Islamic State fighters shocked the world when they steamrolled the Iraqi army in June. By the end of the month, the Sunni extremists announced the a new “caliphate” in the parts of Iraq and Syria under their control.
Two months later, the Pentagon launched an air war against Islamic State in Iraq and, later, Syria. Washington has also boosted military aid to Baghdad, Kurdish authorities and select Syrian rebel groups to help counter the brutal militants.
But now American officials are also worried about Islamic State—or at least terrorists linked to the group—taking advantage of instability in Libya. The Pentagon is closely watching the North African state in case it turns into the next front in the war.
Islamic State has established training camps and a supply network in eastern Libya, U.S. Army general David Rodriguez told reporters on Dec. 3. But “as far as a huge command-and-control network, I’ve not seen that yet,” Rodriguez added.
While far from the group’s traditional stomping grounds Iraq and Syria, Libya offers a almost perfect space for the organization. The North African country has been in a near-constant state of crisis since rebels overthrew long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi with NATO’s help in 2011.
Unfortunately, the insurgent groups never disarmed or demobilized after they ousted Gaddafi. The militias still roam the country, fighting with terrorists, the central government and amongst themselves—with civilians often caught in the crossfire.
A destructive, months-long battle over the eastern city of Benghazi is a microcosm of these larger problems. Rogue general Khalifa Haftar—who lived fewer than 30 miles from the American capital for years—is fighting with Islamist militias over the major oil hub.
Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have also launched air strikes to back up Haftar’s troops. Meanwhile, Libyan authorities have been helpless to halt the violence—or have been disinterested in doing so.
In October 2013, militants—reportedly irritated by the government’s attempts to actually, you know, govern—briefly abducted then-prime minister Ali Zidan.
“Quite frankly, [there’s] a lot of confusion on the ground about who’s in charge and not,” Rodriguez lamented.
“The fragmentation of the country” has also made it difficult for Washington to work with Tripoli, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Elissa Slotkin noted during her confirmation hearing on Dec. 2.
In July, the U.S. State Department decided to close its embassy and move operations out of the country, all owing to the lack of security. The American diplomatic mission in Libya had been steadily pulling back ever since the deadly attack on the consulate in Benghazi in 2012.
But this same chaos that makes the region so attractive to terrorists also means the Pentagon is already been keeping an eye out for any new developments.
Between January and June 2012, U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predators flew more than 500 missions over Africa, totaling more than 9,000 hours in the air, according to an official Air Force history we received through the Freedom of Information Act.
While Islamist militants in Mali were probably the primary focus, the drones could also have kept watch in southern Libya and the essentially unmonitored zone between the two countries.
After the Benghazi incident, the Predators took to the skies for another 6,000 hours. In October 2012, the Pentagon’s headquarters for Africa had asked the flying branch to send more drones to the continent, according to the historical document.
Less than a year later, Pres. Barack Obama announced he was setting up a drone base in neighboring Niger. In 2014, the Pentagon began work on a second site in that country, one situated even closer to the Libyan border.
The robotic spies no doubt spent some of their time looking for the perpetrators of the 2012 Benghazi attack. Six months ago, American commandos captured one of those individuals, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, and swiftly spirited him out of the country.
Intelligence aircraft could seek out important members of Islamic State in the country, too. The Pentagon has already killed “multiple senior and mid-level leaders” of the group elsewhere, according to an official statement.
The Air Force isn’t the only agency spying over Libya. In November, Libyans noticed a U.S. Navy EP-3E spy plane, as well as one of the U.S. Army’s secretive EO-5Cs soaring overhead.
Both planes can scoop up enemy radio chatter or record movements on video. The Army’s plane is also normally painted in a civilian color scheme to help hide its true purpose.
The spotters took pictures as the aircraft flew over Benghazi, according to War Is Boring contributor David Cenciotti. Islamic State’s efforts in Libya are constrained to the eastern part of the country, Rodriguez said.
And while the the Pentagon does not appear to have any plans to actually attack Islamic State in North Africa, these spy flights would be the first step. Weeks of reconnaissance preceded American air strikes in Iraq.
Two years ago, the Air Force also scanned Syria’s skies in preparation for an aerial attack on Bashar Al Assad’s regime. However, those strikes never occurred.
And if American forces notice Islamic State fighters moving west toward Libya’s capital, the Pentagon could decide to open up a third front against the group.
“We’re continuing to watch that,” said Rodriguez.
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