Mar 9, 2015
Balkanalysis.com Special Report: The ISIS Expansion in Libya and Threats to the Mediterranean and North Africa
ISIS-affiliated militants’ recent attacks on oil fields in Libya, coupled with the gruesome murders of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by terrorists there earlier, confirms that the terror group is expanding operations in a new theater, far from its home turf of Iraq and Syria; there it is under more concentrated attack from the Iraqi army, backed by Iran’s military and Shiite militias. After its rapid gains last summer, ISIS has been on the defensive following months of allied bombardment, and needs to expand to new theaters to sustain its momentum and perpetuate the apocalyptic theology that, as a recent study by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic revealed, comprises the ideological core of the whole ‘Islamic State’ project.
ISIS in Libya has also been depicted in some media as posing a new trans-Mediterranean terrorist threat to the West, particularly via Italy and Greece. This threat has fueled calls for a military intervention or at least a coastal blockade, the latter being more likely than the former. Yet it is not even necessary for ISIS to reach European shores to still pose a major new threat to Western interests, economy and regional stability.
Much still remains unknown about ISIS’ strategic intentions in Libya, and what kind of impact it will have on an already fluid situation marked by infighting between two rival governments. The group’s intentions and relative strength will be tested over the next 3-6 months; broadly speaking, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better, especially if the recent comments attributed to Boko Haram leaders pledging allegiance to ISIS prove to be true.
So far, international diplomacy and efforts to train and supervise Libyan national authorities have proved ineffective and limited due to security realities. Very few foreigners remain in Libya, which is negatively impacting the reliability of information coming from the country. The internationally-recognized Libyan government’s desperate pleas for arms have been stymied by mandated policy prerequisites from the West. UN-sponsored negotiations between rival Libyan administrations began in 5 March in Morocco and are set to continue with the goal of forming a national unity government. Further, the issues of a possible liquidity crisis leading to loss of services and imports, or of elimination of the remaining gas and oil supply needed to generate electricity, are being highlighted by experts- both would lead to a situation of total chaos that groups like ISIS could exploit.
In the cumulative analysis, it is most likely that ISIS’ strategic goal is not to take over Libya as a functional state, but rather to destabilize it so much that neighboring states have to intervene more heavily than they have already. The terror group will thus use increased fighting with the neighboring Arab states as a means for attracting recruits to its cause, while trying to destabilize those countries (especially Egypt). This will be done partly to sustain jihad momentum, since ISIS faces eventual losses in Tikrit and Mosul as Iran becomes more seriously involved in taking care of business. The ultimate goal of ISIS may be to provoke destabilization in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, and eventually hook up via the Sahel with Boko Haram and other jihadist groups, creating a wide arc of instability spanning the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Red Seas. Even if this eventuality is highly unlikely to be realized, one thing is for sure: ISIS does not lack for ambition.
The following analysis, based on numerous interviews with security experts, institutional leaders and business figures, assesses the likely upcoming tactical decisions of Islamic State activity in Libya, its potential for further destabilization and acts of violence, and the effect that this presence can have on regional security and economy. This estimate also examines some potential scenarios related to possible terrorist events affecting international commerce and European security in general.
A Predictable Eventuality: Background on Libya, Syria and the Establishment of a ‘Two-Way Channel’
First, it must be noted that no one should be surprised by what is happening now. From the beginning of the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ it was obvious that the overthrow of secular Arab dictators like Moammar Gadaffi would create a huge security vacuum, one that would eventually be filled the strongest and most violent actors.
While certain Western countries believed that their policy of ‘spreading democracy’ would work out, those security services in those countries closest to the action were more cautious. In March 2011, when the NATO bombing of the Gaddafi government was gearing up, Balkanalysis.com reported that “Greek security planners are preparing for other risks that could accompany a protracted conflict, including refugee crises, arms smuggling and other forms of organized crime.”
That report also cited Moammar Gaddafi’s second son, Saif Al-Islam, who presciently warned that Libya “could become a ‘second Somalia,’ afflicting the Mediterranean with the scourge of piracy and bringing more opportunities for terrorists to attack European targets.” This warning was largely disregarded because he was, after all, the son of the man NATO was trying to overthrow.
The Libya intervention fatally linked the destinies of both Libya and Iraq when some of the massive flow of arms sent by Qatar (and others), as well as North African jihadists, were channeled from Libya, with the blessings of certain Western governments, on to the new war in Syria against the Assad government. However, the lack of airstrikes and different geo-political situation of the Middle East meant that Assad has clung to power, while the divided opposition militias were eventually surpassed by ISIS – and its foreign fighters – who have operated with a brutality unprecedented in modern warfare.
The personnel flow from North Africa to Syria has meant that the original one-way channel has become a two-way one with the arrival of ISIS in Libya, with firm communications and logistics established. Further, the all-encompassing ideology of ISIS means that the idea of foreign fighters in leadership roles has been re-imported to Libya as a guiding concept. On 3 March, Newsweek cited Libyan government sources in claiming that over 5,000 foreign fighters have come to Libya amidst ongoing public calls from ISIS for new recruits.
“ISIS have allegedly appointed two emirs, both foreign nationals, to oversee both sides of the country,” the magazine reported. “The ‘Emir of Tripoli’, a Tunisian known as Abu Talha, controls the group’s operations in the west and a Yemeni national Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi [is] based in the town of Derna, which the group controls.”
After 2011, international media focus on Libya had moved away to follow the worsening Syrian civil war. Attention only briefly returned in a very specific context- with the now infamous 11 September 2012 Benghazi attack on a US diplomatic compound. The murky nature of the event sparked a firestorm of conservative criticism in the US over Hilary Clinton’s mishandling of the situation. (The event also made the late, great French adventurer/novelist Gérard DeVilliers look prophetic, or at least very well-informed in one of his last books, The Madmen of Benghazi).
However, the claim of an alleged cover-up by the Obama administration, with the memorable phrase, ‘Hilary lied, Americans died’ became essentially a matter for internal political discourse and did not lead to any serious public re-examination of the future of Libya. Indeed, it was not until January 2014 that the State Department designated Ansar Al-Shariah, the militia believed responsible for the Benghazi attacks, as a terror organization. And only relatively recently (in June 2014) did US Special Forces successfully capture the militia’s leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala in Libya.
With the extraordinary amount of media interest, Congressional committees, and constant rhetoric from Democrats and Republicans over Benghazi, it became clear that assessments of the event were ultimately more geared towards scoring political points and securing legacies than towards the status of Libya itself- a reality worsened by preparations for the midterm elections and concomitant politicization of events. It is impossible to know how much time and energy was misused because of the scandal, but it is likely that it was enormous and that it definitely contributed to a certain ‘Libya fatigue,’ in which events in the country were seen through the lens of the Benghazi attacks, or simply ignored altogether.
This slowly started to change with the sudden and violent arrival of ISIS in summer 2014 in Syria and Iraq. As has been shown, the group’s expansion into Libya was predictable; the fact that steps were not taken to neutralize the threat in a timely manner indicates a lack of preventive measures, and a failure on the policy level.
To appreciate the longer-term factors that allowed ISIS to emerge in the current period, it is also quite revealing to read this 2012 Italian Defense Ministry report by Arturo Varvelli; it concerns Libya’s future in the context of Italian national security. The report underlined the growing importance (already by 2012) of political Islam, and concludes that the failure of Islamists to take over government by that point had less to do with a supposed desire for Western freedoms than it did with the deep divisions within the Islamist electorate. By failing to recognize this in time, the West missed an early-warning sign. And the internal divisions within the Islamist bloc have indeed helped lead to the development of a more radical element now oriented towards ISIS’ ideology and practice.
The Clear and Present Danger: The Threat to Libya’s Oil Fields and Energy Infrastructure
A major and existential concern regarding ISIS in Libya is the group’s ability to disrupt energy production and supply which, if fully realized, could lead to total state collapse within three months. It is not expected that the group can easily achieve this militarily, or it is even in their own interest, but it is necessary to at least outline how it could happen.
Recent major media reports have concentrated on ISIS-affiliated militia’s attacks on oil fields in eastern Libya. An attack on the Mabruk field in February left a dozen people dead. All in all, the Associated Press reported on 5 March that 11 oil fields have become ‘non-operational’ after recent attacks, citing the National Oil Corporation. The NOC has invoked a force majeure clause, by which the state from contractual obligations due to forces beyond its control. All oil workers were removed from the targeted sites.
As with everything else, the situation is being complicated by the existence of two rival governments: the internationally-recognized authority, exiled to the far eastern city of Tobruk, and the Islamic-backed ‘Libya Dawn’ outfit that took over Tripoli last year. Both are increasingly accusing each other for Libya’s problems and continue to attack each other- a state of affairs that has helped to create a vacuum that Islamic State fighters are happy to fill.
The National Oil Corporation immediately blamed “Islamist-backed authorities in the capital Tripoli for failing to protect the oil fields.” According to an NOC statement, “theft, looting, sabotage and destruction” have recently increased at Libya’s oil installations. The National Oil Corporation warned that a continued deterioration might force it “to close all fields and ports, which will result in a total deficit in state revenues and directly impact people’s live, including with power outage.”
Damaging or taking over such energy infrastructure by ISIS replicates tactics used successfully in Iraq and Syria. In Libya, Islamic State-affiliated militants first targeted the oilfields at Bahi and Mabruk, using their base in the central city of Sirte to attack the Dhahra oilfield as well. In attacking the Dhahra oilfield, reported Time, ISIS fighters were seen “trading fire with guards and blowing up residential and administrative buildings before eventually retreating.” Evacuations were required and it is expected that ISIS will control this field too.
However, these fields had already been shut down for several weeks, which is why Libya expert John Hamilton does not believe the recent ISIS activities here will have a sudden or crippling effect on the economy. A London-based director at consultancy Cross Border Information, which produces an African energy sector newsletter for clients, Hamilton recently shared his thoughts with Balkanalysis.com on the oil field attacks and the general situation.
“The As Sidr and Ras Lanuf terminals have been under force majeure and closed since Christmas day,” he notes. “So there is not much damage to the industry. They haven’t been operating, and no one is going to start them anytime soon. As far as impact on revenues, this has no effect.”
These terminals are set along the coastal road southeast of Sirte, ISIS’ current stronghold. Noting that the militants targeted the northwestern corridor of the Sirte basin, Hamilton points out that “it is obvious that these fields were attacked since they are the closest fields to where the ISIS, former Ansar Al-Shariah forces, are located.” If the current trend continues, he notes, the geographically contiguous fields “are next to be attacked, as these are the most strategically exposed- these are very strategically set places, as they supply Tobruk.”
Here it is important to note that the major fields attacked (Dahra, Bahi and Mabruk- and now, al-Ghani) are actually the closest to Sirte; they lie at the northwestern edge of a vast arcing basin that passes southeast, under the gulf dividing Sirte from Benghazi, and ends with a handful of fields directly linked to Tobruk to the north. (See this oil company website for a detailed map). Should it get far enough inland, ISIS could thus attempt to choke off the supply of fuel to the internationally-supported government. However, Hamilton notes that “in order to get them, they would have to cross areas controlled by groups loyal to the government in Tobruk.”
Implications of Energy-Sector Attacks on ISIS’ Geographical Focus
While Sirte is on Libya’s central coast, the Dahra fields are considerably further south (170km inland). And the previously-attacked Bahi oil field is over 250km from Sirte. Again, it should be remembered that these are the closest of more than 20 oil fields that sprawl southeast towards the Egyptian border, in a very large country.
The major issue for assessing ISIS short-term tactical goals is to identify whether the group will continue to concentrate on energy disruption, or on other goals and locations. This will have an effect on its geographical presence, and potential to come into conflict with rival militias, should it try to spread out along the coast or down towards the desert. In comments for Balkanalysis.com, Ludovico Carlino, MENA Analyst at IHS Country Risk, states that ISIS most probably “will try to press southward and increase cross-border attacks, to draw in regional powers.”
On the other hand, were ISIS to try and fight its way along the coast, it would meet with “constraints… as two actors are already fighting for control of this asset. The biggest risk would be to unify enemies against you,” notes Carlino, who also considers that ISIS may want to explore possible “Sub-Saharan linkages” with established hiadist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, and ultimately even Boko Haram in Nigeria. Even previous to the latter’s recent purported pledge of allegiance to ISIS, more sophisticated media usage was linked to a deepening connection between ISIS and Boko Haram by experts such as Rukmini Callimachi, an expert on the latter group and West African correspondent for the New York Times.
In any case, the Italian analyst believes that “since the situation in Libya is really unstable, this will weaken effects to stop ISIS, and in six months they may well be stronger. But they will face a challenge to expand, since they don’t have all the actors on their side, and if they try the same approach as in Syria, it won’t work.”
If the territorial strategy of ISIS is indeed designed to damage the energy infrastructure, this means that other major cities will be relatively safe for now from direct military attacks, though they remain susceptible to coordinated terrorist attacks. In the east, ISIS’ notable possession currently is parts of Derna, the latter of which Egypt bombed in retaliation for the murder of Coptic Christians. It is likely that Egypt will bomb this port city again, and that Western naval authorities will continue monitoring maritime traffic there heavily. This is a key port for illicit vessels trying to access Greek waters.
Despite the relatively small territorial area under its control, ISIS has succeeded in carrying out suicide bombings elsewhere in the country, such as January’s deadly attack on a Tripoli luxury hotel popular with foreigners. And the eastern town of Qubba was the scene of another suicide bombing that killed 40 people in late February. This indicates again that destabilization of the state – and, indeed both rival governments – through energy control and scattered terrorist attacks may indeed be ISIS’ strategic goal in Libya, as a means to other ends.
Scenario for State Failure: Energy and Liquidity Crises
According to recent comments from Libya’s oil minister, Mashallah al-Zewi, national oil production is now less than 500,000 barrels a day (a quarter of ‘normal’ production). The Libyan economy has gradually adapted to shortfalls, though for how long remains a big question. John Hamilton, who traveled to Libya frequently between 2007 and 2013, underscores the significance of the National Oil Corporation’s recent warning. If ISIS attacks continue, the government “might be forced to shut down oil production, having a negative effect on electricity and fuel. Then Libya is completely screwed.” Without fuel to create electricity, civil infrastructure would cease operating- causing a humanitarian crisis that would dramatically increase the flow of refugees to neighboring states and by sea to Europe, and likely lead to a chaotic situation favorable to armed terrorists like ISIS.
In this context, Hamilton adds that an ENI representative recently told him that gas operations are continuing normally from the Italian company’s holdings, near the western border with Algeria. Regarding the two self-declared governments and their militias, he notes that “neither side has yet targeted gas production. That is the difference between ISIS and everybody else. Everybody else is fighting for Libya, so they’re not going to do anything as stupid [as cutting off gas supply]. ISIS is fighting for a beachhead to attack the West, to attack Egypt and to connect with Boko Haram.”
Nevertheless, he says, “I don’t believe that ISIS is strong enough to defeat the forces arrayed against them.” However, he adds that by putting itself in the middle of the standoff between Tripoli and Tobruk, ISIS “could split Misraha off from the people in Tripoli by continuing to attack oil fields.”
In addition to the danger of an energy cut-off, Hamilton makes an interesting point about a less discussed subject: a possible public-sector liquidity crisis. “The great unknown question is whether the social fabric is will hold out” in that case. “It is very difficult to get a clear picture [of the government’s holdings]. Some say Libya will not exhaust reserves for at least 18 months, others say sooner. The truth is that Libya has a large amount of currency, but a high proportion of it is not liquid. They need to be sold to convert- importing fuel, wheat and medicine is getting increasingly complicated. It requires paperwork. You can’t pay an oil dealer with US Treasury bills, after all. So every month as they spend more of their reserves, the available currency for importing wheat, diesel and medicine is diminishing. They’re having to cut already- there have been massive power shortages because they haven’t got fuel to generate enough electricity.”
