U.S. War On ISIS Could Expand To Affiliates in Libya and Nigeria

ISIS Carter Kerry Senate
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testify at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on "The President's Request for Authorization to Use Force Against ISIS: Military and Diplomatic Efforts" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 11, 2015. Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

Washington's military campaign against ISIS may extend to the terror group's affiliates in countries such as Libya and Nigeria, the U.S. secretary of defense Ash Carter has said, meaning that groups who pledge alligiance such as Boko Haram could become targets.

Without congressional approval, the U.S. launched a military campaign with coalition partners against ISIS last August following the terror group's march across Iraq and Syria but last month U.S. President Barack Obama proposed a new AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) against the group. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that the AUMF was ordered to send a "powerful signal" to both allies and ISIS itself that the U.S. is committed to eliminating the group.

In remarks made to the Senate committee Wednesday on whether the U.S. should sanction the new AUMF, similar to the one issued after the 9/11 attacks, Carter said that the legislation proposed by President Obama last month would ensure the "flexibility" to target not just the terror group in Iraq and Syria but also their affiliates who threaten U.S. interests or partners in other parts of the world.

"This AUMF could apply to operations in and around Libya," Carter told lawmakers, "depending on whether or not they met the criteria" of a pledge of allegiance to ISIS and evidence of coordination with the terror group to harm Washington's global presence.

ISIS's three affiliate groups in Libya - ISIS Tripoli (West), ISIS Barqa (East) and ISIS Fezzan (South) - have continued to capitalise on the security vacuum in the civil war-torn country, taking control of the coastal town of Derna, controlling key buildings in the central city of Sirte and carrying out a series of attacks against targets in the capital, Tripoli. The rise of ISIS in Libya has raised fears within the international community that it could become a Somalia on the Mediterranean.

Other jihadi groups to have pledged bay'ah (allegiance) to the radical Islamist group as part of its growing international footprint are Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Sinai Province group in Egypt's restive Sinai region, Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria, Sons of the Call for Tawhid and Jihad in Jordan and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.

The U.S. officials testifying to the Senate foreign relations committee about the AUMF included top general Martin Dempsey and secretary of state John Kerry. While all of the senators on the committee spoke of their support for the legislation, Kerry attempted to ease fears that the AUMF would signal direct U.S. involvement in more parts of the world against the various factions of ISIS.

"As of now in its current state, merely by pledging or flying the flag," Kerry said, "there's no decision made or even contemplated that [Boko Haram] would be covered."

Max Abrahms, professor of political science at Northwestern University and member at the Council of Foreign Relations, believes that the force which could be authorised by the new legislation in areas such as Libya and Nigeria could vary from remote strikes to boots on the ground.

"The normal order of operations would probably be drones, then special forces and then a larger military contingent if that doesn't work," he says.

Abrahms adds that the "flexibility" which Carter talks of demonstrates how Obama did not want the U.S. government's hands to be tied when it came to tackling the growing threat of ISIS and its global supporters.

"Islamic State is very quickly decentralising all over the world," he notes. "It was very clear that Obama did not want to be locked into having a focus only on pure ISIS targets but very intentionally included associated groups and I think that if these groups say they are ISIS associates, then that certainly makes them fair game."

In January, U.S. officials claimed that the coalition against ISIS had killed more than 6,000 militants in strikes focused in northern Iraq, to free sites such as Mosul Dam and support Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and northern Syria, to liberate towns such as Kobane. U.S. Central Command had been tracking the total number of fighters killed by airstrikes and former U.S. defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, confirmed that "thousands" of ISIS militants had been killed by U.S. military action.