WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Islamic State militants in Libya has doubled in the last year or so to as many as 6,000 fighters, with aspirations to conduct attacks against the U.S. and other nations in the West, the top U.S. commander for Africa said Thursday.
Army Gen. David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command, said that local Libya militias 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 that decisions to provide more military assistance to the Libyans await a working 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 U.S. defense officials. The officials were not authorized to provide details of the group and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. 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 U.S. interests. He said it's possible the U.S. could do more as the government there takes shape.
The U.S. and its allies are hoping that a U.N.-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 U.S. and European allies would like the new government to eventually work with them against IS.
The U.S., 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 U.S. airstrike killed top Islamic State leader Abu Nabil in Libya. He was a longtime al-Qaida 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. Their biggest problem, he said, is that often the militias fight among themselves.
"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."
Asked if waiting for the new government to form will allow the Islamic State more time to gather momentum, Rodriguez downplayed the risk.
"It's going to be a challenge for them to get to that point because of the Libyan population, people and militias that are out there," he said. "It could be a bigger fight and everything. But again, we're watching that very carefully and taking action as we see those threats develop."
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.