WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is struggling to find the right mix of military and diplomatic moves to stop the Islamic State in Libya, where the extremist group has taken advantage of the political chaos in the country to gain a foothold with worrying implications for the U.S. and Europe — particularly Italy, just 300 miles away.
U.S. officials have publicly warned of the risks of Libya becoming the next Syria, where the Islamic State flourished amid civil war and spread into Iraq.
No large-scale U.S. military action is contemplated in Libya, senior administration officials said, but Obama last week directed his national security team to bolster counterterrorism efforts there while also pursuing diplomatic possibilities for solving Libya's political crisis and forming a government of national unity. While the Islamic State has emerged in other places, including Afghanistan, Libya is seen as its key focus outside of Syria and Iraq.
"We've been mindful of this risk for more than a year and a half now," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "We're going to continue to watch how the threat in Libya evolves, and we're going to continue to be prepared to take action."
Other administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said military options under consideration include raids and advisory missions by U.S. special operations forces and narrowly targeted airstrikes like the November hit on a command center near the port city of Darnah that killed Abu Nabil, a longtime al-Qaida operative believed by U.S. officials to have been the senior Islamic State leader in Libya.
Since 2014, Libya has been split between two rival authorities, each backed by different militias and tribes. At a conference earlier this week in Rome, U.S., European and Arab officials resolved to "stand ready" to support Libya once it establishes a long-awaited government of national unity. Italy has said it will take the international lead in providing security support to a Libyan government, with the U.S. and others chipping in.
For Obama, the growth of the Islamic State in Libya is the result, in part, of his decision in 2011 to join a European-led air campaign to topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi. By contemplating a return to some form of military action in Libya, the administration is acknowledging how little progress has been made in restoring security in a country with major oil resources.
"The last thing in the world you want," Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday, "is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue."
That could haunt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who advocated for the intervention as secretary of state. Clinton has argued it was necessary to prevent mass civilian atrocities, but Republicans have argued the downward spiral that followed only fueled further insecurity.
The U.S. military is closely monitoring Islamic State movements in Libya, and small teams of U.S. military personnel have moved in and out of the country over a period of months. British, French and Italian special forces also have been in Libya helping with aerial surveillance, mapping and intelligence gathering in several cities, including Benghazi in the east and Zintan in the west, according to two Libyan military officials who are coordinating with them. The Libyan officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The U.S. officials predicted it would be weeks or longer before U.S. special forces would be sent, citing the need for more consultations with European allies. Additional intelligence would help refine targets for any sort of military strikes, but surveillance drones are in high demand elsewhere, including in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Adding to the concern in Washington and Europe is evidence that the number of Islamic State fighters in Libya is increasing — now believed to be up from about 2,000 to 5,000 — even as the group's numbers in Syria and Iraq are shrinking under more unrelenting U.S. and coalition airstrikes.
Last month, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. was "looking to take decisive military action against ISIL (in Libya) in conjunction with a legitimate political process." The long-term answer, he said, is to help Libya build and defend its own security.
The U.S. instead is focused on enlisting individual countries — primarily in Europe — to join the U.S. in taking action in Libya. Although the United Nations has been brokering a plan to bring about a unity government in Libya, the U.S. is looking beyond the U.N. for the right partner for the anti-IS effort, officials said, noting the Europeans' experience in policing and capacity-building in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter is convening a meeting of more than two dozen defense ministers in Brussels next week to discuss the way ahead in fighting IS globally.
Last week he warned that IS fighters are trying to "consolidate their own footprint" in Libya by setting up training sites and drawing in foreign recruits. IS must not be allowed to "sink roots" in Libya, he said, adding that no unilateral U.S. military campaign is planned.
"We don't want to be on a glideslope to a situation like Syria and Iraq," Carter said.
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.