ISIS Is Getting Too Close To Europe, Time to Respond

Constance Baroudos, M.A.

Lexington Institute

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has increased its presence in Libya, a formerly wealthy oil state on the Mediterranean, in the past year. The terrorist group has 5,000 to 6,500 fighters in Libya and controls almost 200 miles of coastline. ISIS has been attacking Libya’s oil infrastructure and aims to launch attacks on Europe. President Obama needs to listen to his senior military advisors and decide on military action to prevent ISIS from attacking Europe again – not to mention stopping the terrorist group from spreading to other parts of Africa.

Libya is in chaos due to the power vacuum left behind by the 2011 air campaign that removed former Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi – cities are in ruins and more than 4,000 people have been killed. Gadhafi’s weapon arsenal has fed the Syrian civil war, and ISIS has thrived in Libya by exploiting the unsettled political and military situation. While the U.S. has local ground-level allies to fight ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, there is no such group in Libya as extremist groups and loyalists of the previous government conduct a civil war.

Expansion into Libya has been important to ISIS since late 2015 because it is a safe haven from bombs being dropped in Iraq and Syria. Libyan presence also allows the terrorist group to be in closer proximity of Europe and provides the opportunity to expand into other African countries. Just 18 months ago ISIS had fewer than 1,000 followers in Libya – today that total has increased by five or six times.

The terrorist group’s immediate goal is to create a new caliphate in Libya. Some evidence suggests that senior ISIS commanders from Iraq and Syria moved to Libya last year, bringing their organization and military expertise.  The terrorist group is trying to establish state-like institutions by taxing residents and setting up an administrative apparatus as it did in Syria and Iraq. However, ISIS does not control any oil fields in Libya as it does in Syria. According to intelligence officials, the main source of revenue for ISIS in Tripoli is taxation and extortion of fees from residents and businesses.

At this time, there are two governments in Libya: one in Tripoli and one that is militarily weak in Tobruk supported by the U.S. and its allies. Obama Administration officials have admitted there has been a delay in military action in Libya because it is waiting for Tripoli to create a unified government. Creating a real government will take a long time since a dialogue must take place with key Libyan stakeholders – it is not easy to select one group to represent many rival factions. Diplomatic efforts are challenging without a stable government, as are military responses.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Libya will increase in priority because it serves as the center of new ISIS activity. Recently, unmanned and manned U.S. aircraft including F-15s based in Europe struck an ISIS training camp in Sabratha, a coastal town close to Libya’s western border with Tunisia. Reconnaissance assets such as RQ-4 Global Hawk drones are utilized to gain a better understanding of the patterns in the area.

In the meantime, ISIS has been creeping westward towards Tunisia – its government believes about 3,000 Tunisian nationals have joined ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The road between Tripoli and Tunis has been blocked for months due to rival militants. In response to the increasing conflict, the Tunisian government built a 125-mile wall and trench along its border with Libya and will use surveillance equipment to detect breaches.

The expansion of ISIS closer to Europe is very worrisome. Fears have increased after police discovered a film in the home of a man associated with ISIS. The video targeted a researcher at a Belgian nuclear center that produces a large amount of radio isotopes. Iraq also announced that nuclear material has been seized by insurgents with potentially deadly intentions.  Radiation poisoning and billions of dollars in financial losses would result if radio isotopes were used as a “dirty bomb” in a major city – a terrorist’s dream. The fact that ISIS is associated with nuclear material and getting closer to Europe alarms counterterrorism experts.

While waiting for a unified government to form in Libya, another challenge is training security forces to protect the country, especially as ISIS expands.  The Pentagon proposes spending $200 million this year to train Libyan troops, if the newly formed government makes a request for assistance. The U.S. has also begun building a new drone base in Niger, to allow Reaper surveillance aircraft to fly closer to southern Libya. Other countries like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Qatar and Turkey must respect the U.S. arms embargo on Libya and cease providing financial and military support to proxies in Libya.

President Obama’s senior national security aides have stated military action is needed in Libya to stop the consolidation of ISIS, and General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, has confirmed military options are being discussed.  The Pentagon recently provided the White House with a detailed report on military options in Libya – now the president must make some important decisions. While American intervention may fuel more violence, it is dangerous for the U.S. and NATO to stand by as ISIS grows stronger and so close to the European continent. Tunisia is only about 570 miles away from Italy, and Greece is roughly 920 miles from Libya.

The U.S. could increase the number of airstrikes in Libya and work closely with the Libyan protection force trying to guard oil facilities. America needs to listen to navy officials and increase presence in the Mediterranean by permanently deploying an aircraft carrier and destroyers and amphibious ships. Military capabilities should be enhanced at NSA Souda Bay on the Greek island of Crete to provide for a faster response. Better utilizing Souda Bay should come naturally as it is located very close to key danger areas and can increase alliance cohesiveness by training at nearby NATO facilities. Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander has stated that the U.S. must also find competent partners on the ground in Libya so that a U.S. campaign could boost their efforts.

ISIS is a growing threat to Europe and North Africa. Since the terrorist group has increased its total number of fighters in Libya and controls coastal territory, it is much stronger and closer to the European continent. It is difficult for the U.S. and NATO to implement air campaigns without local forces on the ground, but they cannot passively stand by and do nothing as the terrorist menace expands. The West cannot guarantee peace if ISIS were to be removed from Libya, but the U.S. and NATO could deter terror attacks and protect European citizens by boosting capabilities on Europe’s southern flank.