It appears increasingly likely that U.S. military involvement against the self-declared Islamic State’s growing foothold in Libya is a matter not of “if,” but of “when.”
Over the past several months, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has taken advantage of the ongoing civil war in Libya and the lack of a central government to expand its operations there. The group now controls the city of Sirte and, according to recent U.S intelligence estimates, has more than 5,000 fighters in the country, some of whom have been sent from Iraq and Syria to provide guidance but also to keep them safe from incessant U.S. and coalition attacks in those countries. Islamic State fighters have targeted oil-production installations for attack, thereby keeping desperately needed funds out of the hands of the Libyan central bank, one of the few uncontested institutions left in the country. Quite simply, if Libya is not yet an outpost from which the Islamic State can plot attacks against Western targets, it is well on its way to becoming one.
The rise of the Islamic State in Libya has fed louder and louder calls from Western officials to respond with military force. Except for an airstrike in November that killed a top commander, the Obama administration has resisted these calls and appears increasingly reluctant to intervene, preferring instead, it appears, for the French and Italians to take the lead. Still, it’s hard to imagine that the United States would not become involved in an anti-ISIS effort in Libya, either by contributing intelligence and logistics assistance or playing a more direct combat role.