PACKED into a battered car, a family of nine joined the steady flow of residents fleeing Islamic State’s Libyan stronghold of Sirte. They were heading to a nearby town to pick up essentials: cash, medicine and food.
A few kilometers beyond the militant group’s zone of control, the family gave an account of life in the city: young men murdered for refusing to pledge allegiance to Islamic State, public beatings for dress violations, property seizures and growing food shortages.
“They’re there to occupy the city,” said the wife from behind her black veil, as her children glanced nervously from the rear of the vehicle one afternoon in late February. “They’re killing, kidnapping and torturing.”
Sirte is a city upended. Once given favored treatment by former leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was born there, it now serves as a Mediterranean base for the most important Islamic State branch outside Syria and Iraq. That has left Western intelligence agencies struggling to figure out how far Islamic State can extend its influence across Libya – and how to stop the group.
Some Libyan and Western officials see Sirte as a foothold for further Islamic State expansion. From there the ultra-hardline Sunni group has ventured east along the coast, edging closer to major oil fields. It now controls a thin strip along about 250 km (155 miles) of Libya’s central coastline.
Though Islamic State’s manpower in Libya is uncertain, membership has been growing. Western intelligence agencies and the U.N. estimate its fighting force, which includes a growing number of foreigners, at between 3,000 and 6,000. “Their dream is to control the oil fields in the east and expand to the west to Tripoli and Misrata,” said Mahmoud Zagal, head of the Misrata military operations room for local forces opposed to Islamic State.
But much still hangs in the balance, and ISIS may struggle to control large swathes of the country. General David M. Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command, told a news briefing in Washington on April 8 that it will be difficult for Islamic State to seize huge swathes of Libya “because they don’t have the home-grown people that know as much about Libya like they did in Iraq and Syria.” Libyans, he said, “don’t like … external influences.”