As Daesh [ISIS] consolidates its grip on parts of Libya, exploiting the chaos of civil war and divisions among Islamist groups as it did in Iraq and Syria, will the West be forced to intervene - again?
After 16 months of airstrikes against the extremist group in Syria and Iraq, the United States and its allies have claimed some success. US Secretary of State John Kerry said the group has lost large swathes of the territory it once controlled.
But at a meeting in Rome of the anti-Daesh coalition he cautioned, however, that victory is not yet assured, as the militant group plays "a game of metastasizing out to other countries - particularly Libya."
Italy has been among US allies drumming up support to act against Daesh in Libya in order to stem its advance.
But rather than focusing on a military response and "fruitless" rivalries on who should lead it, Italy and its allies should "stop the anarchy in which the Islamic State is thriving," Arturo Varvelli of Italian think tank ISPI said in a Tuesday note.
Libya has been shattered since 2011, when a Western bombing campaign coordinated by NATO helped local militias unseat long-time leader Moamer Gaddafi.
Five years later it remains a broken country with two rival governments and the instability has allowed Daesh to establish a growing presence in the oil-rich North African state.
Islamic State militants have seized a growing area of the central Libyan coast between the western regions controlled by the Tripoli government and its allies and the eastern regions under the Tobruk administration's influence.
Varvelli wrote that Western concerns were mounting because of the difficulty of implementing a December UN deal on a national unity government, and growing fears of terrorism following the November 13 Paris attacks.
But he warned that "the interventionist urge [...] is only partly justified," adding that warmongering did not necessarily amount to "doing the right thing."
"Latest rumours suggest that the West may be already changing its strategy and may start bombardments against the Islamic State even without a formal request from a legitimate Libyan government," Varvelli added.
Hinting at past Western failures, Mattia Toaldo of the European Council of Foreign Relations noted: "Once again, we would have military action with no political strategy, or rather, with no answer to the question of who will control the territory freed from the Islamic State."
"If the West is ready to respond to emergencies, it means that the Islamic State will dictate the timing of an intervention, with an attack to which the West will have to respond," Toaldo told dpa.
Wolfgang Pusztai, in another ISPI paper from December, estimated the number of Daesh fighters in Libya at 2,700-3,500, including 1,500-2,000 in Sirte, with some likely reinforcement from Boko Haram, the insurgent group active in north-eastern Nigeria, as well as Chad and Cameroon.
Writing for US think tank Atlantic Council in January, Karim Mezram spoke of Daesh's three-pronged expansion strategy, based on: spreading terrorism via car bombs and suicide attacks; linking with local criminal gangs; and "rapid and devastating attacks" to gain ground.
Sirte, Gaddafi's birthplace, has become a Daesh stronghold because the former leader's militias were sidelined by Libya's new rulers, and addressing their concerns through a more inclusive government is key to stop the Islamists' advance.
"[Islamic State] has exploited their malcontent and resentment against the new political system to build consensus for its penetration and expansion into the strategically located city in central Libya," Mezram noted.
While raising concerns about Western intervention plans, analysts recognize that the Islamist advance needs to be stopped. But they insist that Libyans have to lead the fight, possibly with Western support, to avoid fueling perceptions of a foreign invasion.
Varvelli additionally highlighted the importance of working with Egypt to overcome a major obstacle in national unity government negotiations: the position of military strongman Khalifa Haftar, a Cairo protege.
While Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said the West could not let "the spring go by with the Libya situation still deadlocked," Pusztai predicted that it will take "6-12 months" for the Islamists to seize their next objective and for them to gain a momentum "almost impossible to reverse."
"This expansion will make [Islamic State] a deadly threat not only for the stabilization of Libya, but also for the wider North African region and eventually also for Europe," he warned, predicting that at some degree of international military engagement will be required to halt it.
By Alvise Armellini
Editor's note: This article has been edited from the source material
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