The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters in Libya and has demonstrated its intention to control more territory in the strategically located North African country — but it is only one player among multiple warring factions, United Nations experts said in a report Tuesday.
The experts monitoring U.N. sanctions against al-Qaeda and spinoff groups said in the report to the U.N. Security Council that ISIS is benefiting from its “appeal” and notoriety in Iraq and Syria and poses “an evident short and long-term threat in Libya.”
The group’s central command views Libya “as the ‘best’ opportunity to expand its so-called caliphate” from Syria and Iraq, the experts said.
The 24-page report cautioned, however, that the group “faces strong resistance from the population, as well as difficulties in building and maintaining local alliances” — and stressed that its threat “needs to be realistically assessed.”
Nonetheless, the experts said there is concern at the spread of ISIS in Libya, given the country’s strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea and its use as a transit point in North Africa.
More territory would not only enable ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups to further influence ongoing conflicts in North Africa and the Sahel but give the extremists a new hub outside the Middle East, they said.
Eight independent experts were appointed by the Secretary-General to write the report, with expertise in counter-terrorism, financing of terrorism, arms embargoes, travel bans and related legal issues.
Oil-rich Libya slid into chaos following the 2011 toppling and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. It is divided between an elected parliament and government based in the eastern port city of Tobruk and an Islamist militia-backed government in the capital Tripoli — with militants from ISIS and al-Qaeda also exploiting the chaos.
The United Nations has been pressing the rival governments to form a national unity government, so far unsuccessfully. The international community views a united government as the first step toward addressing the threat posed by extremist groups, and the perilous migration by tens of thousands of asylum seekers across the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe.
The report said the current political and security challenges in Libya have provided an opportunity for ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups including Ansar al-Sharia, which took part in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb known as AQIM, “to opportunistically exploit and complicate an already difficult situation on the ground.”
It said Ansar Al-Sharia in Benghazi and Ansar Al-Sharia in Derna “seem to have weakened” since the Islamic State group established a foothold in Libya, due to the loss of fighters who either joined IS or were killed during clashes with its militants.
AQIM, the Islamic extremist group Al-Mourabitoun which carried out attacks in Mali last month, and Ansar Al-Sharia in Tunisia, “continue to use the country as a rear base for their operations in the region,” the report said.
The panel said senior leaders of AQIM, which has taken advantage of the turmoil in Libya since 2011, see the growing appeal of IS as serious competition for their group.
According to the experts, ISIS in Libya is the only known affiliate to benefit from support and guidance from ISIS headquarters. They cited two reasons — around 800 Libyans who previously fought for ISIS in Syria and Iraq are now fighting for ISIS in Libya, and the group’s leaders continue to send emissaries from the Mideast to Libya with instructions.
The panel said the relatively quick establishment and expansion of ISIS in Libya was a surprise to many local groups. In addition to the returning Libyan fighters, it said ISIS has benefited from a sizable contingent of fighters from the Maghreb and a significant number of defectors from local Libyan groups.
Several U.N. member states told the experts “that in total (ISIS) has no more than 2,000-3,000 fighters in Libya,” with about 1,500 now in Sirte, the report said.
ISIS fighters took control of Sirte in February but the group has faced “strong resistance from armed residents” and sporadic clashes continue, it said.