a new front” in Libya.
Despite this comment, the odds of the U.S. continuing to pursue military solutions to the monumental rise of the ISIS affiliate in Libya seem to be high.
This airstrike is one of a series of operations conducted by the Obama administration in the last year. The first operation occurred in June when an airstrike targeted a high-profile associate of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The second, which indicated the administration’s growing concerns about the rise of ISIS’ presence in Libya, targeted Abu Nabil al-Anbari, an ISIS leader and Iraqi national who was supposedly sent to Libya on the orders of the self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“We’ve made clear that we need to confront ISIL wherever it rears its head,” stated Peter Cook, the spokesman of the Department of Defense.
It seems that Libya is one of the places where ISIS has reared its head and has become a significant threat. The organization has been able to control the north-central town of Sirte and the surrounding areas, approximately a 120-mile stretch of land, where it has been involved in state-building efforts, like its counterparts in Iraq and Syria. In addition to the territory that is formally controlled by ISIS in Libya, there are parts of the country where the group is able to operate due to the lack of security, like the training facility that was targeted last Friday.
Unlike other branches of ISIS who just adopt the brand and name of the group but do not have any physical ties with the group’s leadership in Iraq and Syria, the Libyan branch appears to be an exception. With a number of high-profile foreign emissaries, such as Abu Nabil al-Anbari, and 800 Libyan nationals who had recently returned from fighting in Iraq and Syria, the United Nations has concluded that the organization has “thus far been the only known ISIL affiliate that has benefited from support and guidance by ISIL in the Middle East.”
The spokesman of the Department of Defense stated last month that the Pentagon is seeking “military options” to deal with the rise of ISIS in Libya. Members of the Obama Administration have met with European heads of state and top ministers about confronting ISIS in Libya. Last month, General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with his French counterpart to assess the situation, and stated “we’re looking to take decisive military action” against ISIS in Libya. Additionally, U.S. special forces have been on the ground in Libya on reconnaissance missions, Italy has allowed the U.S. to fly its drones from its base in Sicily and Britain has reportedly been flying Libyan missions in preparation for a possible intervention.
As ISIS gains strength in Libya, the U.S. now seems to be focused on two objectives: targeting its high-profile leaders and helping the fractured Libyan government take back the territory ISIS controls. The former will most likely be the new normal in Libya, while the latter will most likely be held off until Libya’s two feuding governments can create a unity government.
Though the lack of a unity government may pose an obstacle for taking back the territory ISIS controls in Libya, Obama has stated that “we will continue to take actions where we’ve got a clear operation and a clear target in mind.”
Based on the statements from U.S. officials and the recent actions of the U.S. and its allies, there is little doubt that a new front in the war against ISIS has opened and military operations, like the one that happened last week, will be sure to increase in the near future.