ISIS, Italy and Libya
By William Ellison
Italy, the European country most directly threatened by ISIS in Libya, should pursue several measures to lessen the threat ISIS poses to Europe before a major attack occurs on Italian soil. It is better to be overly vigilant before an attack than regretful after one.
Stability disintegrated in Libya following the Libyan Civil War (2011) that ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The collapse of Gaddafi’s government made extensive arsenals available to militias. A second Libyan Civil War has now emerged between the internationally recognized government based in Tobruk, the rival government based in Tripoli, and various militias including ISIS. Although ISIS is not firmly entrenched in Libya, it has attained a foothold in several cities, including Derna and Sirte, and has recently frequently illustrated its willingness to act. On January 27, ISIS fighters attacked Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel, killing 10 people, including an American and a Frenchman. On February 12, ISIS published the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians; this compelled Egypt to begin bombing ISIS in Libya.
On January 26, influential ISIS propagandist Abu Arhim al-Libim threatened Europe. He expressed that ISIS militants intend to use Libya as a launch pad for attacking Italy and subsequently Europe. He articulated that the terrorists aimed to pose as illegal migrants and reach the Italian coast by using people-trafficking vessels.
Italy’s southernmost territory, the island Lampedusa, is less than 300 miles from Libya, while Sicily is only another 400 miles away. In February, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni recognized the “evident risk” from Libya, a former Italian colony. Illegal migrants have been incessantly flowing from Libya to Italy for years. However, since Gaddafi’s downfall, the number of illegal immigrants has radically increased, both due to increased instability in North Africa and the Syrian Civil War. In 2014, over 170,000 people came to Italy by boat, increasing from 70,000 in 2011, according to the United Nations.
Despite Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s call for the formation of a coalition, mirroring the coalition brought together to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq, to dislodge ISIS from Libya, bombing or arms support is not necessarily the best strategy to pursue currently: the situation is too unstable and capricious, and it is unclear which parties should be supported and, besides ISIS, which should be opposed. Gentiloni conveyed that Italy doesn’t plan on acting militarily unilaterally and prefers a political resolution. Italy doesn’t want a repeat of the British- and French-led NATO bombing campaign that deposed Gaddafi in 2011.
Instead, in response to ISIS’ threat, Italy has raised the number of soldiers deployed on counter-terrorism responsibilities from 3,000 to 4,800. The Swiss Guard has also increased the Pope’s security. As of March 2, the Associated Press reported, “The Italian Navy is resuming exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, including near the coast of Libya, amid concerns about rapidly deteriorating security in the North Africa region.” Furthermore, Italy is modernizing its navy, working towards acquiring at least 8 new and sophisticated naval vessels. In addition, Italians have also been mocking ISIS’ gesturing over Twitter, saying that militants attacking Italy would have to deal with Italian traffic and joking about Italian trains and planes being late.
However, there is more that could be done: these measures revolve around tightening security within Italy and in the Mediterranean waters near Italy rather than any type of intervention in Libya. Italy should lead an effort to strengthen the naval capacities of Triton, the European Union-led Mediterranean border patrol operation. Italy should also contemplate emulating the enhancement of French security in the wake of the attacks by Islamists on offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris on January 8-9. According to Prime Minister Manuel Valls, France will spend nearly €425 million ($492 million) on strengthening their forces. The strategy includes the creation of 2,860 security jobs, the deployment of 10,000 troops to guard potential terrorist targets (including Jewish schools and synagogues), the formation of an online database to track the movement of extremists, the recruitment of 60 additional Muslim chaplains to address radical Islam, and better surveillance of the Internet and social media. Unlike France, Italy has the ability to implement similar tactics before it has its own Charlie Hebdo.
William Ellison ’18, is in Davenport College and writes a monthly post on European international relations.