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Could Islamic State Use Libya As A Gateway To Europe?


There are fears that Islamic State might exploit routes used by illegal migrants from Africa as a back door into Europe. (file photo)

There are fears that Islamic State might exploit routes used by illegal migrants from Africa as a back door into Europe. (file photo)

On February 15, militants in Libya who claim affiliation with the Islamic State group released a graphic new propaganda video. Entitled A Message Signed In Blood To The Nation Of The Cross, the five-minute long video appeared to show Islamic State militants simultaneously beheading a group of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who had been abducted in Libya earlier this year.

Following the release of that video, Egypt's Ambassador to the UK, Nasser Kamel, warned that militants in Libya posed a threat to Europe because of its proximity to Italy. Kamel said that the Islamic State group could exploit boat routes used by illegal migrants from Libya who are trying to travel to Italy, assisted by human traffickers.

"[There are] boat people who go for immigration purposes and try to cross the Mediterranean. In the next few weeks, if we do not act together, there will be boats full of terrorists also," Kamel told the BBC on February 16.

Is this a credible threat, or a hyperbolic reaction to the shocking mass beheading video?

Italy, whose southern islands are only about 186 miles from the Libyan coast, is certainly extremely concerned about the threat posed by the Islamic State group's proximity to its own shores.

Italy's Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, warned on February 18 of a "grave threat" posed to European security by Islamic State militants in Libya.

Gentiloni told Parliament that there was an "evident risk" of Islamic State gunmen forging ties with local militias or criminal gangs, and warned that the situation risked destabilizing neighboring countries.

"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 neighboring African states," Gentiloni said.

While there have been no confirmed reports of Islamic State militants using illegal immigration boat routes to enter Europe, Italian authorities are concerned about an incident on February 15, when coast guard operatives were threatened by armed men. The incident occurred when a Coast Guard vessel attempted to rescue people from a boat. The armed men attempted to take over the boat people's vessel after it had been emptied of migrants.

Italian Foreign Minister Gentiloni said that the rise in migrants arriving in Italy in 2015 -- a phenomenon that has exacerbated antimigrant sentiment in that country -- is connected with the deteriorating security situation in Libya.

Analyst Charlie Winter, who researches the Islamic State group at the Britain-based Quilliam think tank, argued in the Daily Telegraph on February 17 that the Libyan militants' plans to use people trafficking boats as a way to access southern Europe should not be ignored.

"Talk of terrorist infiltration into European cities through illegal trafficking is not, it seems, just found in the rhetoric of politicos in Brussels. For the [IS group] enthusiast, Libya is a "strategic gateway," a launching pad for the disruption of "Crusader" shipping lines and a means of wreaking "pandemonium" in Europe's southern cities," Winter wrote.

While Egypt's immediate response to the beheading video was to bomb Islamic State targets in Libya, Italy's Foreign Minister Gentiloni said that the solution was political rather than military.

Gentiloni called on the UN to help find a speedy solution to the situation in Libya.

Islamic State gained a foothold in Libya in October, when a group of militants in the eastern city of Derna pledged allegiance to the group's leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Since, then the group has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in Libya, including an attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli in later January, in which nine people were killed.

However, there are so many militant groups in Libya that it is not clear how much power the Islamic State-affiliated gunmen actually wield.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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