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Islamic State Having Significant but Limited Impact in Libya

A general view of the damage caused by a bomb blast is seen at the gate of the Iranian ambassador's residence in Tripoli, Libya, Feb. 22, 2015.

Despite Islamic State grabbing headlines over the past week with executions, bombings and even an attack on the residence of the Iranian ambassador, U.S. officials caution the group's foothold in Libya remains tenuous.

“ISIL doesn’t yet have a unified network in Libya,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told VOA, using an acronym for the terror group. “It [the Islamic State group] has supporters in several towns who are operationally capable, and its influence in extremist circles may be growing.”

Cautioning that the situation could change, the official added that "many of these affiliations are relatively new and flimsy."

"A tie that makes sense for a militant in Libya today may look a lot different if the main group is significantly weakened and forced into a defensive crouch,” he said.

The U.S. Africa Command first spoke of Islamic State's presence in Libya several months ago, saying there were a couple hundred Islamic fighters training at camps in the eastern part of the country. Since then, the number of propaganda videos available on the Internet showing the group's growing foothold in Libya has increased.

The goal of such videos, according to another U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity, is to "make ISIS sound larger than life," when in reality "what you've got is a franchise situation but even more loose."

U.S. officials also believe the actual number of IS fighters in Libya has remained stable.

Some analysts likewise have been cautious in describing Islamic State’s progress in Libya.

“The extent of their gains is being overblown,” said Thomas Joscelyn with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Joscelyn, who edits The Long War Journal, believes Libya has also been a relatively easy target for the Islamic State, and not just because of the current upheaval and lawlessness.

“Libya was one of the chief recruiting pools for ISIS going back to its days as al-Qaida in Iraq,” he said. “It was easy to reverse the flow, so to speak, and send foreign fighters back to Libya to expand ISIS's footprint.”

The same types of longstanding ties also may have helped the Islamic State gain influence in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. But Joscelyn warned that replicating that same type of success elsewhere in North Africa will not be easy.

“It will be more difficult for them to grow as fast in places like Tunisia, where they have a presence currently, or Morocco. The security forces in both those countries are much better,” he said.