The Pentagon is drawing up plans for a large scale air assault on ISIS forces in Libya based on faulty and overestimated intelligence reports.
Top Washington officials and analysts warn against military escalation in Libya, saying that it is based on overblown estimates of the Islamic State’s strength and would in fact add more fuel to the jihadists’ fire.
They say it is reminiscent of the disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which was based on faulty intelligence. That decision consequently led to the birth of ISIS in the Middle East and its expansion into north Africa.
The Telegraph reports:
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American intelligence agencies have said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group has doubled in size in the country recent months, putting the numbers of fighters at between 5,000 and 6,500.
But, in a warning that carries historical echoes of the 2003 Iraq invasion, a range of top analysts, sources on the ground and –speaking privately – US officials have said they believe these estimates to be wildly overblown.
“The estimates of the number of jihadists is grossly exaggerated,” said Karim Mezran, a Washington based Libya expert with the Atlantic Council.
Whilst Mr Karim and other analysts were loathe to put a number on the size of the organisation, citing the chaos and lack of access to Isil areas in Libya, all said they believed it to be little as one to two fifths of the stated numbers.
Analysts said that rival tribes and militias have often accused their enemies of being Isil members in a bid to win military support. The warned that a large scale assault could therefore backfire, further fanning the country’s ravaging civil conflict.
The growing influence of Isil just 300 miles from Italy’s shores has been a cause of widespread concern among Western governments.
As the Sunday Telegraph reported last week, Britain, America, Italy and France have all returned Special Forces to the territory to reconnect with and begin training militia groups who are fighting, or who could fight the extremist group.
The intelligence report on Isil’s expansion, which was published last month, has added urgency to discussions in Washington over how to tackle the group’s presence in the country, with many – especially in the Pentagon – feeling that the US can no longer wait to act.
Even as the United Nations is leading negotiations to bring rival parliaments and militias in Libya together under a Government of National Accord, the Obama administration is mulling taking much more sustained military action against the group in Libya, officials have said.
Bob Corker, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said during a hearing on Libya this week US military forces were “contemplating a pretty massive air assault” in the country.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph afterward he expanded the suggestion of military action, saying something “large in scale” was being considered, but declined to add detail.
But senior US officials familiar with Libya and other in country experts said they feared the Pentagon was pushing for military action based on a fundamental miscalculation in the size and nature of the threat.
Profiting from a vacuum of power in Libya, Isil strengthened its grip on Sirte, the home town of former dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. They have established checkpoints that expand their influence on approximately 120 miles of Libyan coastline.
There has also been an increase in the number of foreign jihadists, with emirs – princes – in the group diverting volunteers to set up on its shores, rather than travelling to Syria and Iraq.
Whilst 12 months ago Isil in Libya was mostly an amalgam of local Islamist groups and disgruntled Gaddafi loyalists, it has started to harden in its ranks, with foreign fighters strengthening its ideological bent.
But, the numbers, analysts said are likely closer to 2,000 people across the country, cited by a United Nations report in December.
Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst for International Crisis Group, who recently travelled to Libya said that testimony she had gathered from refugees fleeing the city indicated that “the number of Isil militants that are controlling the city are in the hundreds, not in the thousands”.
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