ISIS solidifies foothold in Libya to expand reach

The Wall Street Journal reports: Islamic State leaders in Syria have sent money, trainers and fighters to Libya in increasing numbers, raising new concerns for the U.S. that the militant group is gaining traction in its attempts to broaden its reach and expand its influence.

In recent months, U.S. military officials said, Islamic State has solidified its foothold in Libya as it searches for ways to capitalize on rising popularity among extremist groups around the world.

“ISIL now has an operational presence in Libya, and they have aspirations to make Libya their African hub,” said one U.S. military official, using an acronym for the group. “Libya is part of their terror map now.”

Islamic State’s growth as a powerful anti-Western force has militant groups throughout the world trying to latch onto its notoriety. But until recently, affiliates have operated with a great degree of independence and there was little evidence they were taking orders from the group’s core leadership in Syria and Iraq, American officials said.

The core group benefited by pointing to the mushrooming number of affiliates to show its self-styled caliphate was expanding. But the gains in North Africa mark the first expansion of the group’s reach outside the Middle East beyond rebranding efforts by militants trying to secure direct support from the Syrian-based extremists, U.S. officials said. [Continue reading…]

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How chaos in Libya spawned a security nightmare in the Mediterranean

By Ioannis Chapsos, Coventry University

Libya has been in a state of chaos ever since the fall of its former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and the situation scarcely seems to be improving. But it’s not just a nightmare on land – Libya is starting to poison the Mediterranean too.

Since a civil war and UN-backed external intervention put an end to Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, good order and security have never been restored. Libya remains divided, with continuous clashes between rival militia and two internal “governments”.

The attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi was just one incident in a spiral of unrest.

Italian naval forces are back to conducting search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean on a daily basis in order to cope with a massive surge in migrants trying to cross the sea from North Africa, where Libya is the primary transit point. Thousands have died in recent months alone.

But on April 17, they had a very different task: a Sicilian fishing boat had been seized by armed men, 50 nautical miles north of the Libyan Coast, forcing the Italian Navy to board and retake control of the vessel.

And on top of the nascent piracy problem, Libya’s efforts to police its coast are apparently getting more violent.

[Read more…]

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Libyans don’t need more weapons

Claudia Gazzini and Issandr El Amrani write: The United Nations is walking a tightrope in Libya. Last week, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the latest non-state actor to emerge in the current chaos. Because of this threat, pressure is mounting on the UN to relax a four-year-old international arms embargo to allow weapons to be delivered to the Libyan military to fight the group.

This would be a terrible move: It almost certainly would scuttle ongoing talks brokered by Bernardino Leon, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Libya; dash any hope of a peaceful solution; and create fertile ground for jihadi groups to flourish.

Libya is fragmented between a parliament elected in June 2014, based in the eastern coastal town of Tobruk, and the previous one in Tripoli, each with its associated government and militia forces. There is no Libyan military worthy of the name.

What calls itself the Libyan National Army, loyal to the Tobruk parliament and headed by Khalifa Haftar, a former army general who in early 2014 announced his ambition to stage a coup against the then-unified government, is little more than a coalition of militias just as one finds on the other side.

In this chaos, Islamist militant groups have thrived. Some, like Ansar al-Sharia, were born from the revolutionary groups that took up arms in 2011, received NATO backing and have further radicalised since. [Continue reading…]

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In the chaos of Libya the business of human trafficking has boomed

Ben Wedeman writes: We are at the beginning of a massive and mounting crisis with no solution in sight. Perhaps that’s incorrect. The migrant crisis that has suddenly drawn hundreds of journalists to Sicily has been brewing for years, but in the past 10 days, with as many as 1,600 deaths in the Mediterranean, suddenly minds are focused — for now.

Almost exactly four years ago, in Libya, I caught, perhaps, a glimpse of what was to come.

It was late at night in the besieged city of Misrata. Hundreds of African migrants were caught between the Libyan civil war (back then some optimistically called it a “revolution”) and the deep blue sea. They had come to Misrata from Ghana, Nigeria and elsewhere, hoping to board rickety boats to cross the sea to Europe.

