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IS gains ground in Libya town: experts

Libya's Derna is emerging as a new stronghold for the Islamic State group
A general view shows the eastern Libyan town of Derna on 15 March, 2011 (AFP)

With Libya engulfed in chaos, the town of Derna in the east of the largely lawless country is emerging as a new stronghold for the Islamic State (IS) group, experts say.

IS fighters have already swept across Iraq and Syria, and their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recently boasted of vows of allegiance from militants in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Some observers consider Derna, a town of 150,000, to be the home of a third IS franchise in North Africa, after Jund al-Khilifa in Algeria and Egypt's Ansar Beit al-Maqdis declared their support earlier this year.

"The Islamic State is in Derna. It's well documented. There's no doubt," said Othman Ben Sassi, a former member of the now-disbanded Transitional National Council, the political arm of the rebellion that overthrew of autocratic leader Moamer Gaddafi in 2011.

The militant group is exploiting "the absence of state authority and porous borders," he added.

Statements and images have for several weeks circulated on forums claiming to depict gatherings of "Libyan jihadists" belonging to IS -- prompting concern in Washington.

"We have seen reports that violent extremists (in Libya) have pledged allegiance to IS and are looking to associate themselves with it," said State Department spokesman Jeffrey Rathke.

According to Claudia Gazzini, Libya analyst at International Crisis Group, some Derna factions have pledged allegiance to IS, but it is unclear which ones and how much support they enjoy.

"There is a misguided tendency to automatically associate the establishment of Islamic courts and the killings of soldiers with an IS agenda," she said.

Derna was already considered by many analysts to be a de-facto "Islamic emirate", entirely free from state control, before the reported claims of allegiance to IS.

"Several extremists in Derna are attracted to IS. But the majority of senior jihadists in Libya are former Al-Qaeda members and there is an ideological fight between IS and Al-Qaeda partisans," said a Libyan expert who did not want to be named.

The UN this month branded Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organisation owing to its affiliation with Al-Qaeda's North African franchise. 

"The decision was based on reliable intelligence," the Libyan expert said. "Ansar al-Sharia has closer ties to Al-Qaeda than to any other group." 

According to one resident of Derna, life in the town goes on largely as normal -- for most people.

"You go out, you do your chores, you visit friends. No one bothers you," the resident said.

"But if you are a policeman, a soldier or a lawyer, you're dead."