UN report says IS struggling to expand in Libya

Carole Landry
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An image made available by propaganda Islamist media outlet Welayat Tarablos on February 18, 2015, allegedly shows members of the Islamic State militant group parading in a street in Libya's coastal city of Sirte

An image made available by propaganda Islamist media outlet Welayat Tarablos on February 18, 2015, allegedly shows members of the Islamic State militant group parading in a street in Libya's coastal city of Sirte (AFP Photo/)

United Nations (United States) (AFP) - The Islamic State group has no more than 2,000 to 3,000 fighters in Libya and is struggling to expand its foothold in the north African country, a UN report said Tuesday.

The jihadist group, which controls large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, still poses a threat to Libya but the report cited several weaknesses in its operations in what has been widely viewed as an IS rear base.

"ISIL is only one player among multiple warring factions in Libya and faces strong resistance from the population as well as difficulties in building and maintaining local alliances," said the report by a sanctions monitoring team.

Despite several attacks on oil installations in Libya, IS lacks the capacity to seize, hold and manage oil fields or refineries in the country, the report said.

There is no indication that the extremist group is profiting from the refugee smuggling networks in Libya or that it has set up the elaborate extortion rackets that it runs in Syria and Iraq, according to the report.

"ISIL operations in Libya do not appear nearly as lucrative as its operations" in Syria and Iraq, it added.

The Islamic State first appeared in Libya in 2014 when a group of Libyan IS fighters returned from Syria and reorganized in the port city of Derna, declaring eastern Libya to be a province of the caliphate.

A separate group gained control of Sirte in February 2015 but several months later, in June, IS was pushed out of Derna during fighting with other Islamist factions.

There has been growing international alarm about IS's influence in Libya since a video was released in February showing the horrific beheadings of Egyptian Coptic Christians.

But the report seemed to downplay fears that it was on the verge of a breakthrough in Libya.

"Currently, ISIL seems limited in its ability to expand quickly from its current stronghold," it said.

"While ISIL is able to perpetrate terror attacks in any part of Libya, its limited number of fighters does not allow for rapid territorial expansion."

- Attracting fighters -

The report quoted information from several countries stating that IS has no more than 2,000-3,000 fighters in Libya.

At its highest point of influence, the group commanded a force of 1,100 men in Derna but many have since left for Sirte, where IS now has about 1,500 fighters.

Among the many armed groups in Libya, the Islamic State attracts the most foreign fighters, but it is not able to recruit on the same scale as the IS branches in Syria and Iraq, the report said.

IS foreign fighters in Libya are mostly from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Morocco and Mauritania, but there are no precise numbers.

In a sign that IS is working to beef up the flow of foreigners in its ranks, a recent social media campaign from IS supporters invited recruits to opt for Libya instead of Syria.

"Please rectify your intention if you are sitting home waiting to go to Shaam (Syria). Libya needs you," read one social media post from June.

After staging public executions and imposing harsh practices, IS has been facing significant local resentment.

"Viewed as an outsider, ISIL is not embedded in the local communities and has not succeeded in gaining the population's support," it said.

The report presented to the UN Security Council on November 19 was released as new UN envoy Martin Kobler is seeking to push Libya's warring factions to agree on a unity government that would be able to confront IS.

The monitoring team recommended that sanctions be imposed on more IS-linked individuals and groups.

Awash with weapons, Libya has been in chaos since the fall of Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.