Tuesday, March 03, 2015

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)

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

The Week Ahead: February 16-22

Clash At The Edge Of Kyiv's Independence Squarei
February 20, 2014
Antigovernment protesters and government security forces have clashed at the edge of Kyiv's Independence Square. Witnesses reported that live ammunition was being fired. There have been reports of dozens of deaths since the intense fighting broke out on February 18. (Video by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service)
February 2014: Clash At The Edge Of Kyiv's Independence Square (Video by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service).
The Week Ahead is a detailed listing of key events of the coming week affecting RFE/RL's broadcast region.
Now on Twitter! Daily updates at @The_Week_Ahead.

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MONDAY, February 16:
Azerbaijan/U.S.: U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland visits Baku.
Georgia/Armenia: Georgian Parliament speaker David Usupashvili visits Yerevan (to February 18).
Iran/Azerbaijan: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visits Baku.
Russia: A district court in Moscow is expected to review the case against Sveltana Davydova, a Russian citizen who is accused of treason.
TUESDAY, February 17: ​
EU/Macedonia: EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn visits Skopje.
Georgia/U.S.: U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland visits Tbilisi.
Iran/Belarus: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visits Minsk (to February 18).
Russia: The Moscow City Court is expected to hold Navalny brothers' appeal hearing.
Russia/Hungary: Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Budapest, meets with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

U.S./South Caucasus: Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington hosts a discussion titled A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus.
WEDNESDAY, February 18:
Armenia/U.S.: U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland visits Yerevan.
EU/Kosovo: EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn visits Pristina.

Latvia: Riga hosts an informal meeting of EU defense ministers (to February 19).
U.S.: Washington hosts a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism to coordinate domestic and international efforts against violent extremism.
U.S./Russia: Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington hosts a discussion with Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe, titled Mr. Putin: Understanding the War with the West.
U.S./RussiaBrookings Institution in Washington hosts a discussion titled Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (and abroad).
THURSDAY, February 19:
Azerbaijan/Georgia: Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov visits Tbilisi.
FRIDAY, February 20:
Ukraine: The first anniversary of the bloodiest day of violence since antigovernment protests began in Ukraine in November 2013. 
SATURDAY, February 21:
Russia: Pro-Kremlin demonstrators hold an Anti-Maidan rally in Moscow to protest the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last February.
U.S./Pakistan: Atlantic Council in Washington hosts a discussion titled Pakistan’s Youth: Advocates for Change.
SUNDAY, February 22:
Poland/Ukraine: Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski visits Kyiv, meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. 
U.S.: The 87th annual Academy Awards (Oscars) to be announced in Los Angeles.

Moscow Muslims Want To Use Trailers As 'Mobile' Mosques

Coming soon to a Moscow Muslim near you?

MOSCOW -- Are you a Muslim in Moscow? Do you find when it's time to pray there's never a minaret in sight? Do you remember that time you had to pray in the filthy fire escape of some business center? Wouldn't you just prefer it if you could summon a mosque to come to you?

Well, your prayers may soon be answered.

A new crowdfunding initiative posted on the popular Boomstarter website is raising funds to buy a fleet of trailer cars and have them transformed into mobile places of Muslim worship.

The renovated trailers will accommodate a mini-prayer space, and also be fitted with a special ablution compartment for Muslims to wash, a crucial purification ritual performed before prayer, according to a design layout posted on Boomstarter.

The mobile mosques will then travel around the capital, serving Muslims who summon them, free of charge.

"Today 2 million Muslims in Moscow are forced to content themselves with only FOUR functioning mosques in the city," writes Alsu Khafis, the author of the Mobile Mosques project posted online. "The rhythm of the modern city and the small capacity of mosques do not allow practicing Muslims always to perform their regular prayer."

Mosques On Wheels!Mosques On Wheels!
Mosques On Wheels!
Mosques On Wheels!

The project aims to raise 850,000 rubles and hopes to resolve Moscow's mosque conundrum by stationing six trailer-mosques at business centers around the city and making a further two available for summoning by clients via a special website.

The raised funds will go toward buying the trailers and the cars to tow them, hiring drivers, and carrying out a full renovation of the automobiles. Organizers promise the trailer service will be self-sufficient, as it will sell takeaway food in order to cover costs.

The exterior of the trailer-cum-mosques will be white and embossed with a green Muslim floral pattern.

