WASHINGTON — Worried about a growing threat from the Islamic State in Libya, the United States and its allies are increasing reconnaissance flights and intelligence collecting there and preparing for possible airstrikes and commando raids, senior American policy makers, commanders and intelligence officials said this week.
While no decision has been finalized about when the United States and its allies will formally expand action in Libya against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, administration officials indicated that it might be very soon. A decision will probably come in “weeks” but “not hours,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday.
“It’s fair to say that we’re looking to take decisive military action against ISIL in conjunction with the political process” in Libya, General Dunford said. “The president has made clear that we have the authority to use military force.”
United States and British Special Operations teams have for months been conducting clandestine reconnaissance missions in Libya to identify militant leaders and map out their networks. Separate teams of American Special Operations forces have over the past year been trying to court allies from among a patchwork of Libyan militias that remain unreliable, unaccountable, poorly organized and divided by region and tribe.
In recent weeks, military commanders have intensified their warnings about the threat from the Islamic State in Libya, where Western officials believe the group now has about 3,000 fighters. Recruits are pouring into Libya weekly, as the journey to Iraq and Syria has become more difficult with Turkey tightening its border with Syria, intelligence officials said.
General Dunford said the United States, France, Italy and Britain are looking with urgency at how to stem the growth in the power of the Islamic State in Libya before it spreads throughout North Africa and the sub-Saharan countries. In particular, he said it was important to “put a firewall” between the Islamic State in Libya and other militant Islamic extremist groups on the African continent, while working to strengthen the ability of African militaries and governments to fight those groups themselves.
Officials said there was agreement that the United States and its allies needed to find ways of shoring up Libya’s new government of national accord — established just this week with help from the United Nations but stuck, as of now, in a hotel in Tunis.
France, General Dunford said, will work closely with the United States Africa Command on a plan.
But that may be particularly challenging given that the new government has yet to gain support from the opposing parliaments in Tripoli and Tobruk, separated by the length of the country.
“Although I want to move quickly,” General Dunford told reporters traveling with him in Paris on Friday, “we’ve got to make sure we do this right.” He said that “unchecked, I am concerned about the spread of ISIL in Libya,” adding that he believed that “military leaders owe the president a way ahead.”
All this week, other top American defense leaders were sounding similar notes. “Libya will continue to be a challenge in the year to come, illustrating the new reality where small organizations wield undeserved power,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said in a speech in Paris.
“There is a concern about Libya,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the military’s Special Operations Command, said at a conference in Washington this week. “It can’t all be about Iraq and Syria.”
Libya could present the West with challenges equal to those an American-led coalition faces in fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In those two countries, the Islamic State is hemmed in by a host of armed groups with international backing and is being pummeled by American, British and other allied airstrikes.
In Libya, where a NATO bombing campaign helped overthrow Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi four years ago, there is no functional government. Warring factions are far more focused on fighting one another than on battling the Islamic State, and Libya’s neighbors are all too weak or unstable to lead or even host a military intervention.
On Tuesday, Libya’s Presidential Council announced a new government to bring together the groups. But the cabinet nominees still need to be approved by Libya’s internationally recognized Parliament, which sits in Tobruk, in the east.
The Islamic State already has established exclusive control of more than 150 miles of Mediterranean coastline near Surt, Mr. Qaddafi’s hometown.
One of the Islamic State’s most senior leaders, a former Iraqi Army officer under Saddam Hussein now known as Abu Ali al-Anbari, arrived late last year in Libya by boat from across the Mediterranean, residents and Western officials say. Another senior Islamic State operative from Syria, known as Abu Omar, also arrived in Libya recently to help cement the group’s gains, American intelligence officials said this week.
Another senior Iraqi leader of the Islamic State — Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, also known as Abu Nabil — may have served as the group’s top commander in Libya until he was killed in November in an American airstrike near the eastern Libyan city of Darnah.
Counterterrorism officials regard the Libyan branch as the Islamic State’s most dangerous affiliate, one that is expanding its territory and continuing to mount deadly attacks, including several this month.
“The ISIL branch in Libya is one that is taking advantage of the deteriorating security conditions in Libya, putting itself in the position to coordinate ISIL efforts across North Africa,” Nicholas J. Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in an interview on C-Span last month.
President Obama’s top national security and foreign policy advisers have participated in several high-level meetings, called principals and deputies meetings, in recent weeks to discuss a range of diplomatic and military options for Libya.
“On ISIS in Libya, we have to be more assertive,” said Ben Fishman, a former top National Security Council official on North Africa affairs and editor of a new book, “North Africa in Transition.” “We have to increase bombing of ISIS while we are working to support the new unity government.”
By ERIC SCHMITT and HELENE COOPER