The so-called Islamic State militant group in the Middle East has expanded its influence in Africa by courting extremists from Nigeria to Somalia, a top leader of the U.S. Africa Command said.
While leaders of the Syria-based terror group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, established a major hub close to Europe, it also grew to a force of thousands-strong in North Africa, Vice Admiral Michael Franken of the U.S. Africa Command said, Voice of America reported Tuesday.
For instance, in Sirte, Libya, ISIS has about 2,000 fighters, up from just 200 in February. “If Raqqa [Syria] is the nucleus, the nearest thing to the divided nucleus is probably Sirte,” Franken said. “From there they look to export their terror into Europe and elsewhere.”
There has been intense global attention on ISIS since it spread through the Middle East region, following the outbreak of civil war in Syria. Recent terror attacks in France, Lebanon and Egypt have galvanized global leaders to increase counterterrorism measures against the militants.
Any counter-ISIS strategy will require “serious elements” in Libya and other African nations, according to the Brookings Institute. “Access from Libya to Europe is disturbingly easy,” Michael O’Hanlon, a defense policy expert at Brookings, told the Voice of America. “Sirte looks like a real stronghold — and one with little prospect of being taken away from ISIL anytime soon.”
In Somalia, the Islamic State group has about two dozen al-Shabab militants, who reportedly switched their allegiance from al Qaeda terror groups to the ISIS banner in late October. But that allegiance switch has been seen as insignificant, because the well-established al-Shabab has attacked those who pledged loyalty to ISIS, said Franken.
Boko Haram, an East African terror group, has also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, according to media reports, causing the defense community to seek additional counterterrorism resources in Mali and Nigeria, where Boko Haram has operated.