By Eric Schmitt
After B-52 bombers struck an Islamic State training camp in Libya in January, killing more than 80 militants, American officials privately gloated. On the heels of losing its coastal stronghold in Surt the month before, the Islamic State seemed to be reeling.
But Western and African counterterrorism officials now say that while the twin blows dealt a setback to the terrorist group in Libya — once feared as the Islamic State’s most lethal branch outside Iraq and Syria — its leaders are already regrouping, exploiting the chaos and political vacuum gripping the country.
Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told a Senate panel this month that after their expulsion from Surt, many militants from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were moving to southern Libya.
“The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” General Waldhauser said. “Even with the success of Surt, ISIS-Libya remains a regional threat with intent to target U.S. persons and interests.”
Libya remains a violent and divided nation rife with independent militias, flooded with arms and lacking legitimate governance and political unity. Tripoli, the capital, is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups that have built local fiefs and vied for power since Libya’s 2011 uprising. Running gun battles have seized Tripoli in recent days.
“Libya is descending into chaos,” said Brig. Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue), a senior Chadian officer who directed a major counterterrorism exercise here in the Chadian capital last week involving 2,000 African and Western troops and trainers. “It’s a powder keg.”
Libya’s neighbors have rushed to ward off the threat of Islamic fighters seeking safe haven within their borders or trying to recruit their young people to fill its depleted ranks.
Tunisia, which has suffered several devastating terrorist attacks in recent years, has already built a 125-mile earthen wall, which stretches about half the length of its border with Libya, in an attempt to prevent militants from infiltrating.
Since last summer, the United States has been flying unarmed surveillance drone missions over Libya from bases in Tunisia, a significant expansion of that country’s counterterrorism cooperation with the Pentagon.
Algeria announced this month that it had opened a new air base in the country’s far south to help secure its borders with Mali, Niger and Libya.
And Chad closed its borders with Libya in January, fearing potential terrorist infiltration. The country reopened one main border crossing this month under pressure from border towns suffering a dearth of commercial traffic and to allow Chadian citizens to return home from Libya.
“As long as the Libyan chaos lasts, security in the Sahel and the Sahara will always be strained,” President Idriss Déby of Chad told a regional security conference in Bamako, Mali, this month. The Sahel is a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal east to Chad.
Eric Schmitt is a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. 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.