MAY 31, 2015
Western Officials Alarmed as ISIS Expands Territory in Libya
By SULIMAN ALI ZWAY and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
TRIPOLI, Libya -- The branch of the Islamic State that controls Surt has expanded its territory and pushed back the militia from the neighboring city of Misurata, militia leaders acknowledged Sunday.
In the group's latest attack, a suicide bomber killed at least four fighters on Sunday at a checkpoint west of Misurata on the coastal road to Tripoli, according to local officials and Libyan news reports.
The continued expansion inside Libya of the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has alarmed Western officials because of its proximity to Europe, across the Mediterranean.
Four years after the removal of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the near collapse of the Libyan government has left no central authority to check the group's advance or even partner with Western military efforts against it.
Two armed factions, each with its own paper government, are fighting for control, and each has focused more on internal quarrels than on defeating the Islamic State.
The group's expanding turf in Libya also gives it an alternative base of operations even as it appears to be gaining ground in other regions -- in Palmyra in Syria and in Ramadi in Iraq.
The gains come despite an American-led bombing campaign aimed at rolling back the group's original territory across the border between those countries.
Suliman Ali Mousa, an officer with the brigade from Misurata, confirmed in a telephone interview on Sunday that over the past two days its forces had retreated in the face of Islamic State advances to the east, south and west of Surt. Islamic State fighters have captured the Gardabya air base, about 12 miles south of Surt; it had been all but destroyed by NATO airstrikes during the 2011 campaign against Colonel Qaddafi, but Libyans describe it as a strategic foothold.
Toward the east, Mr. Mousa's brigade retreated from its base in a water treatment facility, leaving the Islamic State in control as far as the town of Nofilya, another extremist stronghold. And toward the West the Misuratan forces had also pulled back about 12 miles toward their home city.
"We left our position and relocated," Mr. Mousa said. "It was a necessary retreat. Our fighting position did not allow us to stay where we were." He added that another group of Misurata fighters had abandoned a power station west of Surt and so his group had taken their place.
He said he was unsure why those fighters had pulled out, but "there was a lot of talk about money and unpaid salaries."