Mosques On Wheels?

The project organizers invite users to make contributions of between 100 rubles and 15,000 rubles ($1.5-$229). Contributors of the larger sum will be given the privilege of summoning a mosque-on-wheels without having to queue.

They also will receive a meal -- naturally in accordance with Muslim dietary requirements -- on top of prayer services. The project has so far raised a somewhat modest 20,000 rubles, with 56 days left to raise the remainder.

The Russian capital has long suffered from a shortage of mosques for its estimated 2 million Muslims, many of them migrant laborers.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has spoken out against building new mosques, arguing that the mosques are frequented predominantly by foreign citizens.

Every Muslim holiday sees tens of thousands of Muslims kneeling down on the streets near mosques. In winter, on the territory of Moscow's oldest mosque at Prospekt Mira -- which has been under reconstruction for several years -- Muslims simply unfurl their prayer rugs outside under driving snow.

In a city infamous for traffic problems, traveling to a mosque can also be problematic. "Answer honestly, do you remember how you felt when you read the namaz [prayer] on the fire escape of a business center...? When you prayed at home three times in a row because you can't pray at work and it is a minimum 40 minutes to travel to the mosque?" the pitch asks rhetorically.

Ildar Alyatdinov, Moscow's chief mufti, is ambivalent about the project, however. In local media comments carried by Interfax, Alyatdinov called the proposal "definitely rather interesting," but cautioned that mobile mosques would not be a substitute for the atmosphere of a real mosque.

-- Tom Balmforth

Minsk Memes: Two Dictators, Two Presidents, A Chancellor, And A Chair

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany negotiated through the night in Minsk in hopes of an agreement to stop the bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Unfortunately for restless journalists on the scene and for those following it online, most of the discussion happened behind closed doors. 

But the Internet never sleeps and the world leaders made "news" in some unexpected ways during the few moments when they did emerge. 

Did Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, for instance, engage in some passive-aggressive musical chairs with his much more powerful Russian colleague, Vladimir Putin?

Unfortunately, no. The looped video that went viral was actually set in reverse (notice German Chancellor Angela Merkel's robust backwards gait). The original video shows a much more innocent -- if still a little awkward -- gesture by Lukashenka. 

But journalists could be forgiven for taking it too seriously given the importance of chairs in geopolitical culture, first demonstrated by Charlie Chaplin in his 1940 satirical take on fascism, The Great Dictator.  


Lukashenka has recently taken a rather defiant tone against Putin. But this next meme suggests that, in theory, he should, as the "last dictator in Europe," be operating more in tandem with his autocratic counterpart against his more democratic Western colleagues. 

Then again, as the host -- rather than as a party to the negotiations -- Lukashenka clearly had his work cut out for him. His guests, sitting for a brief photo-op before negotiations, clearly needed someone to break the ice. 

Once the leaders did get to talking -- behind closed doors for more than 12 hours -- there was little comment from inside. At one point, though, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters negotiations were going "better than super." 

But did Putin's pencil agree?

Journalists, for their part, started out the night as tense as the politicians. Aleksandr Yunashev, a reporter from LifeNews, an online outlet with ties to Russia's security services, literally barked at a Ukrainian correspondent: 

His boss, the always professional Anatoly Suleymanov, tweeted that he would have "pissed" on the Ukrainian journalist:

But as the night wore on, media on the scene were left with little to do but wait, share online memes -- and reportedly save a cat. 

According to the Moscow-based Russian News Service, bored journalists spent the night feeding a stray feline. Perhaps tiring of their war stories or overhearing LifeNews barking nearby, the cat attempted an escape up a tree but then realized he couldn't get down. Reporters then somehow used a combination of ladders, tripods, and microphones to "rescue" her. 

Then they took a nap. 

-- Glenn Kates

Video Russian TV Outlines Scenario For Military 'Tour' Of Europe

Is it 1945 all over again? Red Army soldiers hoist the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin at the end of World War II.

Russian tanks descending on Warsaw and Berlin? Missiles lobbed at Washington and London? Such are the scenarios aired by a Russian national television program in response to suggestions that world leaders mark the defeat of Nazi Germany somewhere other than in Moscow.

In a recent segment broadcast by the St. Petersburg-based Channel 5 station, presenter Nika Strizhak and a reporter suggest sending Russian tanks, fighter jets, and nuclear missiles to Western capitals should world leaders snub Russia's celebration of the 70th anniversary of Victory Day in May. 

