Islamic State terrorists hiding among migrants traveling from Libya to Lampedusa are a “major risk” for Europe, according to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
In an interview on French television Sunday, Le Drian said that there is an “urgent” need for a political solution in Libya where “Daesh is being established.” Reports suggest that Islamic State fighters in Libya now number in the thousands.
“I’ve been very worried about Libya since September, 2014,” Le Drian said. “There they are, just 200 miles from Lampedusa, and they are expanding.”
The French minister added that “when the Mediterranean weather is good, there is a risk that [ISIL fighters] will make the crossing, mingling with migrants. It is a major risk.”
Le Drian also expressed his concern that the military struggle in Iraq and Syria, where ISIL has conquered vast swathes of territory, could spread to Libya, where the jihadists have already established an important stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte, as well as a presence in Derna to the east.
“Everyone is aware of the risk that the conflict in Syria and Iraq, where we are seeing some positive results, spreads to become a new conflict in Libya,” Le Drian said.
The minister stressed that a political solution in Libya “is the only way to eradicate the problem.”
“There must be a national unity government. There is a serious political process underway, supported by the UN Security Council. It is urgent,” he concluded.
Libya has been torn for a year by civil war and currently has two governments and two rival parliaments, one based in Tripoli and another, recognized by the international community, in the east.
Washington and the UN urged the Libyans to establish a national unity government under an agreement signed between representatives of the two rival camps in Morocco in mid-December.
For its part, the African Union has warned that “the so-called Islamic State is spreading to eastern Libya, hitting oil facilities at Ras Lanuf, and wishes to expand its presence in this country, including to the south.”
“This is something that concerns us all and which demands vigorous action, but we can only do that if we have a government in place and Libyan forces that we can equip,” said the Commissioner for Peace and Security of the African Union, Smaïl Chergui.
The United States plans to open a new front against the Islamic State in Libya and a US defense official said last week that the Pentagon was looking at options for a possible military intervention.
On Wednesday, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said that Washington is “looking at military options” in relation to Libya and confirmed that US special operations troops are operating on the ground there in an effort to “get a sense of who the players are, who might be worthy of US support and support from some of our partners as we go forward.”
Chergui said, however, that in the AU’s opinion, for the moment military action “would further complicate the situation.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome