The U.S. Congress is considering whether to approve the use of military force beyond the scope of current operations in Syria and Iraq. If agreed upon, this endorsement would provide the legal framework and congressional authorization for expanded operations against the Islamic State, with Washington keen to minimize any unnecessary limitations for the future. Secretary of State John Kerry specifically emphasized the need to maintain the option to deploy ground forces in Iraq and to geographically expand operations against the Islamic State to countries other than Syria and Iraq.
Although the jihadist group has been able to maintain its primary presence in Iraq and Syria despite a coalition air campaign against it, some organizations in other countries such as Algeria, the Philippines, Libya and Pakistan either claim to be part of the Islamic State or sympathize with it. These networks provide some degree of support to the main Islamic State effort in Syria and Iraq, mostly in the form of financing and recruitment, though these groups are not necessarily critical to the capabilities of the movement in Syria and Iraq.
That said, the mobility of former Islamic State fighters and the emergence of groups demonstrating increased militancy in the style of the Islamic State could present localized threats in the countries where they are located. In the event of the proliferation of the Islamic State beyond Iraq and Syria, U.S. policymakers and military planners might request authorization to conduct military operations in nearby countries. It is important to note, however, that obtaining the legal authority to expand the geographic scope of operations does not imply that such activity is imminent or even desirable.
One country in particular where such a threat could arise is Libya, where the Tobruk-based government's military operations against Islamist factions continue. Several hundred militants in Darnah claim their allegiance to the Islamic State, and recent reporting indicates that Islamic State training camps have been established in eastern Libya. The country's Islamist landscape — which is only a specific part of the militancy in Libya — is highly diverse, and while Libyan fighters have joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the group's presence in Libya is by association and therefore is more related to local dynamics than to the Islamic State core in Syria and Iraq.
Although any U.S. military campaign against Islamists in Libya would probably not directly affect the Islamic State's capabilities in Syria and Iraq, there are separate incentives for involvement in the Libyan conflict. The ongoing attempts to bring those behind the 2012 Benghazi attack to justice could compel limited airstrikes or special operations forces activity, which has already occurred. Additionally, limited military action could support attempts to prop up the Tobruk government and retired Gen. Khalifa Hifter's military operations by limiting the presence and activities of militant organizations operating within Libya. Hifter has already received limited air support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
The specific nature of such interventions would keep them rather limited in scope. There is no conventional military force to destroy as there was during the 2011 NATO campaign against former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. There are also no large military offensives, like those conducted by the Islamic State and its Sunni supporters in Iraq, which would compel such a broad military action. That there is little that could be achieved by airstrikes in the Libyan conflict already limits the prospects of any potential mission.
The limited effectiveness of airstrikes were shown during Hifter's campaign against the Operation Dawn forces in Benghazi and in western Libya. Although the volume and accuracy of airstrikes by Hifter's forces might be questionable, the same challenges — Islamist militants taking up positions in populated areas and reducing the need to move in large numbers — would equally limit the effectiveness of any Western air campaign in Libya. Actions similar to those taken by the United States in Yemen or Pakistan, specifically the periodic engagement of high-value targets by unmanned aerial vehicles, would likely be more appropriate than those taken in Syria and Iraq.
Although there may be no imminent requirement for the United States to expand its anti-Islamic State campaign into Libya, Washington requires the legal framework to allow for this if the situation changes. The United States may also conduct operations in Libya to support Hifter's ongoing offensive or to capture or kill high-value targets, though such operations would be of a limited scope and scale.