"It's a very intriguing idea to move our Victory Day parade to London or Berlin. We could certainly display our tanks in Warsaw and hold a large, European tour," Strizhak said in the February 8 broadcast of her weekly news and commentary show, Glavnoye.

WATCH: Glavnoye segment plans European vacation (in Russian): 

The segment, an apparent stab at satire, came in response to comments by Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna last week supporting an idea to have world leaders mark the anniversary in Gdansk.

"It's not natural that tributes marking the end of the war should be organized where the war began," Schetyna said, according to the AP, which noted that he appeared to be referring to the secret 1939 pact between Germany and the Soviet Union to carve up Eastern Europe.

Strizhak proceeds to pass the baton to a reporter who explains the relative ease with which Russian tanks and fighter jets could reach numerous European capitals.

"Warsaw is too easy. It's only 1,300 kilometers from Moscow to the Polish capital," he intones as dramatic music pulsates in the background, adding that Russian tanks could make it to the Warsaw suburbs "in less than a day."

He adds that Berlin is just 1,800 kilometers away and would be "a nice place for a friendly visit" for the May 9 Victory Day celebrations, Russia's most revered national holiday.

"That [distance] is nothing for a modern army. Furthermore, many Russian officers know Germany pretty well. They won't even need any maps," he says in the report, which segues into animation showing tanks rumbling into a city as a German flag is lowered and replaced by the Russian tricolor.

"Prague, Helsinki, Vilnius, Tallinn, Riga: Those are all very close," he adds.

The reporter then sets his sights on London and Washington, which, he notes, will require "significant advanced planning" and the involvement of the Russian Navy and Air Force.

"But there's still time until May," he says. "We have a big army. There's enough for everyone and for Moscow as well."

He ends the segment by noting "with regret" that Russia's "Western partners" won't be able to see the Russian military's Iskander and Satan missiles on parade.

"Those can only be delivered from Russia by air," he says as an animated missile, outfitted with a smiley-face decal, rises into the air.

Channel 5 is owned by the National Media Group, in which Bank Rossia owns a stake. The bank's largest shareholder, Yury Kovalchuk, is a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has been hit with U.S. and EU sanctions over the Kremlin's interference in Ukraine.

The EU says Bank Rossia, which has also been hit with sanctions by both Washington and Brussels, owns "important stakes in the National Media Group, which in turn controls television stations that actively support the Russian government's policies of destabilization of Ukraine." 

-- Carl Schreck


The Week Ahead: February 9-15

February 11: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are expected to meet in Minsk.

The Week Ahead is a detailed listing of key events of the coming week affecting RFE/RL's broadcast region.
Now on Twitter! Daily updates at @The_Week_Ahead.

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MONDAY, February 9:
EU: Foreign Affairs Council meeting opens in Brussels.

Russia/Egypt: Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Cairo  to discuss bilateral ties and regional issues in the Middle East (to February 10).

Sebia/Kosovo: Prime ministers of Kosovo and Serbia, Isa Mustafa and Aleksandar Vucic, meet in Brussels.
TUESDAY, February 10: ​
UK/Eastern PartnershipThe Foreign Policy Center in London hosts a discussion titled Trouble in the Neighbourhood: The future of the EU's Eastern Partnership.
WEDNESDAY, February 11:

Russia: The Russian Supreme Court is expected to hear a petition from the parents of Muslim school students over the ban on wearing hijabs at schools in the region of Mordovia.
Russia: The Amsterdam District Court is set to rule on a lawsuit against Russian state-owned oil producer Rosneft.
U.S./RussiaWilson Center in Washington hosts a discussion titled Property Rights and Wrongs In Russia Today.
THURSDAY, February 12:
Global: Reporters Without Borders publishes its annual World Press Freedom Index report.
EU/Middle East: European Parliament in Strasbourg holds a vote on a resolution on the crisis in Syria and Iraq.
Moldova: Moldovan Parliament is scheduled to hold a vote on a new government led by Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca.
U.S./Ukraine: Wilson Center in Washington hosts a discussion titled Ukrainian Democracy After the Maidan: Threats and Opportunities.
FRIDAY, February 13:
UNESCO:  World Radio Day.
SATURDAY, February 14:
Kazakhstan: The Evaluation Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) visits Almaty to review the readiness of the city to receive the 2022 Olympics (to February 18).
SUNDAY, February 15:
Serbia: National Day.

