Islamic State greatly expands control in Libya

The United States has carried out air strikes in Libya targeting Islamic State, also known as ISIL.

A file image grab taken from a video released by the jihadist media arm Al-Hayat Media Centre on February 15, 2015, purportedly shows a man the Pentagon believes to be Abu Nabil, also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, who was killed in an air strike in Libya overnight on November 14. The image grab shows Abu Nabil speaking after leading handcuffed hostages, said to be Egyptian Coptic Christians, wearing orange jumpsuits before their alleged decapitation on a seashore in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Picture: AFP.

UNITED NATIONS - Islamic State has greatly expanded its control over territory in Libya and the militants are claiming to be the key defence for the North African state against foreign military intervention, United Nations sanctions monitors said.

In their annual report to the UN Security Council, which was released on Wednesday, the monitors also said Libya has become more attractive to foreign fighters who mainly arrive through Sudan, Tunisia and Turkey.

The United States has carried out air strikes in Libya targeting Islamic State, also known as ISIL. A US air strike in the eastern city of Derna in November killed Islamic State's previous leader in Libya, known as Abu Nabil.

The UN experts also said they had received information about the presence of foreign militaries in Libya supporting efforts to combat Islamic State, but did not name the countries as it was still investigating.

"The rise of ISIL in Libya is likely to increase the level of international and regional interference, which could provoke further polarisation, if not coordinated," said the UN experts who monitor sanctions on Libya.

"In anticipation, ISIL has been spreading a nationalistic narrative, portraying itself as the most important bulwark against foreign intervention," they said.

Islamic State has taken advantage of a political and security vacuum following a 2011 uprising that toppled the country's leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Western officials have estimated the number of IS fighters to be as high as 6,000.

Late last year the UN experts said Islamic State had between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters. In the latest report they said "significant numbers of foreign fighters" arrived in the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte.

A senior Islamic State militant, described in an interview released by the SITE monitoring group as the new leader of the jihadists' Libyan offshoot, said the organisation is getting "stronger every day."

The UN experts investigated whether Islamic State militants could use a backup of Libya's banking system in Sirte to misappropriate funds, but all banking employees consulted said the system was either damaged or outdated.

"Consequently, control over Sirte does not give ISIL access to State finances or to the wider SWIFT system," the experts reported. SWIFT is a member-owned cooperative that banks use for account transfer requests and other secure messages.

"It is, however, likely that the site continues to hold all Libyan historic banking data, which could prove useful to anyone seeking to mask fraudulent transactions," they said.