They had been pinned down under sporadic shelling from government forces, but weren’t welcome by the rebels who controlled the city. They appealed to us to help them escape.

We could do nothing, but they may have eventually found their way out when the fighting subsided.

The fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, which we reporters covered so avidly, was followed by chaos, which we in the news media largely neglected, focused as we journalists were on the next catastrophe, the Syrian civil war. In that chaos, the business of human trafficking has boomed.

And now that boom in human misery is coming in waves to the shores of Italy. The focus today is on those lost at sea. Aware of the tragedy underway, however, Italians are alarmed at the prospect that this year alone as many as a million migrants could arrive in Europe, according to one European Union official.

That is certainly the case in the Sicilian port of Catania, where many migrants arrive. The city’s mayor, Enzo Bianco, insists city residents bear no ill will toward the migrants, but says Catania, and Sicily cannot absorb the ever-growing numbers. The rest of Europe must help carry the burden. [Continue reading…]

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Mediterranean capsized migrants’ boat’s captain charged

BBC News reports: The Tunisian captain of a boat that capsized off Libya on Sunday, killing hundreds of migrants, has been charged with reckless multiple homicide, Italian officials say.

He has also been charged along with a Syrian member of the crew with favouring illegal immigration.

The two were among 27 survivors who arrived in Sicily late on Monday.

A UNHCR spokeswoman has told the BBC the migrants’ boat capsized after merchant vessels came too close to it.

Carlotta Sami of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy was at the Sicilian port of Catania to meet the survivors. Some 800 people are thought to have died in the disaster, she said.

There were nationals of Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Sierra Leone and Senegal on board, kept in three different layers in the boat. [Continue reading…]

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Italy cracks down on human trafficking

The Daily Beast reports: Mered Medhanie and Ermias Ghermay are businessmen who apparently take pride in their work. Too bad their jobs are heading up two of the most lucrative and deadly human trafficking rings to ever operate in the waters between Libya and Sicily.

They are now Italy’s most wanted men and prosecutors in Palermo are vowing to find them.

On Monday, police in Palermo said overnight Sunday they issued arrest warrants for 24 men, including Medhanie and Ghermay, and were able to pick up 14 of them in Rome, Milan, Bari, and in refugee camps in Sicily.

In a separate investigation based in Catania, Sicily, authorities there have asked for three Egyptian men to be extradited to Italy to face trafficking charges. Among the arrested and wanted were recruitment specialists who infiltrated large refugee camps looking for new clients who either wished to travel further into Europe or who might have family back in Africa who want to come over, too.

Police had pinpointed the 24 men more than a year ago and have been intercepting their telephone conversations, following their moves and studying the trafficking business ever since. Italy has arrested 976 men involved with trafficking in the last year. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has promised to bring them to justice. This week, he called on European countries to make fighting trafficking a priority, likening it to a “modern slave trade in which people are bought and sold like merchandise.” [Continue reading…]

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Italy ran an operation that saved thousands of migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. Why did it stop?

The Washington Post reports: Back in October 2013, more than 300 migrants died near the Italian island of Lampedusa. These men and women had been trying to make the journey across the Mediterranean from Libya to what they saw as a land of opportunity, Europe. Instead, their boat sank and they drowned. The Italian coast guard was only able to save 150 or so passengers on a boat that was carrying around 500.

The Italian public was shocked. Migrants had died in the Mediterranean before, but this was exceptional. Shortly afterwards, the Italian government swung into action and set up Mare Nostrum, a vast search-and-rescue operation aimed at preventing the deaths of the thousands of migrants who make the journey from Africa to Europe every year.

Mare Nostrum – which means “Our Sea” in Latin, the name for the Mediterranean in the Roman era – was a success. With a considerable budget of $12 million a month, it was estimated to have saved more than 130,000 people. It was not only a rescue operation. Italy, a country once known for hard attitudes to migrants, offered medical treatment, shelter and food. Migrants were even offered legal aid that could have helped them gain asylum.

