ISIS unit in Libya making inroads into Africa

THIES (Senegal) • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) branch in Libya is deepening its reach across a wide area of Africa, attracting new recruits from countries like Senegal that had been largely immune to its propaganda - and forcing African authorities and their Western allies to increase efforts to combat the fast-moving threat.

The US air strikes in north-western Libya last Friday, which demolished an ISIS training camp and were aimed at a top Tunisian operative, underscore the problem, Western officials said. The over three dozen suspected ISIS fighters killed were from Tunisia and other African countries, officials said, and were believed to be rehearsing an attack against Western targets.

Even as US intelligence agencies say the number of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria has dropped to about 25,000 from a high of 31,500, partly because of the US-led air campaign there, the group's ranks in Libya have roughly doubled in the same period, to about 6,500.

ISIS leaders in Syria are telling recruits travelling north from African nations not to press on to the Middle East but to stay put in Libya. There are signs ISIS is trying to establish state-like institutions there.

The threat comes as US President Barack Obama is being asked by top advisers to approve the broader use of US military force in Libya to open a front against ISIS.

Before resorting to any wider military action, however, the White House and its Western allies are trying to help create a unity government in Libya. The goal is to use such a new central authority to rally dozens of fractious militias to fight against a common enemy - ISIS."Our strong preference, as has always been the case, is to train Libyans to fight," Mr Obama had said.

They are also rushing to bolster African allies outside Libya as a bulwark against ISIS expansion. The Pentagon proposes spending US$200 million (S$281 million) this year to help train and equip armies and security forces of North and West African countries.

But ISI is also seeking funding, by starting to move in on the lucrative migrant-smuggling operations thriving in lawless Libya. US officials say the main other source of revenue for the Libya ISIS branch is taxation and extorting fees.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS unit in Libya making inroads into Africa'. Print Edition | Subscribe