Islamic State militants are a rapidly growing presence in Libya and a threat to the stability of its interim government, the top U.S. commander for Africa told reporters Thursday.
In a briefing at the Pentagon, Army Gen. David Rodriguez said the population of ISIS fighters in Libya is estimated to be between 4,000 and 6,000, roughly double what it was a year and a half ago, according to U.S. intelligence estimates. But despite this, the U.S. would maintain a policy of limited airstrikes on ISIS targets in Libya, going after only those leaders and groups that posed imminent threats to U.S. personnel and interests, he said.
Rodriguez noted that the Nov. 13 airstrike on ISIS leader Abu Nubil in the city of Derna, the first such strike against an Islamic State leader in Libya, was one example of U.S. action against an imminent threat. Another was the series of airstrikes on a militant training camp in the seaside Libyan town of Sabratha in February. The camp reportedly housed a fighter from Tunisia who had planned a pair of attacks on Western tourists in his home country.
The town of Sirte remains the largest stronghold for ISIS fighters within Libya, though militants also maintain a presence in the cities of Benghazi, Derna and Sabratha, Rodriguez said. The population of those loyal to the Islamic State in Libya includes foreign fighters who flow back and forth across northern Africa and deploy to Iraq and Syria, as well as some who have returned from those regions.
"And then there's another phenomenon to Libya, which is some [fighters] that just moved over and pledged allegiance to ISIS that were already there," he said.
While it's clear, Rodriguez said, that the ISIS fighters in Libya want to attack targets in the West just as those from the main branch of the extremist group do, he maintained that the threat these fighters posed was not as advanced as it was in other regions. Fewer of the fighters are "homegrown" as they are in Iraq and Syria, he added, and the militants faced additional opposition from the Libyan population, which tended to oppose outside influences.
"The top concern about that presence is really the challenge it presents for any movement forward for the Government of National Accord so that they can reduce the chaos there," Rodriguez said.
The Government of National Accord was formed in December with the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council. That interim government is now working with local militias to develop allegiances. These militias have challenged ISIS forces on the ground, Rodriguez said, and have had some success in limiting the growth of the extremist movement.
"It will really be determined by how well and effective those militias support the GNA that really makes the difference in the end," he said.
It's possible the U.S. may increase airstrikes on ISIS targets in Libya in the future, after the interim government gains stability, Rodriguez said, but that is dependent on the will of the government itself.
"The U.S. has said they'll support the Government of National Accord ... and that will be determined by the Government of National Accord and the international community, how that moves forward," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez delivered the brief as he nears the end of his tenure as head of AFRICOM. He entered the position in April 2013 as the third commander since the command stood up in 2006. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, now the director for Joint Force Development on the Joint Staff, will be tapped to replace Rodriguez at the post.