Isis is preparing a “retreat zone” in Libya as coalition air strikes pound the group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria, a United Nations report has revealed.
It suggests Isis is bolstering its forces along a stretch of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline - only a few hundred miles away from mainland Europe.
The report says the group’s central command in Iraq and Syria sees Libya as the best opportunity to expand its so-called caliphate, viewing the country as “a potential retreat and operational zone for Isil (Isis) fighters unable to reach the Middle East”.
The group’s affiliate in Libya has between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters and is receiving support from its bases in Syria and Iraq, according to the report.
It quotes Isis’s leader in Libya, Abu al-Mughirah Al Qahtani, who stressed the country’s importance due to its proximity to southern Europe and its abundance of resources “that cannot dry”.
A senior unnamed US Defence Department official told the New York Times that the move to Libya amounted to "contingency planning" as Isis grows its forces. The same report estimated that the group’s affiliate in Libya had grown from 200 fighters to around 2,000 since it announced its branch in the country.
The report claims a “great exodus” of senior Isis figures are heading to Libya from Syria and Iraq, with a number believed to have arrived in Libya in the last year.
The militant group has been targeted by a coalition campaign of air strikes in Syria and Iraq.
The US-led air campaign has launched around 8,300 strikes on the group since August 2014, while Russia joined the fight against the group in September.
Isis now faces the possibility of losing one of its last crossing points in Syria after US President Barack Obama demanded Turkey close a 60-mile stretch of its border with Syria, a move which would starve the group of vital supplies and fighters coming from Turkey.
In Libya, however, Isis has been able to move more freely and take advantage of instability which has plagued the country since former leader Colonel Gaddafi was overthrown by western-backed rebel forces in 2011. There is currently no functioning government in Libya.
The Libyan port city of Sirte lies on the Mediterranean coast, around 400 miles east of Sicily, the closest territory the militant group controls to mainland Europe.
The group now controls or has a major presence in cities from capital Tripoli to the west, to Tobruk in the east, covering an area of more than 150 miles of Mediterranean coastline, according to the New York Times.
The group also has access to considerable oil reserves in newly-conquered territory, with less fear of coalition air strikes hampering operations.
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