Britain could launch military action in Libya next, Government sources have said amid fears that Islamic State militants will use their new stronghold along a stretch of the Mediterranean coast to target Europe.
Ministers at the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence say they are “extremely concerned" by the rapid rise of Isil and other extremist groups in Libya and are considering plans for intervening to tackle the threat.
An image allegedly showing members of Isil parading in a street in Libya's coastal city of Sirte Photo: AFP
A Government source said ministers were "moving in the direction" of a plan to send military support alongside European allies to defeat Isil in Libya.
The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, on Friday called for international efforts to crush the Islamic State jihadists to extend to the north African country.
France has been sending spy planes over Libya to assess the scale of the threat posed from the country, which has fallen into chaos since its dictator, Col Muammar Gaddafi, was ousted with Western military backing in 2011.
The UN believes 2,000 to 3,000 fighters are operating there and Isil now controls a stretch of the Mediterranean coastline around the northern Libyan city of Sirte.
The stronghold gives the jihadists a venue for training camps on the border of Europe and free access to target western ships at sea.
Penny Mordaunt, armed forces minister, recently told MPs the Government was “closely monitoring the growing threat from extremist groups in Libya”, including groups affiliated with Isil.
She said: “These groups threaten Libya, her regional neighbours and UK interests in the region.”
Tobias Ellwood, foreign office minister, said where Isil has a foothold along the Mediterranean “we are working closely with international partners to develop our understanding of its presence, and how to tackle it there”.
Asked if Libya could be the next target for British military intervention, a Government source said: “Things are moving in that direction. We are taking it one step at a time.”
Italy has been drawing up plans for a European military coalition to back any Libyan Government and seeking allies to lend help.
Any plan would have to wait for Libya to appoint a recognised national government.
The source said: “There needs to be a recognised government in place in Libya that can ask us for help – then we will do whatever we can to help them deal with Isil."
Another source said: “We are not at the decision point on what to do. You need an effective government of sorts to invite you to do stuff, which is what’s lacking at the moment.”
Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, said it was important to "keep an eye on Libya", but Britain had to target the Isil leadership in Syria. He said: "It's important, as the Prime Minister said, to deal with the head of the snake because that's where the brain is."
Rival governments in Libya have agreed they will aim to sign a United Nations-backed national unity agreement next week.
But hardliners in both camps have been resisting signing a deal and several past deadlines to sign have failed after opponents balked at details or demanded more concessions.