It didn’t last. By October 2014, Mare Nostrum was being wound down. [Continue reading…]

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I was a Lampedusa refugee. Here’s my story of fleeing Libya – and surviving

Hakim Bello writes: The boy next to me fell to the floor and for a moment I didn’t know if he had fainted or was dead – then I saw that he was covering his eyes so he didn’t have to see the waves any more. A pregnant woman vomited and started screaming. Below deck, people were shouting that they couldn’t breathe, so the men in charge of the boat went down and started beating them. By the time we saw a rescue helicopter, two days after our boat had left Libya with 250 passengers on board, some people were already dead – flung into the sea by the waves, or suffocated downstairs in the dark. It’s very difficult for me to think about this, nearly four years after I paid a smuggler to get me out of Libya, but it’s important for people to understand what is happening to us and why.

I’m one of several hundred thousand people who, since the Arab uprisings of 2011, have arrived in Europe across the Mediterranean. It is now the deadliest border in the world. We all have different reasons for doing it: some people think they’ll find a better life in Europe, others just want to get away from a war zone. But everyone feels they have no other option.

I’m originally from Nigeria and I had been living in Libya for five years when the war broke out. I had a good life: I was working as a tailor and I earned enough to send money home to loved ones. But after the fighting started, people like us – black people – became very vulnerable, because all the youth had weapons and they knew we had money in our houses and they could rob us. If you went out for something to eat, a gang would stop you and ask if you supported them. They might be rebels, they might be government, you didn’t know. [Continue reading…]

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Purported ISIS video shows militants killing Ethiopian Christians

Bloomberg: At least two dozen Ethiopian Christians appear to have been executed by the Islamic State Group in Libya, a newly released video shows.

The footage posted on al-Menbar al-E’lamy al-Jihady, a website that reports jihadi news, shows two groups of captives. One was beheaded on a beach said to be in the Barqa region in eastern Libya. The others were shot at point blank range in an area said to be in the southwest. The video said the victims were Christians belonging to “the hostile Ethiopian Church.”

“Muslim blood that was shed under the hands of your religion is not cheap,” an armed masked man said in an American accent. “You will not have safety even in your dreams until you embrace Islam.”

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Risking death in the Mediterranean: the least bad option for so many migrants

Patrick Kingsley reports: Sobbing and shaking, Mohamed Abdallah tries to explain why he still wants to risk crossing the Mediterranean Sea in an inflatable boat. He sits in a migrant detention centre in Zawya, Libya, surrounded by hundreds of fellow asylum seekers who nearly died this week at sea.

They survived only after being intercepted, detained and brought back to shore by Libyan coastguards, ending a week in which they went round in circles, starving and utterly lost. But despite their horror stories, Abdallah, 21, says the journey that his fellow inmates barely withstood – and that killed more than 450 others this week – is his only option.

“I cannot go back to my country,” says Abdallah, who is from Darfur, in Sudan. He left for what is now South Sudan in 2006, after he says his village was destroyed in the Darfur war, his father died, and his sisters raped. But in South Sudan, another war later broke out. So he made his way through the Sahara, a journey that he says killed his brother and cousin, to Libya. And there last year, he was witness to his third civil war in a decade – a war that still drags on, its frontline just a few miles from the camp at Zawya.

“There is a war in my country, there’s no security, no equality, no freedom,” Abdallah says. “But if I stay here, it’s just like my country. There is no security, there is violence. When you work, they take your money.”

He worked in a soap shop, and saved up to pay local smugglers for the boat to Europe. But just as he hoped to complete the payment, he was robbed, and then arrested. The recounting of his ordeal brings out first the tears, and then a conclusion: “I need to go to Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Pope urges world to act after new Mediterranean tragedy

AFP reports: Pope Francis on Sunday, April 19, urged world leaders to respond “decisively” after 700 migrants were feared drowned in the deadliest migrant shipwreck yet in the Mediterranean.

“These are men and women like us, brothers seeking a better life,” the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics said in his weekly address, urging leaders to “act decisively and quickly to stop these tragedies from recurring.”

Urging the faithful in St Peter’s square to pray for the victims, the pope added: “(They are) hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of war. They are seeking a better life, they are seeking happiness.” [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s war on migrants — while we argue, thousands perish in the Mediterranean

By Heaven Crawley, Coventry University

The latest refugee deaths in the Mediterranean – 700 people drowned when the overcrowded fishing vessel in which they were travelling from North Africa capsized of the coast of Libya follows a similar tragedy last week in which 400 people perished.