The British energy consultant is careful to distinguish state reserves from the holdings of the private sector. “There is a massive amount of cash in Libya in the private sector redistributed through militias. Increasingly people will use those resources to survive. That is not going to solve the problem, though- militias will not import diesel tankers, after all.”
In such an eventuality, it is likely that civilians will become even more dependent on the militias to provide basic services than they already are. This is the kind of situation which ISIS has successfully exploited in Iraq and Syria.
“If I was advising Western governments I wouldn’t tell them to give up negotiations [between the rival factions], but I would also be telling them to prepare for a humanitarian crisis, to prepare to send food, blankets and emergency equipment.”
According to Libyan businessman Tarek Alwan, owner of London-based independent consultancy SOC Libya Ltd, the private sector is also looking to safeguard its options. “The great majority of potential investors have already pulled out of country,” he said for Balkanalysis.com. “I have not seen any Western investors entering the market, though there are some businesses from risk-taking countries that are perhaps thinking of entering. Some Libyan businessmen have already taken the necessary steps to face such a terrible situation, by either moving some of their assets or cash abroad.”
While the European Union and member states, particularly Greece, Malta and Italy, have been taking some measures, in the event of a large-scale humanitarian crisis it is unlikely that they would have the capability to organize and execute such a mission alone- particularly if aid workers were to come under fire from jihadists on the ground. The result would be a mass exodus of impoverished people in all directions, and a chaotic internal situation.
Oil, Antiquities and other Assets: Further Opportunities for Terrorist Expansion
Whether or not Libya faces an imminent collapse due to the general infighting and violent arrival of ISIS, it is obvious that the terror group will attempt to profit from its presence in the country in both financial and ideological ways. This is where its activities intersect with transnational organized crime.
First of all, regarding oil, it would be much more difficult for ISIS to monetize energy supplies in Libya than it has in Iraq and Syria. The same conditions do not exist in Libya as did in ISIS’ original theater, where oil smuggling across the Turkish border became for a while a source of generous revenue. For example, Jason Pack, a Cambridge researcher on Libya, recently told Time that “there’s no way to smuggle oil in Libya… the difference from a place like Iraq is Iraq has a long tradition of oil from the Kurdish region going in trucks to Turkey. Libya has no such tradition.”
However, the differences might also be more than just ‘tradition.’ In the case of Libya – which has different neighbors, and large areas of desert – the existent transport infrastructure and border security are also unique factors dictating where (and whether) contraband oil can be moved. Whereas Turkey was complicit for a number of years in jihadist penetration of Syria, and as a consequence did not suffer major reprisals from ISIS or Al Nusra, Algeria and Egypt – both of which have large and capable armies – are on continual high alert regarding Libya.
Any surreptitious fuel exports via Libya’s Mediterranean ports would be difficult as well; when some rebels tried to smuggle crude oil in March 2014, US Navy Seals quickly stopped the tanker south of Cyprus. According to the BBC, the deregistered, North Korea-flagged tanker had departed from the port of al-Sidra, near Sirte, the area ISIS now controls.
Another source of ISIS wealth in the Middle East has been antiquities smuggling. The terrorist group has used this for both financial and ideological gain. For example, while 2014 was full of stories about the group selling the most valuable movable historic items, they have shown the tendency to save non-movable ones for the propaganda value that comes when they film themselves destroying traces of ‘idolatrous’ non-Muslim civilization. This is an example of a current phenomenon which we could call ‘Selfie Jihad.’
Such attacks on sites have typically occurred when the group is on the verge of a military defeat, or is seeking to recover from one. The recent destruction of large items in the Mosul Museum, and the bulldozing of the ancient cities of Nemrut and Hatra were the most recent examples of this tactic. However, Western commentators (as with this CNN op-ed) have somewhat misunderstood ISIS’ driving purpose with such acts. While it may be true to call such destructive events as blows against common world culture, it is incorrect to remove these acts from the specifically Islamist nature of the ISIS quest. In their propaganda videos, these terrorists continually say that Allah is ordering them to erase non-Islamic sites, and this is considered a part of the ultimate narrative leading to the end of the world, and final victory of Islam, as explained the above article from The Atlantic.
Because of ISIS’ demonstrated activities in Syria and Iraq in accordance with this teleological perspective, it is expected that they will employ this tactic in any theater of operations- and will encourage supporters to destroy non-Muslim heritage markers anywhere in the world. In Libya, this means that several important ancient sites and museums are at risk, if the group strengthens its position in the country. However, if the current model is anything to by, any large-scale destruction will not occur (or, will not be broadcast to the world) unless the group needs a propaganda boost after a military defeat or needs to energize new recruits. For ISIS’ first priority will be establishing itself and fighting off rivals.
As Newsweek recently reported, the major possible targets in Libya are the ancient Theater at Sabratha in the far northwest, Leptis Magna between Tripoli and Misrata, and Cyrene on the east coast near Derna. Experts are so concerned, the magazine reveals, that Paul Bennett, chief of the UK-based Society for Libyan Studies, “wrote to Unesco’s director-general Irina Bokova, stating his ‘extreme concerns for the antiquities of Libya’ because of the very real threat of similar attacks by the terror group in the country.” Bokova’s only response has been to say that ‘we don’t have an army’- something that Libyan and foreign experts say is not a good excuse.
