In a CNN article on 4 February, which you can read here, a new estimate for ISIS fighters in Libya was predicted at 6,500 fighters, nearly twice the 3000-4000 number propagated by a special UN panel report late last year. The article points to this buildup of fighters as the main reason for the new flurry of activity in the Pentagon, which wants to increase aerial surveillance in the area. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, it is also becoming harder for militants to enter Syria, while an unidentified U.S. official also said that ISIS is ‘investing heavily in Libya’. Despite these estimates, other specialists believe the numbers are heavily exaggerated, putting the actual number at half. However, information on ISIS numbers and their distribution on the ground are still largely flimsy at best, assisted by the Libyan political fragmentation and state collapse.
An interesting, investigative Newsweek article appeared on 5 February, covering current US special operations in Libya and outlining the concern of US and allied governments toward ISIS activity in the country. According to the report, US commandos have been gathering tactical evidence, conducting frequent flights from the Italian airbase at Pantelleria to Libyan air bases, and holding meetings with Libyan anti-ISIS militias. Despite current initiatives, the Obama administration has not yet called for a direct military action. Pentagon and military officials suggest that the US will likely pursue a two-pronged approach consisting of targeted anti-jihadi airstrikes and support for a unity government that the US could then provide military aid. However, during these deliberations and preparations, ISIS continues to threaten the security of Libya, Europe, and Africa. The Pentagon is pushing for more action – airstrikes and training militias who support the GNA – while the Obama administration has been more reticent. To read the full article, click here.
Days before the Italian president’s visit to the White House on 9 February, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter reportedly told media that the Italians have indicated that they want the lead in Libya, an impulse the US is willing to support. While the US is currently focused on supporting the fledgling Libyan political process, Carter added, the US is wary of the rapid expansion of ISIS in Libya, and is watching closely.
Meanwhile Russian media is reporting that Russian Ambassador to Libya Ivan Moltokov has unveiled his country’s intention to fight terrorism, also saying that Russia has approached the UN Security Council with a request to lift arms sanctions against Libya to enable its fight against ISIS. He also pointed out that Libya must reunify its institutions to facilitate support from the international community for this purpose, reaffirming that Russia will be unable to supply arms to a country with fragmented authorities. If the current presidential council, he posited, is able to attain a unified GNA, then Russia will be able to support Libya in many ways.
On 8 February, Tunisia’s former foreign minister, Al Munji Al Hamdi, said that Tunisia will pay a costly price for any future international intervention in Libya. He expressed his support to the Tunisian president’s calls, and that of the foreign ministry, for prudence regarding a possible intervention in the near term. The Tunisia Defense Minister Farhat Al Harshani also publicly stated that Tunisia has already informed international partners of the importance of coordinating any action against ISIS with his country, and that airstrikes are not conducted without the explicit agreement of the Libyan government.