By Eric Schmitt
February 23, 2016
The Islamic State’s branch in Libya is deepening its reach across a wide area of Africa, attracting new recruits from countries like Senegal that had been largely immune to the jihadist propaganda — and forcing the African authorities and their Western allies to increase efforts to combat the fast-moving threat.
The U.S. air strikes in north-western Libya on Friday, which demolished an Islamic State training camp and were aimed at a top Tunisian operative, underscore the problem, Western officials said. The more than three dozen suspected IS fighters killed in the bombing were recruited from Tunisia and other African countries, officials said, and were believed to be rehearsing an attack against Western targets.
Even as U.S. intelligence agencies say the number of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria has dropped to about 25,000 from a high of about 31,500, partly because of the U.S.-led air campaign there, the group’s ranks in Libya have roughly doubled in the same period, to about 6,500 fighters. More than a dozen U.S. and allied officials spoke of their growing concern about the militant organisation’s expanding reach from Libya and across Africa on rules of anonymity because the discussions involved intelligence and military planning.
IS leaders in Syria are telling recruits travelling north from West African nations such as Senegal and Chad, as well as others streaming up through Sudan in eastern Africa, not to press on to West Asia. Instead, they are being told to stay put in Libya. U.S. intelligence officials, who described the recent orders from IS leaders, say the organisation’s immediate goal is to carve out a new caliphate in Libya, and there are signs the affiliate is trying to establish state-like institutions there.
The rising threat from Libya comes as President Barack Obama is being asked by many of his top military and intelligence advisers to approve the broader use of U.S. military force in Libya to open another front against the IS.
While administration officials have disclosed that Mr. Obama is mulling over how large of a military campaign to order for Libya, the new intelligence reports and the analysis on the spread of the IS are energising the high-level debate in Washington and allied capitals.
Before resorting to any wider military action, however, the White House and Western allies like Britain, Italy and France are trying to help create a unity government in Libya.
The goal is to use such a new central authority to rally dozens of fractious militias to fight against a common enemy — the IS. U.S. and European special operations forces could help advise and assist those militias, officials said.
“Our strong preference, as has always been the case, is to train Libyans to fight,” Mr. Obama said last week at a news conference in California. The administration and its allies are taking several steps to prepare to train Libyan troops should a newly formed unity government request such aid. They are also rushing to bolster pivotal African allies outside Libya as a bulwark against IS expansion on the continent.
The Pentagon has proposed spending $200 million this year to help train and equip the armies and security forces of North and West African countries. The U.S. is about to break ground on a $50 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, that will allow Reaper surveillance aircraft to fly hundreds of miles closer to southern Libya.
The IS in Libya is now the most dangerous of the group’s eight affiliates, counter-terrorism officials say. About half a dozen senior IS lieutenants have arrived from Syria in recent months to build up the franchise. New U.S. and allied intelligence assessments say IS commanders in Libya are seizing territory there, starting to tax its residents and setting up quasi-government institutions.
The New York Times News Service