- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Islamic State terror group’s top North Africa affiliate has decapitated, crucified or shot to death at least 49 people over the past year in the Libyan city of Sirte, according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.

The report — featuring interviews with dozens of current and former residents of the city on Libya’s Mediterranean coast — said Islamic State morality street patrols are strictly punishing anyone judged to be violating the extremist group’s severe religious law.

Sirte residents described scenes of horror — public beheadings, corpses in orange jumpsuits hanging from scaffolding in what they referred to as ‘crucifixions,’ and masked fighters snatching men from their beds in the night,” the human rights group said.

Residents also described how operatives with the group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, have fined and flogged men for “smoking, listening to music or failing to ensure their wives and sisters were covered in loose black abayas,” and have hauled “boys and men into mosques for prayer and religion classes.”

After seizing control of Sirte in February 2015 from the collapsing central government, Islamic State transformed the city’s central Martyrs’ Square into a stage for public executions, including beheadings by sword. Among the nearly 50 people executed were victims accused of spying, sorcery and “insulting God,” Human Rights Watch said.

The Islamic State, which has its headquarters in Syria and Iraq, claims to have established “provinces” in as many as 10 nations, with radicalized followers carrying out a growing number of suicide and other attacks around the world from Paris and Brussels to San Bernardino, Jakarta, Beirut, Cairo and Istanbul.

But U.S. intelligence officials say the so-called “Libya province” has emerged as the biggest and most powerful of the Islamic State affiliates. U.S. officials have said privately that the number of foreign fighters traveling to join the Libya province was surging.

“There has been a pretty big uptick,” the officials told The Washington Times earlier this year. American analysts believe Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is bent on expanding his group’s footprint in Libya — even as its hold on Syria and Iraq has come under increasing strain.

There is a heated debate over the actual number of loyal fighters that Islamic State has in Libya.

Some analysts have put the figure at roughly 6,000, but Libyan authorities told Human Rights Watch that there are only about 1,800, some 70 percent of whom are foreign fighters.

The Associated Press on Wednesday cited Libyan security analysts as putting the figure at 3,000, and said some fighters were originally migrants who came to Libya’s coastal cities in hopes of crossing into Europe by sea but became stuck and joined the militants.

Libya descended into chaos following the U.S.-backed ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Rival governments, and the militias that support them, have since vied for control of both the government and the country’s vast oil reserves, which are estimated at 48 billion barrels — the largest in Africa.

Intelligence officials say Islamic State fighters have made recent territorial gains near Libya’s so-called “oil crescent,” a stretch of coastline between the cities of Benghazi and Sirte, but that the group has so far not seized any of the nation’s major oil operations.

In addition to Islamic State, a host of other jihadi groups have exploited the chaos in Libya, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al Shariah, the outfit widely believed to have carried out the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

⦁ Carlo Munoz contributed to this report.

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