ISIS Has Doubled Its Ranks in Libya, Says General

ISIS Derna Libya North Africa
An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, which pledged allegiance to ISIS, drives along a road in Derna, eastern Libya, October 3, 2014. Reuters/Stringer

The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has doubled its number of fighters in Libya, its North African hub, in the past year, according to the head of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM).

U.S. Army General David Rodriguez, the outgoing chief of AFRICOM, said on Thursday that the group's militants in the country now number between 4,000 and 6,000.

He said that when a new unity government is fully implemented in the country, the U.S. will ramp up its military involvement against the group in the country, including further air strikes. "That's a possibility as are many other things," he said. "It's going to be driven by their leadership and what they really want the international community to do."

Fayez Al Sarraj, the prospective unity prime minister, arrived in the Libyan city of Tripoli last week in an attempt to bring warring eastern and western factions together. The rival Islamist government in Tripoli has stepped down in a bid to allow Sarraj's new U.N.-backed unity government to end the fragmentation that has allowed ISIS to flourish in the country.

The group capitalized on a power vacuum following the ousting of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011 by Libyan rebels backed by NATO, which left the country without a legitimate leader. The group now controls the central coastal city of Sirte, which was Gaddafi's hometown, and has a presence near the western town of Sabratha and the eastern city of Benghazi.

"In Benghazi and Derna, (groups) have fought back against the Islamic State and made it much tougher for them to operate, as well as in Sabratha," Rodriguez added. "They are contesting the growth of ISIS in several areas."

As the group has continued to lose territory in Iraq and Syria, many of its members have fled to Libya and, as it becomes harder to enter into caliphate, more foreign fighters have chosen Libya as their destination of choice.

The group has imposed its brutal brand of sharia law on the city of Sirte since capturing it in June 2015, making it the capital of the North African extension of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Locals have reported beheadings, lashings and other punishments and rules as dictated by the group's ultraconservative vision of Islam. In February, the group released images of a wheelchair-bound executioner purporting to crucify an alleged spy.