In October 2013, more than 360 people – mostly from Eritrea – lost their lives when their boat caught fire and sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. In September 2014 more than 500 migrants were deliberately killed at sea. The attack allegedly occurred after the migrants refused to board a smaller boat in the open water and the traffickers reportedly laughed as they drowned, hacking at the hands of those who tried to cling to the wreckage. Witnesses report that as many as 100 children were on board.

In the absence of official records, or bodies to count, it’s hard to say exactly how many people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) released a report in late September 2014 putting the number at 3,072, accounting for 75% of worldwide migrant deaths. But with so many lost at sea or along the way, the real figure could be far higher.

[Read more…]

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The EU’s de facto policy is to let migrants drown to stop others coming

Anders Lustgarten writes: In the desert, the smugglers lace their water with petrol so the smuggled won’t gulp it down and cost more. Sometimes the trucks they’re packed into stall crossing the Sahara; they have to jump out to push, and some are left behind when the trucks drive off again. In transit camps in Libya before the perilous venture across the Blue Desert, they play football, fight, and pool their scanty resources so an even poorer friend can pay his way. One man says his tiny wooden boat was flanked by dolphins as they made the journey, three on each side, like guardian angels, and this was what gave him hope.

These are the people we are allowing to die in the Mediterranean. The EU’s de facto policy is to let migrants drown to stop others coming. Last year nearly four thousand bodies were recovered from the Med. Those are just the ones we found. The total number of arrivals in Italy in 2014 went up over 300% from the year before, to more than 170,000. And the EU’s response, driven by the cruellest British government in living memory, was to cut the main rescue operation, Mare Nostrum.

The inevitable result is that 500 people have already died this year. The figure for the equivalent period in 2014 was 15. There are half a million people in Libya waiting to make the crossing. How many more deaths can we stomach?

Migration illustrates one of the signal features of modern life, which is malice by proxy. Like drones and derivatives, migration policy allows the powerful to inflict horrors on the powerless without getting their hands dirty. [Continue reading…]

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Libya migrants: Hundreds feared drowned in Mediterranean

BBC News: About 400 migrants are feared drowned after their boat capsized off Libya, survivors have told Save the Children.

The Italian coast guard rescued 144 people from the boat on Monday and launched an air and sea search operation in hopes of saving others.

Hundreds more migrants rescued from boats in the Mediterranean are due to arrive in Sicily during the day.

More than 8,000 migrants have been picked up since Friday, and more boats are heading for the Italian coast.

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Spiritual leader of Libya’s biggest jihadi group pledges allegiance to ISIS

Newsweek reports: Ansar al-Sharia, the top jihadi group in the civil war-torn country of Libya, has edged closer to pledging allegiance to ISIS after its spiritual leader and top judge, Abu Abdullah al-Libi, defected to the radical group, according to an audio message released by the terror group.

On Sunday, al-Libi – who was Ansar al-Sharia’s Shari’i (or judge) – confirmed his departure from the jihadi group when he tweeted a picture of a book entitled The Legal Validity of Pledging Allegiance to the Islamic State, along with the caption “Soon, God willing”.

In an audio message released on ISIS-controlled radio in the central Libyan city of Sirte last week, ISIS accepted al-Libi’s pledge of allegiance to the group’s caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. [Continue reading…]

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One of Libya’s rival governments moves to control oil revenue

The New York Times reports: One of the two factions battling for control of Libya took steps on Sunday to divert incoming oil revenue away from the central bank and into its own new account, a steep escalation in the contest over the country’s vast wealth.

Libya’s oil and money are the prizes that have driven much of the competition among militias and factions in the nearly four years since the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and as the fighting on the ground has slashed oil revenues, the legal and political battle for control of Libya’s assets has become overt and intense.

Over the past nine months, the many local militias that sprang up around Colonel Qaddafi have now broken into two warring coalitions, each with its own provisional government. Officials of the Central Bank of Libya, which holds the country’s roughly $90 billion in foreign reserves and receives the income of the National Oil Corporation, say they have tried to stay neutral, continuing to pay government salaries and consumer subsidies in the territory controlled by the rival governments.

