WASHINGTON - U.S. military forces are on the ground in Libya looking for potential partners in what could soon be an expanded campaign against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
"There have been some U.S. forces in Libya trying to establish contact with forces on the ground," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters Wednesday. “Get a better sense of who the players are, who might be worthy of U.S. support and support from some of our partners going forward.”
Cook described the U.S. contingent as a small group, adding they were in Libya "at the concurrence of Libyan officials.”
While not the biggest fighting force in Libya, IS has been growing stronger there in recent months, cementing its hold on the city of Sirte and surrounding areas.
Growing threat in Libya
A U.S. official familiar with the intelligence recently told VOA about 500 key IS officials and fighters who left Syria and Iraq during the last several weeks of 2015 and moved to Libya in what appeared to be a calculated move.
Western officials estimate IS may now have upwards of 5,000 fighters in Libya.
“This is a situation that does cause us concern, and we’re considering what our options might be going forward should that threat, ISIL, become an even bigger threat,” Cook said, using an acronym for the terror group.
Cook’s comments come just days after the top U.S. military officer warned the Islamic State in Libya posed a pressing regional threat.
“You want to take decisive military action to check ISIL's expansion and at the same time you want to do it in such a way that's supportive of a long-term political process," Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a small group of reporters Friday.
"My perspective is we need to do more," Dunford added, saying key decisions about U.S. involvement in Libya could come within a matter of weeks.
The U.S. has already shown a willingness to strike IS in Libya, killing Abu Nabil, believed to have been the top IS leader in Libya, in an airstrike this past November.
Islamic State has long used Libya as a training ground for fighters destined for Syria and Iraq, but increasingly it has become part of the terror group’s expansion plans.
“It now is a destination,” Levantine Group security analyst Michael Horowitz said. “The local branches of ISIS have spared no efforts to promote Libya as a land for jihad.”
Like in Syria and Iraq, the terror group has taken advantage of large tracts of ungoverned spaces as well as political turmoil.
“The current fragmentation between and within rival Libyan political camps is also helping ISIS to grow by eroding trust and legitimacy in Libyan politics and politicians as a whole amongst a large swath of the Libyan population, especially the youth,” according to Jason Pack, a researcher of Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University and president of Libya-Analysis.com.
Despite the presence of U.S. special forces on the ground in Libya, the Pentagon rejected the notion of sending traditional U.S. forces, or “boots on the ground,” to Libya.
"Right now, that's not something that's under consideration," said spokesman Cook.