President Barack Obama isn’t sure how best to counter the threat of an expanding Islamic State foothold in Libya, where the group is building an army and providing refuge to its war-torn leaders.
“The White House just has to decide,” a senior Department of State official told The New York Times. “The case has been laid out by virtually every department.”
ISIS established a controlling presence in Libya in 2014 when it seized the port city of Sirte and took more than 150 miles of territory along the coast. The Pentagon estimates the group has amassed an army of between 5,000 and 6,500 fighters, and that number continues to grow as would-be migrants to Europe and willing fighters from nearby impoverished North African countries join the terror group. (RELATED: ISIS Pays Migrants Cash Bonuses To Join ‘Army Of Poor’)
The White House is monitoring the threat closely, but Obama wants to avoid establishing an air or ground presence in yet another war-torn Middle Eastern country. Libya is embroiled in a civil war in which various militias are too busy fighting each other to worry much about fighting ISIS, and teams of U.S. Special Operations Forces working to change that have had little success.
The ongoing chaos has allowed ISIS to continue growing and solidifying its presence along the coast. Senior ISIS commanders are taking advantage of the territory to escape U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
“Some of their members, especially those with long-term importance to [ISIS], are taking refuge here,” Ismail Shukri, the head of intelligence in the Libyan city of Misrata, told the BBC. “They view Libya as a safe haven.”
Obama gathered his national security advisers last Thursday to talk about the fight against ISIS and asked them to prepare options to address the group’s presence in Libya without disrupting international efforts to unify the country, reported The New York Times. Military options include airstrikes, commando raids or allocating troops to advise and train Libyan militias, but not troops on the ground.
Obama had not made up his mind on a course of action as of Thursday, reported The New York Times. He’s redoubling efforts to form a unity government but has not determined what, if any, military action will be taken to combat the threat. (RELATED: Hillary’s War Plan In Libya Was To ‘Play It By Ear’)
“Weighing our actions based on how it impacts the Libyan political environment is an almost impossible juggling act,” Juan Carlos Zarate, a former top counterterrorism official under President George W. Bush, told The New York Times. “We may not have a choice if ISIS continues to control greater swaths of territory and assemble more terrorists.”
Leaders are concerned ISIS could use the Libyan foothold to gain direct access to southern Europe by way of the Mediterranean. ISIS is reportedly training pilots in Sirte to fly commercial jets in large and comprehensive flight simulators imported from abroad.
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