Libyan analyst Mohamed Eljarh confirmed this concern. “Given that a huge part of ISIS’s expansion strategy is their media exposure and propaganda, I fear that significant ancient sites such as the Roman ruins in Sabratha and Leptis Magna are the two sites with the highest risk of being targeted by ISIS militants,” said Eljarh for the magazine. “The group now has a presence in Sirte and Tripoli. This puts them in very close proximity to these two important sites of Libyan heritage.”
The brisk trade ISIS has done in Middle Eastern movable antiquities relies on well-established organized crime networks, because (as we have reported in the Balkan context in 2005) the major market for priceless ancient artefacts is in the West, at private auctions held discreetly for millionaires in law-abiding countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The insidiousness of the symbiotic relationship between organized crime, terrorism and the ‘legitimate’ Western art buyer is seen in such cases.
Beyond Libya, ISIS has its sights set on Rome, and particularly the Vatican. Even well before the arrival of ISIS, the Holy See had been voicing concern over the threat to Christian art. In November 2012, powerful Gendarmerie chief Domenico Giani made a speech before Interpol’s General Assembly on this theme. Giani specifically pointed to the threat “in countries where revolts are under way or there are internal struggles fed by a hatred so strong that people try to destroy anything that represents ‘the enemy.’” Most recently, the Vatican’s security chief gave a rare interview in which he confirmed that the security services remain on ‘high alert’ regarding ISIS’ threats against the Vatican, made in the Libyan propaganda video depicting the murder of the Coptic Christians.
Egypt, in fact, is a target of similar value to ISIS in the long term. Aside from ransacking the country’s great museums and churches, there could be no more epic propaganda video for fundamentalist Islam than the destruction of the pyramids. In recent propaganda videos, ISIS has made allusions to President al-Sissi and the ancient “pharaoh.” The implication seems to be that the legacy of ancient Egypt and a modern secular democracy are indistinguishably evil, in that both are non-Islamic. While an attack on the pyramids is very unlikely to ever happen, ISIS’ past behavior and present rhetoric indicate clearly that a whole wider range of very vulnerable sites in the world may come under threat from ISIS or from individuals radicalized by it over the Internet.
Egypt has shown awareness of the problem of protecting the country’s ancient Christian heritage. Balkanalysis.com has received new intelligence regarding a recent foreign visit to St Catherine’s Monastery in south Sinai, a priceless ancient structure that provides considerable revenue for the local inhabitants. Since the overthrow of Mubarak, Greek and Cypriot diplomats have felt a particular responsibility towards the monastery’s welfare, and now the Egyptian government has provided the first full-time contingent of soldiers to guard it. The recent visit, which included foreign diplomats resident in Egypt, was made from the beach resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh, and was designed to convince the foreigners that the area is not dangerous to visit. The Egyptian government was thus trying to distinguish the present safety of south Sinai from the north of the peninsula, where it is fighting jihadists.
There are other issues as well. Libya is also awash in illegal arms. The substantial flow of contraband weapons is often facilitated by bogus maritime companies using old vessels, plying the routes between Ukraine, the Western Balkans, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. The illicit weapons trade across the Sahara with groups like AQIM and Boko Haram also continues. Further, it is very well known that international private intelligence companies continue researching where all of Gaddafi’s money ended up, since billions of dollars remain unaccounted for. There are numerous scenarios in which private initiatives like these could employ misdirection deliberately, or else interfere by accident, in ways that are detrimental to the overall security situation of the country, though they would probably never be identified.
Human Trafficking and Political Debate over Libya in Italy
Beyond possible fuel, guns and antiquities smuggling, it is human trafficking from North Africa to Italy and Greece that Western security forces see as the single most important security issue on Europe’s southern flank. The potential for ISIS to infiltrate terrorists in with the undocumented migrant hordes on leaky barges is possible, and the idea received great media attention when London-based Quilliam Foundation predicted it in a report last month. Aside from the fleeing local civilians, and the report’s expectations that ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq will also set sail from Libya, our present intelligence suggests that a large flow of Sudanese illegal immigrants are passing through Libya en route to Italy; however, many of these Sudanese, are actually Somalis, and it is almost certain that Al Shabaab members are also among them.
On a daily basis, numerous small and even larger craft are available and setting sail from Libya towards Greece and Italy, where organized crime operations control parts of important ports. Does this mean a symbiosis between terrorists and European crime bosses?
“To my knowledge, if you want to have some kind of human trafficking business you need some connections with mafia and criminal gangs,” notes the IHS analyst, Ludovico Carlino. “This means people in the south of Italy pay a fee to the mafia. In this case the mafia is engaged in more profitable ventures.”
The massive effect of illegal immigration on Italian society and politics is fueling calls for a military intervention. “The parties on the right are really pushing for a different solution, but the flow of migrants is not going to stop anytime soon,” Carlino adds. “Renzi said we cannot go completely from caring to doing, and that an intervention will only cause more problems, as you have to decide who to support in a complex situation with multiple actors. And, while most of the tribes are in central and south Libya, the biggest tribes are not involved directly in the current conflict.”
Other Italian analysts agree with the non-intervention view. A 20 February article by Giorgio Cuscito in the analytical magazine Limes discussed the risks related to a possible armed intervention there. Without a plan to restore political stability in the African country, the author argues, a military attack to counter militias affiliated to ISIS would be “counterproductive.” The perception, shared by many Italian politicians, is that another large-scale international military mission could “fuel the jihadist threat without resolving the current crisis,” and lead to a further risk of terrorism.
