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ISIS In Libya: How Powerful Is Militant Group's Franchise?

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CAIRO, Egypt — New images released online Wednesday show large numbers of ISIS militants patrolling streets in the Libyan city of Sirte. Kalashnikov-wielding fighters in beige fatigues, their faces covered in black balaclavas, ride in a convoy of pick-ups trucks waving the group’s black flags.

The images are clearly aimed as a show of force — an announcement that ISIS is now a power in Libya. The release came one day after a similar attention-grabbing move: a mass beheading of 20 Egyptians near Sirte.

But just how powerful is ISIS’ Libyan franchise?

ISIS operatives are believed to have arrived in Libya as early as last summer — around the same time the group’s fighters overran a large part of northern Iraq in a sweeping offensive, a security official told The Wall Street Journal.

Adopting a different approach than it had in Syria and Iraq, where it fought against other Islamist groups, it chose to reach out to Libyan militants, including members of al Qaeda, widely seen as its rival.

Since the beginning of the year, ISIS has launched increasingly high-profile attacks, beginning with an assault on Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel that left nine dead, including an American contractor. In early February gunmen professing loyalty to the group attacked a French-Libyan oil field, killing nine guards.

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ISIS took control of the eastern city of Derna late last year and took power of significant parts of Sirte in early 2015. The 20 Egyptians killed by ISIS earlier this week were abducted in December and January from Sirte, the hometown of longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi, who was ousted in 2011.

Yet despite the high-profile attacks, ISIS' reach in Libya is unclear. Residents report that the group is administering Derna much as it has cities in Iraq and Syria: levying taxes and setting up police and court systems. Reports from Sirte suggest that it is rapidly following suit.

“We have seen pictures of [ISIS morality police] telling people who sell perfumes not to sell it anymore, taking mannequins out of shop windows and telling hairdressers to shut down,” says Mohamed Eljarh, non-resident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center based in the Libyan city of Tobruk.

El-Jarh adds that there have been reports of members of the Interior Ministry repenting to ISIS.

According to Libyan Minister Omar al-Sinki, there are nearly 400 Tunisian and Yemeni militants in Sirte and ISIS had established its headquarters in the city’s main convention center, The Associated Press reported.

The homegrown extremist group Ansar al-Shariah, which preceded ISIS in both Derna and Sirte, has seen many of its members join up with ISIS.

As in other areas under its control, ISIS has named an “Emir of Tripoli” — a Tunisian known as Abu Talha, to run the group’s operations in western Libya. Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi, a Yemeni based in Derna, reportedly sent by ISIS leadership in Mosul, is said to lead in the east.

Meanwhile, Libya’s elected government, which has fled to the eastern city of Tobruk, has no control over the country’s resources or population centers. Since last summer when the Islamist-led General National Council refused to accept the results of national elections, Libya has had two rival governments.

The GNC is based in Tripoli and is backed by the militant group Libya Dawn, made up of Misratan and Islamist fighters. Opposing them in the east, a rogue secular general named Khalifa Haftar commands a force known as "Operation Dignity," which has also been fighting Ansar al-Shariah and other Islamists.

There are signs that may struggle to win widespread support in areas where it is trying to gain influence. Many in Misrata — a stronghold of Libya Dawn support — are wary of the ISIS takeover in neighboring Sirte, and have called for an end to the conflict and the need for a political solution.

“Within Misrata there are voices that are increasingly saying we should end the war against each other,” says Eljarh. “Misrata is under threat from ISIS."

Meanwhile, the ongoing chaos provides fertile ground for the ISIS to expand its Libyan outposts.

This story originally appeared at GlobalPost.

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