By Eric Schmitt
The Islamic State, though driven from its coastal stronghold in Surt this week, still has several hundred fighters who have dispersed across Libya and pose a threat to the country, its neighbors and, potentially, Europe, according to American officials and the Pentagon’s Africa Command.
The government’s top counter-terrorism official, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, said the Islamic State’s defeat in Surt had dealt a major setback to the militancy’s ambitions to expand its caliphate in North Africa. But he said he remained “very concerned” about the ability of surviving fighters to exploit the country’s economic and political vacuum.
“The concern we have about external attacks from Syria and Iraq extends to Libya if ISIL is able to maintain a stable foothold there,” Mr. Rasmussen, the director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, told a security conference here on Wednesday. The Islamic State is also known as ISIL or ISIS.
That assessment, which echoed other recent warnings from senior American officials, underscores the resilience of what had been considered a potent Islamic State affiliate outside the group’s main territory in Syria and Iraq.
Jonathan Winer, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Libya, told Congress last month that the Islamic State, as it suffered defeats in Surt at the hands of Libyan fighters and American warplanes, was most likely forming cells around the country. He called on Libyans to unite behind the country’s fledgling Government of National Accord to combat the terrorists.
“Most of those who have not been killed probably have stayed in Libya and gone underground, forming cells elsewhere in the country,” Mr. Winer said in testimony to a House panel on Nov. 30. “We believe they are waiting for opportunities to engage in further attacks in Libya or its neighbors, and if possible to reassert ISIL geographically.”
A recent analysis by the American Enterprise Institute, a policy organization in Washington, found that Islamic State militants operating as “desert brigades” south of Surt had ambushed Libyan military positions, disrupted supply lines with explosives and established checkpoints on key roads. The Islamic State is recruiting foreign fighters into southern Libya and is most likely relying on the same havens used by the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, according to the analysis.
In a telephone interview this week, an official at Africa Command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, said that several hundred Islamic State fighters remained in the eastern, southern and western portions of the country, and that counting fighters aligned with Al Qaeda brought the militants’ ranks in the country to more than 1,000.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under the command’s ground rules for news media interviews on intelligence matters, said many of the remaining Islamic State fighters had been drawn to the conflict from Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan and other countries in the region.
American intelligence agencies have offered wide-ranging estimates on the peak number of Islamic State fighters in Libya — mainly in Surt, but also in Benghazi and Tripoli — with some assessments this year topping 5,000 militants.
Although the Islamic State has lost its main base in Libya, it could reorganize as an underground terrorist network by activating the pockets of support it enjoys in cities like Tripoli and Benghazi, and by tapping into the networks of other jihadist groups like Ansar al-Shariah.
“Is jihadism down and out in Libya? No,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He pointed to a cocktail of factors that helped the jihadist cause, including economic collapse, the contraction of civil society and the rise of authoritarianism in eastern Libya. “These are not good signs for the destruction of radicalism,” he said.
Last year’s Islamic State assault on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, which killed 10 people, including an American, provides a possible template for future actions intended to destabilize the country’s fragile United Nations-backed unity government.
But since the assault on Surt started in May, the Islamic State has not carried out any major bombings in Tripoli, which raises questions about the group’s capabilities. In February, American warplanes devastated a major training camp outside the western town of Sabratha, killing at least 43 people, including a commander linked to attacks against Western tourists in Tunisia last year.
The siege of Surt revealed tensions between local and foreign fighters inside the Islamic State ranks. As the forces from nearby Misurata pressed the siege in recent months, Libyan news media outlets reported divisions between Libyan militants who wanted to surrender and foreign jihadists who were determined to fight to the death.
This past summer, the Obama administration deemed Surt an “area of active hostilities,” after the Libyan prime minister asked for assistance in dislodging Islamic State militants from that city. The move exempted the area from 2013 rules that restrict drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations away from battlefield zones, which President Obama had announced in a major speech that year that sought to turn a page in the long-running war against Al Qaeda.
As of this week, Africa Command had carried out 495 airstrikes against militants in Surt since August.
Pentagon and Africa Command officials said there were no plans to expand authorities to conduct airstrikes beyond Surt, although United States officials have said they will consider additional requests from Libyan officials.
Under the procedures set up for the Surt operation, Libyan ground commanders meet at a Libyan operations center outside Surt with American Special Operations forces who have been in the country for months. The Libyan commanders request targets they want the Americans to hit, such as T-72 tanks.
The American forces, working with military spotters and officials at Africa Command, analyze the prospective targets using imagery from American surveillance drones and other intelligence. If deemed valid and not too great a risk to civilians, the targets are approved for attack.
The United States began flying unarmed surveillance drone missions this summer in Libya from bases in neighboring Tunisia, a significant expansion of that country’s counter-terrorism cooperation with the Pentagon.
Tunisia, which has suffered several devastating terrorist attacks, had already built a 125-mile earthen wall, which stretches about half of the length of its border with Libya, in an attempt to prevent militants from infiltrating. “We are ready,” Faysal Gouia, Tunisia’s ambassador to Washington, said in an interview.
Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Cairo.
A version of this article appears in print on December 9, 2016, on page A8 of the New York edition.
Eric Schmitt is a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. Since 2007, he has reported on terrorism issues, with assignments to Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Africa, Southeast Asia among others. He is the co-author, with The Times’s Thom Shanker, of “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda,” published in 2011.
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