ARLINGTON, Va. — The Pentagon today expressed concern that, pushed out of their strongholds, the Islamic State will find a new place to set up shop.
In a message last week rallying ISIS fighters to hold their ground in Mosul, self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi suggested that those wanting to join ISIS but who can’t make it to Iraq or Syria head to Libya or other ISIS provinces around the globe.
Libyan forces, though, have been gradually clearing ISIS’ onetime stronghold of Sirte and are expecting full liberation of the city soon.
At today’s Pentagon briefing, press secretary Peter Cook stressed that Libyan forces have made impressive progress as it’s “a very isolated portion of Sirte, a particular neighborhood in fact, where the remaining ISIL forces are.”
“And we will be prepared, at the request of the [Government of National Accord], should we determine it’s appropriate, to carry out additional airstrikes as needed and to provide support to them as they request it of course is something we have to evaluate as those requests come in,” he said.
Cook underscored that Sirte is “an urban environment where there are still civilians, and the remaining ISIS jihadists “have no opportunity to exit the fight here.”
“They are fighting to the death it appears. Many of their colleagues have had that result,” he added. “And this is an enemy that has shown a willingness to try and hold ground. They have lost most of their territory in Sirte. This is a very isolated area, again, an urban environment where I think to their credit, the GNA-aligned forces are worried about civilian casualties as well, the risk of human shields. And I would defer to those forces to describe their plan of attack going forward and — but we’re on standby to provide the assistance that we can from the air as needed and as appropriate.”
Sirte was the “primary location” for ISIS in Libya, and Cook said “the notion or the possibility that there may be pockets of ISIL in other parts of the country certainly remain, but the primary focus for the GNA in terms of the elimination of ISIL was Sirte specifically.”
“[ISIS] had touted Sirte as a success story, they had had the leadership in Iraq and Syria tout their success in Sirte and they have had that success rolled back. And there are still a number of ISIL fighters in this small area, but we’re not aware of a substantial ISIL presence elsewhere, although that’s something certainly we’ll continue to watch closely,” he said.
With no more urban haven in Libya, Cook said, “we’re worried about the metastasis of ISIL.”
“And if they’ve been unsuccessful in Sirte, we’re of course concerned that they may try and establish a foothold somewhere else,” he said.
The battle to retake Mosul has been in full swing since mid-October, and the offensive to retake ISIS’ de facto capital, Raqqa, Syria, began this past weekend.
The U.S. authorization to conduct airstrikes in Sirte ran out at the end of October. Cook said he wouldn’t get into “authorities and private conversations that we have within the U.S. government.”
“But we continue to support the Government of National Accord, continue to support the aligned forces of the Government of National Accord. And we are prepared to continue that support, including airstrikes for the GNA,” he said.