New Eastern Outlook
by Alexander Orlov
“You get what you pay for ” – an old proverb goes. These days the West is beginning to reap the fruits of its own policies of creating “color” revolutions including on the very edge of its borders. On February 15 ISIL has opened a “second front” in the Arab World – heading this time to the west, in the Arab Maghreb. Apparently, the fruitless efforts of the Western-Arabian coalition to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria made these radical Islamists confident enough to bring the front lines closer to Europe. The execution of 20 Egyptians in Libya, followed by a quick response from the Egyptian Air Force, has clearly displayed ISIL’s intentions of taking Libya over. Should they succeed, they would only need to cover some 200 miles to reach the Italian coast. And if ISIL militants manage to get their hands on some short-range ballistic missiles, they would be able to start shelling coastal Italian cities. It wouldn’t be a challenge to infiltrate the Italian coastline as well, carrying out terrorist attacks on Italian soil. This scenario could be called too pessimistic, if ISIL hadn’t carried out attacks in France and Denmark already.
For the first time, ISIL members emerged on Libyan soil in October 2014, announcing the creation of an an “Islamic emirate” in eastern Libya. Militants loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are now in full control of Derna, a town whose population is close to 100 thousand people. This town is near the Egyptian border and is only 300 miles away from the southern shores of the European Union. This “Islamic emirate” has recently been reinforced by 300 Libyan jihadists that have returned home from Syria and Iraq, where they were fighting alongside ISIL’s al Battar Brigade – first in Deir ez-Zor (Syria), and then in Mosul (Iraq). Their cause has received the support of the Council of Islamic Youth in Derna, a pro-ISIL group of young people. A video made in October 2014 has been uploaded to the Internet, showing a large crowd of militants associated with the Council of Islamic Youth, pledging their allegiance to the leader of ISIL – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This new wing of ISIL in Derna has acquired the name of Barca, the Libyan Islamic Emirate States, the name of the eastern region of Libya back in the times an Islamic government replaced the rule of the Roman Empire over this region. Barca has established harsh control over the city, by taking over courts, government and educational institutions, along with the local radio station. Derna today reminds one of Ar-Raqqah – a city where the ISIL headquarters were in Syria.
At first, those militants were insignificant in numbers, but then they were joined by local radical Islamists, and it didn’t take them long to establish control over many areas in eastern Libya – from the Egyptian border to Benghazi. Unprovoked violence, slaughter and looting have become the day-to-day reality for the Libyan people. The terrorists took full advantage of the political chaos that had been created by the overthrow Muammar Gaddafi – the former leader of Libya that fell due to NATO-GCC military aggression. A report published on February 17 states that those Islamists have already taken the city of Sirte and now they are advancing on Tripoli.
After the violent execution of 20 Coptic Egyptians, Cairo was quick to realize what danger was approaching its western borders. Egyptian security agencies have been fighting an exhausting battle with a terrorist group called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in the North Sinai for the last few months. Western attempts to put an end to ISIL in Syria and Iraq have proved this time and time again. Should Libyan Islamists invade Egypt, then they will inevitably be supported by the suppressed followers of “the Muslim Brotherhood” movement, that still has the approval nearly half of Egypt’s population. Things have never looked more grim for the whole Middle Eastern region. Therefore, on February 17, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution regarding international intervention in Libya. We are talking about a UN mandate authorizing an international intervention in Libya with the participation of troops from several countries, including the Armed Forces of Egypt. “There is no other choice, taking into account the agreement of the Libyan people and government and that they call on us to act, we need to do it again, and all of us together,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi told France’s Europe 1 radio station. And it seems that Italy is no less alarmed, where politicians are calling to “defend Rome” from terrorists and refugees.
It should be noted that it’s not the first time that Libya’s radical Islamists have attempted to provoke foreign countries. In late January, in broad daylight armed ISIL militants stormed a luxury hotel in Tripoli with the sole purpose of killing five foreigners living in it: among the dead, police found an American, French, Korean and two Philippines citizens. Back then those killings provoked little more in Europe than “serious concern.” However, on Sunday Libyan jihadists have finally managed to shock European politicians by uploading a video where they executed Christians and voiced threats of “capturing Rome,” that is only 500 nautical miles away from territory under the control of ISIL militants.
Islamist have truly stricken terror into the hearts of those dwelling in Rome. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called on the UN to establish control in Libya, noting that Europe must “stop sleeping” while jihadist groups continue to thrive near Europe’s borders. Italy’s Minster of Defense Roberta Pinotti told a local newspaper Messaggero that Italy is willing to head the assault of thousands of European and North African coalition troops in the war against jihadists. She stated that Italy had already sent as many as 5,000 troops to participate in UN operations in Afghanistan, while Libya is much closer to the EU borders, therefore there can be no more delay since the threat the EU faces today is imminent. She underlined that the interests of Italy cannot tolerate the existence of a caliphate near its borders.
It is only logical to wonder why the jihadists are trying to provoke Egypt and Italy to wage war on them? Experts believe that their goal – is to draw the world’s attention to the fact that ISIL has opened a “second front” in Libya in order to rally as many supporters from North Africa and Egypt under its black banner, as they possibly can. At the same time terrorists are trying to foment hatred among the Libyans towards neighboring states. Moderate Islamists in Libya dislike Egypt after Cairo’s harsh treatment of the “Muslim Brotherhood” movement. Hostility to the former colonizers – Italy – has been preserved in Libya for almost a century now. Aaron Zelin from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy believes that the extremists are counting on the support of the local population were Egypt to intervene in Libya – especially if Cairo’s airstrikes result in civilian deaths. According to ISIL’s propaganda, the fact that the Islamic State is expanding despite the amount of enemies it has clearly states that God is on their side, which allows them to recruit new supporters. It seems that the president of Egypt has fallen into ISIL’s trap. The head of Libya’s self-declared government, Omar Al Hassi has already announced that Egypt has violated the borders of a sovereign state. According to him, as a result of the airstrikes three children, two adult men and a 21-year-old woman were killed.
Egypt, which shares a long land border with Libya, runs the risk of a massive Islamist offensive that will lead to a war in its own territory. Cairo is particularly vulnerable in this regard due to the fact that there’s a huge number of Egyptian workers earning their living in Libya. Their number, according to various experts,ranges from several hundred thousand to several million.
Regarding Italy’s intervention in Libya, it “could turn out to be, politically and militarily, the biggest Italian suicide since the Second World War. Italy would be a wonderful target for the Islamic State The Italians would be facing a completely different kind of enemy from those they faced in Afghanistan or Lebanon, due to its colonial past,” believes Mattia Toaldo, a London-based Libya analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. Additionally, due to the talents of persuasion of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italy was one of the most active members of the anti-Libyan coalition led by the United States and Qatar, meaning there are a lot of forces in Libya that would like to “settle the score” with this country. After the brutal murder of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya plunged into anarchy for years, it’s no wonder that local populations are fed up with this situation. The barbaric execution of foreigners on Libyan soil further undermined whatever hope the Libyan people still had in the ability of local authorities to ensure their safety. In 2011, a US-led coalition of NATO and GCC forces helped barbaric rebels overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, this fact is still regarded by many Libyans as the cause behind the destruction of their state. In this environment, as shown by last year’s events in Iraq, ISIL can rapidly gain new followers and capture vast areas in virtually no time. Their next possible move – is across the Mediterranean Sea.
Alexander Orlov, political scientist, expert Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”