But the faction that is recognized internationally as Libya’s legitimate government, now based in the eastern cities of Tobruk and Bayda, has repeatedly sought without success to exert control over those assets. On Sunday it fired the latest salvo in that battle.

That government’s prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, issued a directive for the National Oil Company to stop passing incoming revenue to the central bank and instead to direct those funds to its own bank account in the United Arab Emirates, a major backer of Mr. Thinni’s government and its faction.

The move could now set off a host of sweeping consequences, potentially including a breakup of the bank, a drastic rebalancing of what has appeared to be a stalemate in the day-to-day battle between the two factions or a Western intervention to seize and manage the bank’s foreign reserves.

But how the situation might play out is difficult to predict, in part because the prime minister’s directive appeared to contradict the position of the Western powers toward the status of the bank and the larger Libyan conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Four active Arab wars stem from a common malaise

Rami G. Khouri writes: The latest war in the Middle East, the Saudi Arabian-led assault on Yemen to prevent the Houthi movement from taking full control of the country, has triggered a fascinating legal and ideological debate about the legitimacy and efficacy of the venture. The significance of this war in Yemen is not really about the legally authorized use of force to ensure a calm Arab future. It is, rather, mainly a testament to the marginalization of the rule of law in many Arab countries in our recent past.

The 10 Arab and Asian countries participating in the fighting have justified it on the basis of assorted legal mechanisms through the Arab League, the United Nations Charter and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which allow countries to come to the life-saving aid of governments threatened by domestic or foreign aggression. The more meaningful and lasting dimension of the Yemen conflict is its expansion of active warfare in collapsing states adjacent to the energy-rich region of the Arabian Peninsula.

I am sickened but mesmerized by the nightly routine of flipping through assorted pan-Arab satellite television channels and following the four active wars that now define many aspects of the Arab world – in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq – with lower intensity fighting and destruction in countries such as Somalia, Egypt, Sudan and Lebanon. In all these fractured lands, violent extremists such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have put down anchorage and are operating across borders.

The capacity for warfare and other forms of political violence across the region seems unending, just as the mass suffering of civilians seems unlimited. The telltale signs of what these wars are about and why they happen so regularly is evident on the television screens in the human and physical landscapes that are slowly crumbling here and there.

The two most striking images that stay in my mind as I follow the day’s fighting in our four active wars is the primitive condition of our cities and villages, and the equally ravaged condition of our human capital. Streets and sidewalks are caricatures of what they should be, buildings are often simple, unpainted cement block structures with usually informal associations with such amenities as water and electricity. Individuals are often shabbily dressed and drive dilapidated pickup trucks and beat-up old sedans, because they do not have the money to buy anything better. This is not a consequence of the wars; it is the cause of the wars. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s strategy in Libya

Kevin Casey and Stacey Pollard write: Early media coverage of the Islamic State (IS) in Libya has centered on the group’s swift seizure of territory and the expansion of the caliphate’s authority into an increasingly lawless Libya. Yet IS’s efforts in the North African state have not lived up to these fears, as the organization — once thought to command control of cities such as Derna and Sirte — remains only one of many factions vying for power in these areas.

This does not mean the Islamic State is failing in Libya — indeed its trajectory inside Libya is mirroring its Iraq strategy, which sought to maximize its local competitive advantages. The group’s shift of gravity from Derna to Sirte is a highly deliberate strategic decision based on the assumption that Sirte provides greater opportunities for the group than Derna does.

But unlike Iraq and Syria, Libya is missing some of the key conditions that allowed for the group’s rapid gains in the Levant last summer. Namely, it lacks enduring ties to influential Libyan tribes and social groups, and Libya has no strong sectarian divide or a common enemy around which to rally a community. Thus, the Islamic State’s strategy in Libya seems to be directed instead at hastening state failure and fracturing the population’s sense of common nationhood. Meanwhile, it is also intensifying the conditions that will allow it to deepen its influence and form a national-religious identity in line with the caliphate’s own views. [Continue reading…]

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