WASHINGTON (AP) — The top US commander for Africa said the number of Islamic State group militants in Libya has doubled in the last year or so to about 6,000.
Army Gen. David Rodriguez heads US Africa Command. Rodriquez said local militias in Libya have had some success in trying to stop the Islamic State from growing in Benghazi and are battling the group in Sabratha. But he said decisions to provide more military assistance will wait for a national government.
The latest numbers for IS in Libya make it the largest Islamic State branch of eight that the militant group operates outside Iraq and Syria, according to US defense officials. The officials were not authorized to provide details of the group and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The US has conducted two airstrikes in Libya in recent months targeting Islamic State fighters and leaders, but Rodriguez said that those are limited to militants that pose an “imminent” threat to US interests. He said it’s possible the US could do more as the government there takes shape.
The US and its allies are hoping that a UN-brokered unity government will be able to bring the warring factions together and end the chaos there, which has helped fuel the growth of the Islamic State. The US and European allies would like the new government to eventually work with them against IS.
The US, France and other European nations have sent special operations forces to work with Libyan officials and help the militias fight. In February, American airstrikes hit an Islamic State training camp in rural Libya near the Tunisian border, killing more than 40 militants. And last November, a US airstrike killed top Islamic State leader Abu Nabil in Libya. He was a longtime al-Qaeda operative and the senior Islamic State leader in Libya.
Rodriguez said, however, that it will be a challenge for the Islamic State to become as big a threat as it is in Iraq and Syria because of resistance from local Libyan fighters and the population, which is wary of outside groups.
He said the militias in Libya have fought Islamic State militants in Benghazi and Derna with some success, and fought hard in Sabratha with more limited gains. Efforts to battle the group in Sirte have not worked as well, he said.
“It’s uneven and it’s not consistent across the board,” Rodriguez told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “We’ll have to see how the situation develops, but they are contesting the growth of ISIS in several areas across Libya, not all of it.”
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.