WASHINGTON—The U.S. is in talks with North African countries about positioning drones at a base on their soil to ramp up surveillance of Islamic State in Libya in what would be the most significant expansion of the campaign against the extremist group in the region.
The establishment of such a base would help eliminate what counterterrorism officials described as one of the last and most pressing intelligence “blind spots” facing U.S. and Western spy agencies. Washington and its allies are seeking to contain the expansion of Islamic State beyond Iraq and Syria, where a U.S.-led military campaign against the group is already under way.
“Right now, what we are trying to do is address some real intelligence challenges,” a senior administration official said. A base in North Africa close to Islamic State strongholds in Libya would help the U.S. “fill gaps in our understanding of what’s going on” there, the official added.
The quest for a base represents an acknowledgment that the extremist group has managed to enlarge its area of influence even while under U.S. and allied bombardment in Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State has claimed a number of attacks in North Africa recently, including the killing of dozens of foreign tourists at a Tunisian beach resort last month. The attacker may have trained in Libya with a militant group sympathetic to Islamic State.
Drone flights from the base would provide the U.S. military and spy agencies with real time intelligence on Islamic State activities in Libya.
U.S. officials acknowledged having too little intelligence on those activities today because existing bases are too far away to allow for more persistent surveillance. The long distances that drones now have to travel limit how much time they can spend observing militants in Libya before flying back to refuel and undergo maintenance.
So far, none of the North African countries that could offer access to a base have agreed to do so, according to senior U.S. officials. Governments in the region see Islamic State as a threat but are worried that the group will target them more squarely if they agree to host the American military.
Officials said any proposed location would almost certainly be a pre-existing base under the sovereign control of the host government, which would in turn give the U.S. permission to position drones there along with a limited number of U.S. military personnel.
Administration officials declined to name the countries that could host U.S. drones in the region, citing political sensitivities in the region and concerns the information could prompt reprisals. Tunisia and Egypt both share borders with Libya and have long-standing intelligence and military ties with the U.S. Algeria has kept the U.S. at arms length, citing sovereignty issues. Morocco has close ties to Washington but its distance from Libya could make bases there of limited use.
The White House on Friday named Tunisia a major non-NATO ally, a status that opens the door to limited additional military cooperation with the U.S. But administration officials said the designation wasn’t connected to U.S. efforts to secure a drone base in North Africa.
The Obama administration also recently lifted restrictions on the transfer of military equipment to Egypt, including F-16s. As in Tunisia’s case, officials said the decision wasn’t related to U.S. efforts to secure access to a regional base for drone flights into Libya.
Libya has been plunged into chaos since the U.S. and its European allies intervened militarily in 2011 to help oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Warring militias and rival governments have splintered the country, creating fertile ground for extremists to flourish. In 2012, Islamist militants attacked the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
While surveillance flights would be the primary mission for the new effort at first, drones launched from the proposed base also could be used in future airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya, and the base could serve as a launchpad for missions by Special Operations Forces against militants there, U.S. military officials said.
So far, the U.S. hasn’t taken any military action against Islamic State militants in Libya. A recent U.S. strike there targeted a militant leader long aligned with al Qaeda.
Administration officials said they would be prepared to launch strikes against Islamic State militants in Libya if U.S. spy agencies learned that the group was plotting attacks against U.S. interests. But the officials said the White House didn’t envisage a concerted, Iraq-style bombing campaign for Libya, saying any strikes likely would take place sporadically to head off any suspected attacks.
Administration officials said the White House’s primary focus for now was trying to help create a unified Libyan government that Washington then would work with to combat the Islamic State threat within its borders.
Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, is based in Iraq and Syria, but U.S. intelligence agencies say the militant group is growing faster in Libya than anywhere else in the region.
Islamic State, al Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist groups have been using strongholds in Libya as safe havens, enabling militants to train both North African and foreign fighters there and to plot attacks that pose a particular threat to European states just across the Mediterranean.
In contrast to extremist groups in other countries in the region, which have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, some militants in Libya have long-standing links to the group’s predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq. But the Libyan branch still operates largely autonomously from the Islamic State core in Syria and Iraq, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. uses Naval Air Station Sigonella, in Sicily, Italy, for some drone flights over Libya. But surveillance operations from the base are routinely canceled because of frequent cloud cover over the Mediterranean and other weather-related hurdles.
The U.S. military also has access to bases in Niger, both in Agadez in the central region of the country, and outside of the capital of Niamey, which it mainly uses to track al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali. But officials say those bases are too far from Libya to be useful for operations there.
Ensuring that American intelligence assets have ready access to the skies over Libya is all the more critical now, given the security challenges the country poses, said retired Gen.Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Africa Command until 2013.
“The presence of ISIL and other extremist groups in Libya, particularly in eastern Libya, is of significant concern to the U.S.,” said Gen. Ham, now a senior adviser for the consulting firm SBD Advisors in Washington. “Not only has ISIL already conducted deadly attacks in Libya and Tunisia, eastern Libya remains a significant transit point for foreign fighters seeking to join ISIL in Syria and Iraq.”
Officials said the effort was being closely coordinated with key allies in Europe, including Britain and France. But the proposed base would be used principally by unarmed U.S. drones.
Officials from those countries said they are concerned about Libya and that they are working with the U.S. to address the Islamic State threat.
Asked about the talks, White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskeysaid: “We are cooperating closely with nations in North Africa, the Sahel (a sub-Saharan region), and Europe, which share our concerns about threats emanating from Libya. This includes gaining greater intelligence about the groups operating there.”
A senior administration official said the discussions were ongoing and exploratory until an agreement is reached with a state in the region to host U.S. drones. It could then take months to get U.S. surveillance operations up and running at the base.
African countries have long been reluctant to host American military personnel on their soil, complicating efforts by the U.S. military’s Africa Command, known as Africom, to establish permanent footholds on the continent to collect intelligence and project U.S. power in the vast area.
Africom itself was headquartered in Germany in part because countries in the region were so sensitive.
U.S. officials said any North African base used by the Americans would employ a limited number of American military or civilian personnel on a rotating basis, minimizing the need for a large American presence.
Demand within the Pentagon for surveillance flights has been growing across the globe, and Africom hasn’t been the priority, according to current and former military officials.
More drones are assigned to the U.S. Central Command’s areas of responsibility, which stretches from Syria to Pakistan and covers war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But officials said Africom’s share of the Pentagon’s global fleet of drones could increase in the coming years, in recognition of the region’s growing importance to ISIS and other Islamist groups. In recent years, Africom had typically gotten less than 10% of the total number of drone sorties the U.S. military flies around the world, officials said.
“To date, U.S. national priorities have resulted in U.S. Africom receiving only a small percentage of the [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets required,” said Gen. Ham. “But, as the threat of [Islamic State] in Libya and elsewhere in Africa increases, a good case can be made that U.S. Africom’s allocation of critical ISR capabilities ought similarly be increased.”