STUTTGART, Germany, The top commander of U.S. Africa Command said a growing Islamic State affiliate in Libya is looking to use a stronghold on the northern Mediterranean coast to launch terrorist attacks abroad, including in Europe.
In the violence following the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, a group known as Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam in November 2014 pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before seizing the city of Sirte, on Libya’s northern Mediterranean coast, earlier this year.
The group now calls itself the Tripoli Province of the Islamic State and has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks and public executions, including the February decapitation of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt.
Speaking to Voice of America during an interview at Kelley Barracks, in Stuttgart, Germany, Vice Admiral Michael Franken, the deputy for military operations at AFRICOM, said IS manpower in Sirte currently stands at 2,000, up from 200 in February.
“If Raqqa [Syria] is the nucleus, the nearest thing to the divided nucleus is probably Sirte,” Franken said. “From there they look to export their terror into Europe and elsewhere.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense policy expert at the Brookings Institute, told VOA accessing Europe from Libya was “disturbingly easy.”
“Sirte looks like a real stronghold — and one with little prospect of being taken away from [IS] anytime soon,” he said.
Franken acknowledged the danger of IS spreading into other portions of Africa but noted the presence in Somalia of some 20 IS militants who broke away from al-Qaida-aligned terrorist group al-Shabab in October was “insignificant” and had actually caused in-fighting among militants in the country.
He also said there has been little “substantive cooperation” between IS and Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group that pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi in March.
Franken added, however, that IS has likely shared tactics and techniques with the sub-Saharan group, leading to a spike in suicide bombings across Nigeria and surrounding nations, such as Chad and Cameroon, throughout the year.
U.S. forces targeted IS militants in Libya for the first time last month, conducting an airstrike against a leader in the organization on Nov. 14, one day after IS gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people in Paris.
By Fred Lambert