ISIS presence in Libya may have increased up to 5,000 fighters

Analysts are now worried that Islamic State is taking advantage of Libya’s power vacuum to extend control beyond its stronghold of Sirte on Libya’s Mediterranean coast.

Andrew Medichini/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (c.) is flanked by special presidential envoy to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group, Brett McGurk (l.) and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, during a 23-nation conference, in Rome, Tuesday. Nations fighting the Islamic State are discussing how to prevent the group from gaining a stranglehold in Libya, though no one is resolved yet to launch a second military intervention in the North African country this decade.

Islamic State fighters are increasing in Libya, raising concerns that the country could be the next battleground for extremism, and terrorist activities.

While the number of Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) fighters has decreased in Iraq and Syria, US officials say that the number has drastically increased in Libya, up to 5,000 fighters, doubling earlier estimates.

“The ISIL branch in Libya is one that is taking advantage of the deteriorating security conditions in Libya, putting itself in the position to coordinate ISIL efforts across North Africa,” Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, said according to the New York Times.

Analysts are now worried that the terrorist group is taking advantage of the Libyan power vacuum to extend control beyond its stronghold of Sirte on Libya’s Mediterranean coast. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, Islamic State has in the last week, taken control of a city between Sirte and Misrata, and is eyeing the country's lucrative oil installations. 

Libya hasn’t had a functional government since it slid into chaos following the 2011 toppling and killing of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The country is split between two rival authorities, each backed by different militias and tribes who are far more focused on fighting one another than on battling the Islamic State.

The United Nations Security Council is concerned that the growing number of Islamic State fighters could further deteriorate the humanitarian crisis in the country.

According to its reports, nearly 2.4 million people out of a population of 6.2 million require immediate humanitarian assistance, including 435,000 internally displaced individuals. Further, the "law enforcement and border security is virtually non-existent, turning the country into a major destination for jihadists and a launching pad for human traffickers transporting refugees and migrants to the shores of Europe,” The Monitor reported.

US officials have met with European officials and the UN Security council's severally to pursue counterterrorism efforts and develop diplomatic possibilities, but there hasn’t been a viable solution yet.

“It’s fair to say that we’re looking to take decisive military action against ISIL in conjunction with the political process,” said Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to The Times. “The president has made clear that we have the authority to use military force.”

But the international community is concerned that Western intervention could make peace between rival factions and the establishment of a functional government more difficult.

Katherine Zimmerman, a terrorism expert at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington says that the “options for action in Libya are not that easy and not that obvious."

"Without a responsible government or a state to work with, any intervention by the international community risks playing into the Islamic State narrative and strengthening them,” she told The Monitor.

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