Most recently, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published in interview with UN Libya envoy Bernardino Leon, in which he called for an EU-led coastal blockade of Libyan ports. “There’s a measure that the European Union can take right away: Come out in force to guard the seas off Libya. Italy can’t do it alone. It needs help,” Leon was reported as saying. However, the EU is risk-averse by nature, and as will be discussed below, has not succeeded in its own (soon-expiring) mandate of training Libya’s coast guard.
One clear example would be when ABC quoted EU foreign policy chief Mogherini’s latest comments on ongoing efforts with the UN to resolve Libya’s problems. Predictably for an EU official, she said that “this could mean also some naval presence, but we are in a far too early stage now to get into the details. We are discussing that internally, with the U.N., and we hope to be able to discuss that with the Libyan authorities soon in the future.” Virtually all Italians and Greeks would argue that it is, in fact, far too late to be still deciding what to do about the situation.
Piracy, Refugee Boats and Trans-Med Terrorism Threats
In our view, the most interesting and still undetermined aspect of Libya is not what could happen within it, but rather what could happen off of it.
North Africa’s Mediterranean coast has a historic affiliation with maritime piracy. The so-called ‘Barbary pirates’ of North Africa operated during the Ottoman period and, because of this political reality, contemporaneous Western accounts tended to describe all such swashbucklers as ‘Turks,’ though the pirate gangs included primarily North African Muslims (and sometimes non-Muslims) in their crews. Incredibly enough, these pirates raided as far north as Iceland, as one report from 1627 indicated. Christian captives were resold in the slave markets of North Africa, and the Italian coast and Greek islands were particularly hard-hit on a regular basis. Well over one million Europeans were enslaved by these Muslim pirates over the course of three centuries.
Indeed, it is no accident that the iconic villages in Greek islands tend to be situated high above the sea, sometimes in semi-fortified positions, owing to the chronic fear of piracy. Very specific cases remain attesting to this past, as in the tiny village of Sykia (near the southern tip of Halkidiki’s Sithonian Peninsula, in the north of Greece), where local residents have a genetic prevalence for a kind of anemia more common to North African Arabs. (Neighboring villagers refer to Sykies as ‘Little Texas;’ perhaps the good-old pirate spirit carries over generations too).
So, are the halcyon days of maritime piracy returning with Libya’s descent into chaos? Before addressing this, it must first be acknowledged just how busy the Mediterranean Sea is. Websites like VesselFinder.com and MarineTraffic.com use AIS data and Google Maps to show the exact location, identity and destination of all (trackable) ships worldwide, in real time. Viewing such websites indicates the density and preferred routes of cargo ships, tankers ferries and other craft. Even a cursory view shows how congested the Mediterranean actually is. On any given day, there are plenty of targets for a determined terrorist or pirate craft to hit. However, unlike places like Somalia, the Mediterranean is well-policed by Greek and Italian navies and coast guards, and there are major NATO bases near Naples and on the island of Crete.
A Greek executive at a top merchant maritime company in Athens tells Balkanalysis.com that “our biggest fear is attacks against ships such as oil tankers while they are docked in ports in Libya. For example, an attack with explosives, or abduction of the crew. In such cases despite vigilance, there is little that can be done, unless all ships have on board armed guards.”
However, terrorists would be less effective at large-scale piracy or attacks while on the high seas. “On a tactical level, should a crisis with ISIS emerge, the coast guards and navies of Greece and Italy, plus France and Spain are more than capable of dealing with them,” states an Italian FRONTEX officer for Balkanalysis.com.
The officer, who has more than 20 years of experience in homeland maritime security, adds that the terrorists “don’t have a navy, and cannot have one. Moreover, NATO patrols in the Mediterranean, which include the US 6th Fleet, is an added factor in the game. They will annihilate ISIS should they attempt piracy.”
The Greek marine executive agrees. “On a wider scale attacks by ISIS in order to disrupt sea lanes in the midst of the Mediterranean would be far more difficult on an operational level. Due to the ongoing illegal immigration flow, there are quite a few air and sea patrols by both FRONTEX and the Italian Navy. Also the Greek naval forces could be re-deployed on 8-12 hours’ notice from the Aegean to the region south of Crete. And air support can be achieved even quicker. Therefore ISIS would stand no chance against organized and heavily armed naval forces.”
Considering the formidable might of the European navies, and the previously stated likelihood that ISIS will concentrate on expanding inland along the oil route, maritime piracy or terrorism can occur in only two ways: via infiltration of immigrant ships; or via commandeering of small craft for incognito attacks against ports in Libya and possibly neighboring states.
This leads to different challenges. First, it may affect the conduct of the daily rescue missions carried out by the Greek and Italian maritime forces. A 16 February Huffington Post interview with Italian Guard Coast Admiral Felicio Angrisano revealed that present immigrant-smugglers are becoming increasingly dangerous. And “new rules of engagement” may be implemented in Italian maritime rescue operations. While the first priority remains “to rescue migrants in distress,” the Italian admiral said, the fact that a Coast Guard unit recently was threatened by smugglers with Kalashnikovs, on a refugee boat 50 miles from the Libyan coast, means that protective measures may have to be taken. This escalation could mean further delays in implementing a coordinated policy, because of long-standing divergent views over rules of engagement and use of force between EU, UN and individual state authorities.
