By mid 2011, Muammar Gaddafi was no longer the absolute despot he once used to be. The rebels were gaining in strength and the allied bombing was growing in intensity. He, perhaps, knew that his days were numbered. Yet, the swagger was not lost when he met a journalist from Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by his former friend and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Sitting in his favourite Bedouin tent in Tripoli’s Bab Al Azizya compound, Gaddafi predicted doom.
“Instead of a stable government that guarantees security, if these militias linked to Bin Laden take control, the Africans will move en mass towards Europe. The Mediterranean will become a sea of chaos,” said Gaddafi. He said he was disappointed that Berlusconi did not recognise this threat, which, he said, would turn the entire north Africa into another Gaza. Gaddafi’s prophecy seems to be turning right, just four years later.
On February 15, the Islamic State gave sufficient indication that it was ready to open a new front in Gaddafi’s erstwhile fiefdom, Libya. Till then, although the IS had spoken about a global caliphate, its actions were limited to a core centred in Syria and Iraq. But on February 15, IS militants based in Libya released a five-minute long video named ‘A message signed in blood to the nation of the cross,’ showing them beheading simultaneously a group of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who had been abducted in Libya earlier this year. The video also warned about an IS incursion into southern Europe, using the Italian coast as a landing post.
The IS has already taken control of two Libyan cities Sirte and Darna, and they now have the capital, Tripoli, and the second-largest city, Benghazi, in their sights. Tripoli, at this time is controlled by an Islamist militia coalition known as Libya Dawn, but their hold on the city is tenuous. The IS has been growing in strength in Libya, successfully manipulating the power vacuum caused by Gaddafi’s ouster. The influence of the democratically elected government of Libya, which has the support of the western powers, is now limited to city of Tobruk.
There are indications that the IS plans to use Libya as a gateway for its expansion plans. According to a letter purportedly written by an IS propagandist known as Abu Arhim al-Libim, Libya has “a strategic geographic that looks upon the sea, the desert, mountains, and six states, Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia”. London based anti-terrorist watchdog Quilliam has released a translated version of the letter, which also speaks about flooding Libya with terrorists from Syria and Iraq, who will be sent across the Mediterranean disguised as refugees and asylum seekers. “Libya has a long coast and looks upon the southern Crusader states, which can be reached with ease by even a rudimentary boat… if this is even partially exploited and developed strategically, pandemonium could be wrought in the southern European states and it is even possible that there could be a closure of shipping lines and targeting of Crusader ships and tankers,” says Libim’s letter.
The video of the execution of the 21 Egyptians also corroborated the new IS plans. It had the footage of a khaki-clad IS terrorist issuing a threat with his bloodstained finger pointing northwards saying, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.” Rome has been in the IS crosshairs for long, especially because of the Vatican. Italy’s colonial past in Libya is another worrying factor.
More confirmation for the IS plans came from a set of telephone conversation between the group’s operatives. The transcripts of the conversation, which were released by the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, refer to plans of “sending 5,00,000 migrants simultaneously out to sea in hundreds of boats in a psychological weapon against Europe if there is military intervention against them in Libya.”
According to Italy’s interior ministry, nearly 2,00,000 potential migrants and asylum seekers are preparing to crossover from Libya and their most likely target is Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost territory, which is just about 300km away from Libya. Last year, Italy admitted around 1,70,000 refugees from Libya. This year, however, the rate of incoming refugees has hit an all-time high. The second week of February alone saw 2,600 arrivals. “The traffickers with weapons would literally push people to board rubber dinghies. With the bad weather and the small vessels, it is like a death sentence,” says Federico Fossi of the UN High Commission for refugees in Italy. He says the supplies of clothing, food and water for new refugees have run out, creating another crisis.
So far, there have been no instances of the IS pushing terrorists dressed as migrants into Italy. However, an incident, which took place on February 15, has added to Italian concerns. When Italian coast guard officers attempted to rescue people from a boat, they were threatened by armed men, who also tried to take over the boat after the refugees were evacuated.
Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian foreign minister, said the IS terrorists in Libya posed a grave threat to European security and asked the UN to step in and tackle the crisis.
He said the terrorists could forge ties with local militias or criminal gangs and destabilise Europe. “We find ourselves facing a country with a vast territory and failed institutions and that has potentially grave consequences not only for us but for the stability and sustainability of the transition processes in neighbouring African states,” said Gentiloni.
Clearly, the IS is going ahead with its caliphate-building plans. Unlike Al Qaeda, which focused on attacking high value targets in the west, the IS has set its eyes on capturing territory and consolidating their gains. They also have a viable financial plan as they take over oil-producing facilities in Iraq and Syria and target newer areas in countries like Libya. The threat to target southern Europe, therefore, cannot be seen as an empty one, as it fits in with the classic IS strategy. It really knows the financial significance of having a say on shipping in the Mediterranean.