The reach of the Islamic State is becoming increasingly international in scope.
The jihadist organization has accepted pledges of allegiance from organizations in Afghanistan, Algeria, and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, with Nigeria's Boko Haram being the latest organization to apply for membership in the militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL.
A Tuesday New York Times report delves into maybe the most alarming of ISIS' outposts: Sirte, a Libyan port city west of Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast where ISIS has established a foothold.
A few hundred firmly entrenched and battle-hardened fighters control major choke points and have commandeered the city's radio stations and launched attacks in the surrounding area. The group beheaded 21 Coptic Christians on a beach outside the city in February and has attacked nearby oil facilities.
Moreover, Sirte's ISIS fighters seem to be taking direct cues from the Islamic State's headquarters in Mesopotamia. "The contingent here in Sirte has not only taken over a major Libyan city but also demonstrated clear coordination with the parent organization," The Times reports, citing the sophistication and even synchronicity of the groups' propaganda and messaging.
An ISIS takeover of Sirte is a huge problem for Libya. According to the US Department of Energy, about 80% of Libya's recoverable oil reserves are located in the Sirte basin, an area that "also accounts for most of the country's oil output."
Libya's oil industry is operating at a bare minimum, with exports limited to a few offshore rigs. Exports have plunged from nearly 1.5 million barrels a day in August to 150,000 barrels a day in February.
Libya has the ninth-largest proven oil reserves on earth, one cause for optimism that the country will at least have the resources to rebuild after its ongoing civil war, which pits two rival governments against each other and is being fought between comparably brutal Islamist and nationalist militant blocs.
Oil-funded reconstruction becomes a taller order if ISIS is camped out near four-fifths of the reserves. The group's entrenchment could also raise longstanding security fears that scare off risk-averse foreign investors, particularly at a time when oil is cheaper and more plentiful than it has been in decades.
The Sirte takeover has some broader implications as well. As Washington Institute for Near East Policy terrorism scholar Aaron Zelin told Business Insider in the context of Boko Haram's pledge to ISIS, an alliance with Africa's deadliest jihadist group shows that ISIS' message holds appeal even in spite of recent battlefield defeats.
"It shows that ISIS still has momentum even while they're losing territory in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Syria, and it's possibly another area where they can gain revenue and resources for the organization," Zelin said of the Boko Haram pledge.
Control over a Mediterranean base of operations conveys the same message, only in a location hundreds of miles closer to the major economies of continental Europe. And it gives ISIS many of the same advantages, like possible control over trade and criminal networks.
The Sirte outpost shows that ISIS still has plenty of strategic initiative, along with appeal that stretches far beyond Mesopotamia — and that this hasn't been weakened by the Islamic State's recent string of battlefield setbacks.
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