And these will not be the only actors. There is a high likelihood that, as the situation worsens, Libya’s neighbors will take the initiative if the West fails to do so. “On a strategic level, a destabilization process in the Mediterranean that will lead to further inflows of illegal immigrants will surely have societal effects for neighboring countries, plus any terrorist attempts,” adds the FRONTEX official. “But the EU and NATO have the necessary resources to deal with that in the long-term. Let’s not forget that countries like Algeria, Egypt and Israel most probably will also act against ISIS if it attempts to destabilize the maritime region. Therefore, the impact of ISIS’ potential actions will be minimized.”
All of these considerations affect the possible operational tactics and capabilities of ISIS on the Mediterranean. Given the constant surveillance and naval presence of NATO, Italy and Greece, it is most likely that terrorists could succeed by commandeering small craft that either do not show up on the radar or that seem ‘legitimate.’ This would be similar to the Mumbai attacks, in which Pakistani terrorists were able to infiltrate the city undetected after commandeering a normal-looking Indian fishing boat. The 2000 attack on the USS Cole, carried out by a suicide bomber piloting a small craft, comes to mind as another example. It might be remembered that following that attack, terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden called on Muslims to carry out similar ones.
This tactic would be easiest to execute if targeting Libyan or neighboring North African ports. It would also be technically possible, if much more difficult, to target Gavdos (a Greek island south of Crete, and the southernmost point in Europe) or Lampedusa, though neither are strategic military targets. High-value military targets like NATO’s bases near Naples and Souda Bay near Chania on Crete are probably too distant for a successful attack.
However, it must be remembered that migrant boats, at least, constantly target the region. In summer 2011, while the NATO bombing of Libya was raging, local authorities in Palaeohora in southern Crete noted that a small migrant vessel had crashed on the rocks east of the town. That is a considerable distance for the typical old wrecks used by immigrant-smugglers. It is not inconceivable that a well-funded terrorist entity like ISIS could acquire speedier small craft. The question just remains whether they perceive any European target in striking distance.
Philip Ingram is a former military intelligence officer who served for 27 years in the British military, and now works as a journalist and managing director of Security Media Publishing. He recently spoke with Balkanalysis.com on a wide range of security issues related to Libya. According to Ingram, “the scenario is possible but there are no reports that have been brought to my attention suggesting it is currently being planned. However, the same people smuggling groups that moved the likes of the IS Mufti from Turkey to Libya are the ones filling old freighters with refugees and sending them to the Italian coastline with no crew on board. There has been unconfirmed chatter about the potential for people infected with ebola to be sent [to Europe in] this way. So the militants are thinking about it but they have other priorities at the moment.”
A high-profile recent piece in the Wall Street Journal called ‘When ISIS Starts Hitting Ships’ also pointed out the danger of terrorist beachheads in Libya’s port towns. “ISIS’s prospects for significant naval power are remote,” read the article, which comes to a similar conclusion as the experts quoted presently. “But small boats, fishing vessels, smugglers, and merchant craft that carry concealed weapons could hijack, sink, or rake commercial shipping including cruise liners in the central Mediterranean. This would divide the eastern part of the inland sea from its west and expose Europe’s southern littoral to attacks and kidnappings.”
There is worse, however. According to Philip Ingram, ISIS terrorists may have the capability already to use a radioactive ‘dirty bomb’ to incapacitate a port. Among Ingram’s research partners is Global Risk Awareness, a cyber-intelligence company that uses sophisticated software to index and track terrorists’ Dark Web activity, and can thus follow organizations in closed social media circles- often getting information directly from the jihadists and their supporters themselves. (The company will soon launch a new database and mobile app for intelligence clients).
“There has been a specific threat in the past month from Islamic State to use medical-grade radio isotopes as part of a dirty bomb,” says the former military intelligence officer. “Around the time of the threat, they mentioned a number of European cities and US cities. Radioactive substances used in hospitals, universities or industrial complexes are almost certainly in the hands of IS.”
Further, he adds, “a relatively small amount could be used to ‘contaminate’ a conventional explosive device, spreading radioactive contamination over a wide area. In a city or port this would be extremely difficult to clean up. It is certain IS and their associates have the capability and have very recently expressed an intent to use this type of device.”
In this light, it becomes clear that ISIS does not require any particularly large or mobile craft- it does not need a navy to cause havoc as such isotopes, viruses, guns and other materiel are carried by individuals, making any refugee boat or small craft capable of presenting a massive security threat. The question thus becomes not capability, but intent. It remains to be seen how ISIS chooses to define its ‘Mediterranean strategy.’
Whether or not the terrorist group does anything serious, the simple threat of it is already spooking global business. After the publication of the Wall Street Journal article on ISIS targeting shipping, maritime insurers in the US took note. One internal communiqué from a top maritime insurance firm, obtained by the authors, notes that the prospect of piracy or terrorism off Libya “bears watching since if it happens it will happen without notice and since there are no War Watch Rates- our response might be individually by carrier rather than Industry Standard.”
Another US-based maritime insurance executive adds that, in the case of piracy, “the call as to whether any action would be considered a war action or that of a terrorist depends a lot on where the event occurs and who are the principal insurers. The reason that it could be important to insurers is that not always do the same companies write War Risk vs. ‘every day’ loss.”
In the case of Libya, the insurers would be in London- and most likely, insurance giant Lloyd’s (a request for clarification to this company was not immediately returned). The British energy consultant, John Hamilton, confirms that “the insurance companies will be first to wake up to this [possibility of piracy].” In other words, we should watch any moves made by maritime insurance companies to get a better estimate of the accuracy of a threat since, after all, estimating maritime risk is their bottom line.
