The U.S. airstrike on Islamic State militants in Libya on Friday is fueling a belief that the war-torn north African state is emerging as a new front in the western-backed fight against the extremist group. But the way ahead for any military campaign there remains unclear.
For the other main fronts against the Islamic State — in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — the U.S. has in place a key element to a full-scale military campaign: local ground-level allies to help defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But in Libya, there's hardly any sign of a prospective local partner amid the civil war that rages between rival tribes, extremist groups and loyalists to the previous government.
“The key is going to be finding willing, competent partners on the ground," said retired Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's former supreme allied commander who in 2011 oversaw the U.S.-led air campaign in Libya, an operation that resulted in the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the collapse of an otherwise stable Libyan government.
"Once more factions come together, I would look for an upgun in the U.S. air campaign to support them,” Stavridis said.
The strike Friday morning targeted an ISIS training camp in the coastal town of Sabratha, not far from Libya's western border. It's believed that up to 40 alleged militants were killed. Manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft, including Air Force F-15s based in Europe, carried out the mission, defense officials said. The strike also targeted a senior ISIS leader named Noureddine Chouchane, the apparent mastermind behind two deadly attacks on tourists in Tunisia.
The operation marks the second known strike on ISIS positions inside of Libya. The first, in mid-November, occurred in the coastal city of Derna and resulted in the apparent death of a top ISIS operative and several of his associates, U.S. officials said at the time.
There is growing concern about the rise of ISIS in Libya, which has intensified during the past several months after the group seized the port city of Sirte and other territory along the Mediterranean coast. U.S. intelligence estimates suggest the size of the ISIS force there is between 5,000 and 6,000, up from about half that just a few months ago.
Also fueling concern are the attacks on Libya’s massive oil production infrastructure. In January, militants set fire to oil storage tanks at the Ras Lanuf terminal, which also is located along the Mediterranean coast.
Friday's operation comes after months of discussion in Washington about the emerging threat in Libya.
“This is an effort to confront ISIL beyond the confines of Iraq and Syria because we see that threat has spread,” Peter Cook, the Pentagon's press secretary, said Friday.
“We see the parent tumor of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and that remains our primary focus. But as we see ISIL metastasize and spread to other parts of the world, we continue to keep a very close eye on it. And when we feel the need to strike, we’ll be prepared to do so using all the tools at our disposal,” Cook said.
Yet Cook acknowledged that, for now, the U.S. has no obvious partners on the ground. U.S. Special Forces teams are “trying get a better sense of the playing field, if you will, and the players on the ground.”
“We are making efforts toward that end. We believe we’ve made some strides and progress in that area. But it’s going to continue to be a challenge for us,” Cook said.
For now, there are two governments in Libya, one internationally recognized regime based in Tobruk in eastern Libya, and another in Tripoli, the capital in the west. The U.S. and its allies support the faction based on Tobruk, but that group is militarily and politically weak, said Karim Mezran, a North Africa expert with the Atlantic Council.
Helping that faction gain power in Tripoli would require "a lot of strong international support, which might consist of ground troops,” Mezran said in an interview Friday.
"It will probably be too late if we wait another month," he said of the need for a ground force. "This [Libyan] government will keep on making mistakes, and even a military intervention will not be enough to install it."
In Washington, political pressure to mount an air campaign has been circling for months: Administration officials, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, have said Libya is going to have a higher priority because it is a center of new ISIS activity.
"There is no doubt we are going to have to deal with this. But the question is: What scale is it going to be on?" said Michael Knights, a military expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Are we going to go for ISIS in Libya the way we are going for ISIS in Syria? Meaning we try to bring together a whole bunch of weird paramilitary actors to overrun their stronghold?" he said. "Or are we going to go for ISIS in Libya the same way we are in Yemen or the Sinai — meaning we are only going to pin-prick them. Maybe we don’t want to get involved in putting together a ground force coalition because none of the actors are good guys."
Many experts note that the current chaos in Libya stems from the power vacuum caused by the American-led air campaign to oust Gaddafi. And simply removing ISIS from the mix does not assure a stable, pro-western regime.
"The other problem you run into is that ISIS isn’t the only extremist faction in Libya. All of this in a way makes it as complicated as dealing with Syria and Iraq," Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair for the topic of strategy at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Stephen Biddle, adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the problem of ISIS in Libya cannot be a resolved without a semi-established government in the state.
“You’re not going to solve this problem from 20,000 feet with JDAMS,” Biddle said, referring to the precision-guided weapons — JDAM is short for Joint Direct Attack Munitions — used by the U.S. Air Force.
The next steps need to be systematic for that reason, Stavridis added.
"What you’ll see is a series there — first in ISR, Global Hawk, really soaking the area, understanding patterns of life there. That’s happening," he said, citing the acronym used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and the Air Force's unmanned RQ-4 spy plane. "Secondly, you’ll see strikes that are of opportunity like the ones just conducted to target a particular individual. I think the next step ... will be increasing support to the Libyan forces on the ground now who appear willing to take on the Islamic State."