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On the Shores of Europe: ISIS in Libya

The scene was, in most ways, tragically familiar. The 21 men in orange jumpsuits – characteristic of prisoners held by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – being led to their deaths by ISIS fighters clad in black. The disconcerting difference between the murder of 21 (mostly Egyptian) Coptic Christians and other hostages held and subsequently killed by ISIS is that this mass execution took places on the shores of the Mediterranean, just over 300 kilometres from the shores of Europe.

'We will conquer Rome', the executioner proclaims in the slickly produced film entitled (with painful syntax): “A signed with blood to the nation of the Cross message”.

In response to the executions, Egypt struck several ISIS targets, including weapon caches and training camps, within Libya. Egypt has also called for UN-backing of the aerial campaign,

After forming their self-proclaimed Khilafah, or Caliphate, across swathes of Syria and Iraq, ISIS took control of the Libyan coastal city of Derna in October last year. ISIS officials in the city refer to themselves as “Barqa”, a province of the Caliphate.

Historically speaking, Derna provided more foreign fighters to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – a precursor organisation to ISIS – than any other town in the entirety of the Middle East and North Africa. ISIS's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dispatched his second-in-command, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, to orchestrate ISIS's activities in Libya, including the occupation of Derna. Al-Anbari served as a Major General in the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein.

The descent of Libya into chaos after the ill-fated intervention by NATO in 2011 has, like nearby Syria, has given various Salafi-jihadist organisations an environment that is favourably tuned for their operations.

The Italian, pro-ISIS blogger Abu Irhim al-Libi argued in January that the Libya should be used as a launch pad for attacks in Europe. Given the operational pressures that the group are facing in Iraq and Syria – fighting on multiple fronts and against US-led air strikes – that option could prove more attractive to al-Baghdadi as time goes on.

Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has already urged a renewed NATO intervention in the country, urging that 'ISIS is at the door...there is no more time to waste'. The Egyptian ambassador in London warned that 'boats full of terrorists' could make their way to Europe if the chaos in Libya is not addressed.

It's believed that more than 3,500 migrants crossed the Mediterranean on boats from Africa and the Middle East in January this year. Echoing government rhetoric regarding Australia's Operation Sovereign Borders, the European Union-led “Triton” is being laid out as a humanitarian operation to save the lives of refugees. In 2014, 170,000 migrants made it to Italy, raising fears that EU authorities are overwhelmed by the numbers and would be unable to carry out law enforcement operations against migrating jihadists.

Hyperbolic politicians aside, it's difficult to imagine any manner of international consensus on another military intervention in North Africa gaining traction. US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki has already declared that the solution to the strife in Libya is political, specifically mentioning “non-intervention”.

Supportive as I am of (sensible) interventions against transnational jihadist organisations like ISIS and al Qaeda who pose direct and/or strategic threats to the West, another intervention by NATO in Libya could very easily turn out to be a disaster, making the situation inside the country far worse than it is currently.

As my friend Tom Switzer, one of the most articulate Australian critics of Western interventionism from a conservative standpoint has written, military power may inflict heavy losses on ISIS fighters, their infrastructure, or their training camps, but having a lack of political solutions to the bloody sectarianism racking Iraq, or warring Libyan militias, displays a lack of long-term strategic clarity.

President Obama's much-touted “pivot” to Asia sees him – aside from any unplanned Caliphates popping up – looking to increasingly disengage from the Middle East and North Africa. As we saw after the final withdrawal of Western troops from Iraq, the political currency held by the US in Baghdad was quickly replaced by neighbouring Iran.

In Baghdad's Firdaus Square, where US Marines famously pulled down the gigantic statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the empty plinth is now hidden by a large billboard of Iran's first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. This is a startling demonstration of the aforementioned influence that Tehran, and various Shiite militias, now hold in the Iraqi capital.

When Western politicians talk about a war against ISIS in Libya, they'd do well to keep such mistakes of the past in mind.

Joseph Power is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: US Department of Defence Current Photos (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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