“A lot of this insurance is regulated by Lloyd’s- they have a Joint War Committee that decides if places are going to be classified as war zones. Right now, Libyan ports do come under that category, and any vessel to those ports is obliged to inform its insurers and to negotiate special premiums not covered,” he adds.
The worst-case scenario for not only Libya, but for all international commerce and transport, is if ISIS is able to act in a way that scares the market into hiking prices at a significantly further distance north of the African continent. “The key question is whether the insurance market is going to extend the zone out into the Mediterranean, and how far,” says Hamilton. “Cruise ships might be able to skirt the area. But Libya is having to pay more to get vessels, and if this [high-priced insurance coverage zone] extends into the Mediterranean, you’re talking about a total state breakdown, even further than it is right now- areas of the Mediterranean could become treated like Somalia.”
Western Diplomatic and Training Programs in Retreat, as Negotiations Continue
The West is pinning hopes on the outcome of UN-sponsored negotiations launched in Morocco from 5-7 March. The negotiations, which marked the first time the two factions sat down together, seek to reach any kind of deal between the rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk. The latter’s recent appointment of Khalifa Haftar as military chief, however, has somewhat alienated Tripoli as he has targeted Islamist militias in previous battles. Nevertheless, Deutsche Welle has now reported that international officials signaled the two sides may be able to achieve a unity government, specifically because of the new urgency presented by ISIS.
Until the two sides can come together, however, international activity will continue to be restricted. Concerns over foreign diplomatic safety in Libya were visible even before the infamous 2012 Benghazi attack and have only grown worse since. Italy was the last Western state to leave, early this year, while the US has been operating from Malta. A senior British official with broad regional authority told Balkanalysis.com that the UK has “an embassy-in-exile” in Tunis, but that other than observing the situation, the remit at present is limited to “consular management issues,” which are chiefly “legacy issues involving Brits that have remained in Libya.”
According to the official, it is hard to know for sure how many British citizens are still in Libya as they are no longer required to register. But he estimates that there are “around 50 Brits still Libya, mainly dual nationals. There may be a few diehards working as private security contractors but they are low. Oil workers are still there but likely to be protected behind hired security and local militias.”
Most significantly, from the institutional perspective, is that the European Union’s mission for training Libyan border guards (EUBAM) is now on death’s door as well. An officer involved in that mission, which has also migrated to Tunisia due to safety concerns, recently told Balkanalysis.com that the EU’s Libya mission “is on shut-down mode, and most of us have finished with the mission until it restarts- which is unlikely.”
When it set up shop in Tripoli in May 2013, EUBAM was given a two-year mandate to advise the post-war state on land, air and sea border security. According to the official European External Action Service information (.PDF), the mission moved to Tunisia in August 2014, “due to the political and security situation in Libya.” Thus while the mission had worked with ‘hundreds’ of relevant Libyan officials until then, whatever gains it may have achieved are no longer relevant. It is not clear why the mission was mandated specifically for two years in the first place, and whether its non-continuation now is an admission that no further improvements can be expected (EEAS Communications did not reply to a clarification request in time for this publication).
However, an EU official based in Brussels and specialized in domestic security and counterterrorism tells Balkanalysis.com that the bloc is taking increased measures against the possibility of both terrorism infiltration of migrant boats, and reining in foreign fighters. “We have been working on this issue since June 2013, and the European Council… has put in place different measures.” (These measures are outlined in the official factsheet on foreign fighters).
Regarding the possibility of terrorists infiltrating Libyan migrant ships, the EU official adds that “I have not seen any evidence about this, and to my knowledge this is not discussed here for the moment. We already have in place all the security checks for third-country nationals, and when refugees arrive, the member states have to identify them. Frontex and Europol are helping on this. In addition, national law enforcement agencies have also access to the fingerprints according to the new Eurodac regulation.”
Regarding the possible threat of general ISIS attacks in the Mediterranean, the counter-terrorism official adds that “it is difficult for us to assess it. This is more a question for the member states, as they have intelligence information on this. We are not operational so we cannot assess the threat…. we are now more focused on the EU citizens fighting in Syria and returning to the EU, as they are a bit more complicated to detect when they come back- and that’s why we are now trying to improve the checks at the external borders of the Schengen area.”
Looking Ahead: International Operations and Libyan Security
However, from the policy perspective, it is likely that the disagreements over competencies and degree of intervention will continue to divide not only the member states from the European bloc, but also the political parties within the member states themselves. Previous to the February elections in Greece, which brought into power a coalition led by left-wing Syriza, a party advisor told Balkanalysis.com that the new Greek government would push for a revision to the Dublin Accords that stipulate member state responsibilities for immigrants, and call for it “within six months of taking office.” This has not happened yet, but it is clear that the southern European states most affected by mass migration have a very different orientation towards the problem than do the other, more distant European states.
At the same time, whatever political or military solutions are agreed to the Libya problem, the security services of the front-line countries – and especially Greece, Italy and Spain – will prove instrumental to meeting the threat posed by ISIS in the Mediterranean theater. Their local knowledge of the maritime environment, and their previous experience with migrant patterns and behavior, may make or break Europe’s capacity to neutralize the threat. However, as said, the situation in Libya is likely to get worse before it gets better, and will require increasing monitoring and attention for the foreseeable future.