Russia's Lavrov Met With Hoots, Indignation At Testy Munich Talk

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addresses the 51st Munich Security Conference in Munich on February 7.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sparked derisive laughter and indignation among the audience at a security conference in Munich by defending Moscow's actions in the Ukraine conflict and accusing the West of fomenting unrest in the crisis.

In a testy question-and-answer session following his February 7 speech at the conference, Lavrov elicited scattered howls from an audience that included Western officials by claiming that Ukraine's Crimea territory willingly joined Russia in line with the United Nations Charter.

"I guess it's funny. I also found many things [said here] funny as well, but I controlled myself," Lavrov, who spoke in Russian throughout, said in response to the laughter.

The United States and the European Union (EU) accuse Russia of illegally annexing Crimea in March following a self-styled "referendum" held on the peninsula after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally, fled the country amid antigovernment protests.

Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea in March, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to "affirm its commitment" to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, calling the vote held in Crimea "invalid."

Western governments and Kyiv also accuse the Kremlin of backing pro-Russian separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 5,350 people since April.

Canada's delegation to NATO wrote on its Twitter feed that Lavrov's comments were a "sad attempt to dress up Russia's grab of Crimea with UN language."

Lavrov was also subjected to scorn after expressing support for the principles of territorial integrity and nonintervention spelled out in the Helsinki Final Act, a treaty signed in 1975 by 35 states, including the Soviet Union.

The Helsinki principles "were long ago torn up by the actions of the United States and its allies in Yugoslavia, which they bombed, in Iraq, in Libya, and by expanding NATO eastward and creating new dividing lines," Lavrov said.

NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who was in the audience, accused the Russian foreign minister of hypocrisy.

"Russia violates all Helsinki principles, yet FM Lavrov calls for reaffirming them. Interesting logic," Vershbow tweeted.

In another February 7 tweet, Vershbow said Lavrov was engaging in "blame shifting" and perpetuating "mostly fabrications and half-truths."

Marketing 'Rubbish'

Lavrov also accused the United States and the EU of escalating the crisis in Ukraine "at every step" after street protests erupted in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities following Yanukovych's sudden decision in November 2013 to reject a trade and political deal with the EU.

"After that, there was direct support for a coup," Lavrov said, repeating Moscow's long-stated view of the events.

Western officials repeatedly note that Yanukovych fled Kyiv after signing an EU-brokered deal with then-Ukrainian opposition leaders that called for a unity government and early presidential election.

Ukrainian lawmakers then voted to remove Yanukovych, who later fled to Russia, from office on the grounds that he was unable to fulfill his duties as president. This cleared the way for a pro-Western government to assume power in Kyiv.

Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, criticized Lavrov's portrayal of the circumstances surrounding the transition of power in Ukraine as disingenuous.

"Lavrov accuses EU of 'supporting [a] coup d'etat' in [Kyiv]. I hope he feels somewhat ashamed of having to market such rubbish," Bildt wrote on Twitter.

'No Laughing Matter'

Arguably the most tense exchange during Lavrov's appearance was prompted by a question from Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament, who told the Russian minister that his "description of the situation in Ukraine is not correct."

"It was not a coup," said Brok, who received applause from the audience.

Lavrov replied that the German official's question will "make for good television" and accused Brok of double standards.

"It's one thing if you want to give angry speeches that will bolster your position in politics and the European Parliament," Lavrov said. "If you want to talk, then let's sit down and reaffirm all of the Helsinki principles and see why you think they were violated in some cases and not in others."

It was in response to Brok that Lavrov sparked hoots of derision for his defense of Russia's annexation of Crimea as in accordance with the UN Charter.

The Russian Foreign Ministry's website published a transcript later on February 7 that excluded Lavrov's immediate response to the laughter in the auditorium but included his reference to the commotion in his concluding comments.

"We can discuss all of this if you truly want to know our position and our motivations," Lavrov said. "[Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin has said this repeatedly. You can laugh at it, of course. But then someone just gets some satisfaction from this. They say laughter prolongs life."

The moderator, Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States and the chairman of the Munich conference, wrapped up the discussion by saying: "The issues we are discussing here, I think, are no laughing matter from any side."

-- Carl Schreck

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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