The Islamic State terror group in Libya continues to grow inside the oil-rich North African state and is threatening attacks against Europe and elsewhere, the general nominated to lead the U.S. Africa Command told a Senate hearing Tuesday.
"An unchecked IS-Libya could become an external operations hub threatening Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, shipping in the Mediterranean, and our European allies," Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser said in prepared testimony, using an acronym for the Islamic State branch in Libya.
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The general warned that Libya’s instability combined with growing ISIS activities could "push the country toward civil war, threatening U.S. interests in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East," the three-star general told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination for the AFRICOM post.
Waldhauser said during the hearing that he favors increased airstrikes and a greater U.S. troop presence in Libya to counter the terror threat.
Under questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), Waldhauser said he agreed that U.S. military forces should be undertaking bombing strikes there against ISIS forces.
U.S. military forces are authorized to conduct bombing strikes when an imminent threat from ISIS is detected, but so far no strikes have been launched, Waldhauser said. "There are targets being developed but there have been no flights … flown," he said.
The general said he currently lacks authority to order airstrikes against ISIS in Africa without presidential approval, but that he would launch strikes if he had the authority. "It would certainly contribute to what we’re trying to do inside Libya," he said.
A few U.S. drone attacks have been launched against ISIS leaders in Libya from bases in Italy, including one in November that killed a top terrorist leader.
Libya represents one of the Obama administration’s high-profile foreign policy failures. The president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered the support of Libyan rebels opposing the regime of Col. Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Following Gaddafi’s ouster, the country became a failed state with multiple safe havens for terrorist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda.
The Libya operation, involving U.S. and NATO airstrikes to prevent rebels from being defeated by regime forces, has been described as part of an Obama strategy of "leading from behind."
Waldhauser testified that arms proliferation resulting from the fall of the Gaddafi regime is fueling terrorism throughout Africa and the Middle East.
ISIS in Libya boasts between 4,500 to 6,500 fighters, mostly from Tunisia and the Sahel region of north central Africa. The group had only 1,000 fighters last year.
ISIS is using its Libyan branch to expand operations further into the African continent.
Waldhauser said ISIS in Libya poses a threat to the region.
"The current unprecedented migrant crisis coupled with IS-Libya’s long-term intent to strike U.S. and European interests poses a growing threat to Europe’s southern flank," Waldhauser said. "The ability to infiltrate IS-Libya operatives into Europe provides many more attack venues against Westerners as well as U.S. persons and property, though we have yet to see clear evidence of IS-Libya exploiting the cross-Mediterranean refugee flow for operations into Europe."
Waldhauser said the large numbers of ISIS fighters are now in question due to the advance of Libyan militia forces on the group’s stronghold of Sirte, a port city on the Mediterranean coast. About 3,000 to 4,000 Libyan militia fighters currently are battling ISIS fighters at Sirte.
As a result, ISIS fighters are leaving the Sirte area and moving into alternate safe havens in the south and west of the country.
"Whether Libyan forces can clear and hold Sirte remains unknown," the three-star general stated, adding that until recently "IS-Libya was considered the most proficient Islamic State branch outside of Iraq and Syria in terms of its ability to project force and govern territory."
The Libyan branch of ISIS will likely use more asymmetric attacks in a bid to slow the advance of Libyan forces, he noted.
Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said he was especially concerned about ISIS in Libya, a country whose government is unable to control territory outside of the capital of Tripoli.
McCain said the current crisis is due in part to "the failure of the United States and international community to put forth a comprehensive strategy" after Gaddafi’s ouster, and to the failure of the Obama administration’s reactive approach to dealing with terrorism.
Waldhauser said two main objectives are to help the government gain control of its territory and to disrupt ISIS activities.
Asked what the U.S. role should be in Libya, Waldhauser said many Libyans have a bias against foreign assistance that would likely hinder or prevent Africom from providing direct support.
The emerging Libyan central government, called the Government of National Accord, is making progress in unifying the country against ISIS, Waldhauser said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Peter Cook sidestepped questions asking why there have been no bombing raids against ISIS targets in Libya.
"At this point, we continue to assess the situation very closely and continue to have our conversation with the government that's taking shape and with our partners, and we're proceeding along that path in close consultation," Cook said.