TRIPOLI: With Libya engulfed in chaos, the town of Derna in the east of the largely lawless country is emerging as a new stronghold for the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, experts say.
The North African state has been wracked by instability since the overthrow of autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, providing a fertile ground for Islamic extremists.
IS fighters have already swept across Iraq and Syria, and their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recently boasted of vows of allegiance from militants in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Some Western observers consider Derna, a town of 150,000, to be the home of a third IS franchise in North Africa, after Jund al-Khilifa in Algeria and Egypt’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis declared their support earlier this year.
“The Islamic State is in Derna. It’s well documented. There’s no doubt,” said Othman Ben Sassi, a former member of the now-disbanded Transitional National Council, the political arm of the rebellion that overthrew Gaddafi.
The jihadist group is exploiting “the absence of state authority and porous borders,” he added.
Statements and images have for several weeks circulated on extremist forums claiming to depict gatherings of “Libyan jihadists” belonging to IS — prompting concern in Washington.
“We have seen reports that violent extremists [in Libya]have pledged allegiance to IS and are looking to associate themselves with it,” said US State Department spokesman Jeffrey Rathke.
Libyan authorities have struggled to control militant groups as well as powerful militias which ousted Gaddafi, and the internationally recogniszd government has been forced to take refuge in the far east of the oil-rich country.
Derna and large areas of Benghazi, Libya’s second city, have served as strongholds for radical groups including Ansar al-Sharia, classed by the United Nations as a terrorist organization.
In April, an offshoot of the group announced it had implemented Islamic sharia law in Derna.
The self-proclaimed “Shura Council of Islamic Youth” has reportedly opened Islamic courts and established a religious police force in the town.
Dozens of masked members have appeared in military fatigues, regularly parading in pick-up trucks brandishing rocket launchers and heavy machineguns and toting the black and white flag used by jihadists.