A senior US official disclosed on Friday that there are signs that Nigeria-based Boko Haram militants are sending fighters to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Libya, adding that there is increased cooperation between the two jihadist groups.
According to US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, there have been “reports” that Bok Harm fighters were going to Libya, where IS has established a large presence, effectively taking advantage of the ongoing security chaos. He disclosed that “we’ve seen that Boko Haram’s ability to communicate has become more effective. They seem to have benefited from assistance from Daesh (IS),” adding that there have also been reports of material and logistical aid. Speaking to reporters in Nigeria, Blinken further stated, “so these are all elements that suggests that there are more contacts and more cooperation, and this is again something that we are looking at very carefully because we want to cut it off.” While little is known about the extent of cooperation between the two radical Islamist groups, Western governments are increasingly becoming worried that IS’ growing presence in North Africa, coupled with its ties to Boko Haram, could herald a push southwards into the vast, lawless Sahel region, ultimately creating a springboard for wider attacks across the region. According to Blinken, the United States is helping Nigeria in its fight against Bok Haram with armoured vehicles. However he declined to comment on a request by the West African nation to sell it aircraft. Earlier this month, US officials revealed that Washington wants to sell up to twelve A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria in recognition of President Muhammadu Buhari’s army reforms. Congress however still needs to approve the deal. While under Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, the US had blocked arms sales, partly due to human rights concerns, Blinken has indicated that Nigeria has made several requests for military hardware, adding, “we are looking very actively at these requests.” Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama had earlier disclosed that the government had set up reporting mechanisms inside the military to monitor human rights, which should convince the US Congress to approve the sale. Furthermore, while Blinken has indicated that the military under president Buhari has made “important efforts” in order to address human rights, he noted that the US was “troubled” by an Amnesty International report, which was released earlier this month, that children were dying in military detention. The Nigerian army has rejected the report. Blinken disclosed that Washington was also concerned about an alleged army massacre of Shi’ites in northern Nigeria in December, during which, according to residents, hundreds were killed. He added that a state commission to probe the killings should provide a “transparent and credible report.”
A British official has also warned that Boko Haram jihadists are likely to step up cooperation with IS should the latter extremist group gain a stronger foothold in Libya.
IS first seized part of Syria and Iraq, however it later built up a foothold in Libya, exploiting a security vacuum. Speaking at a security conference in Nigeria, British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond stated that “if we see Daesh (IS) establish a stronger presence in Libya, that feels much more to people here like a direct communications route, that is likely to step up the practical collaboration between the two groups.” Hammond added that “the intent is clearly there, the evidence of hard collaboration is still pretty sketchy.”
At the conference, which was attended by Nigeria’s neighbors and Western powers, a number of African leaders also warned that stability in lawless Libya was key to fighting Boko Haram and improvising security in the region.
In a speech, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stated that the army had almost recaptured all territory it had lost to Boko Haram, noting however that the jihadist group still often stages suicide bombings. He added, “what remains is to dislodge the terrorist from their hideout in the (northeastern) Sambisa Forest and safely liberate the Chibok girls and other victims of abduction,” referring to a group of 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in the Nigerian town of Chibok in 2014. Buhari also stated that Nigeria’s army was respecting human rights when dealing with civilians, a condition from the US to fulfill requests to sell aircraft and other arms.
Libya has always been a tragic part of the Mediterranean migrant crisis. Over the past several years, thousands of lives have been lost as overcrowded boats make the dangerous crossing to Italian islands. Over this time, the Libyan and Italian Coast Guards have also saved many more lives. In more recent months though, Turkey has received the majority of migrant-related coverage. Horrific images, particularly of young children, galvanized public opinion across the world. Migrants attempting to enter Europe from Turkey not only placed enormous pressure on Greece, but also sparked a wider political discussion within the European Union.
After the EU-Turkey Agreement on migrants was officially signed, various reports began to emerge about the increasing number of migrants traveling to Libya. In late March, France’s Defence Minister warned that hundreds of thousands of migrants were in Libya preparing to make the ocean crossing to Europe. On March 27, the Libyan Coast Guard prevented 600 migrants on three ships from heading out to sea. A trend began to emerge in May as Libya become the centre of even more people smuggling operations. On April 20, witnesses reported that up to 500 people may have died when an overcrowded ship sank off the Libyan coast near Tobruk. A smaller scale tragedy occurred on April 29-30 when an estimated 80 migrants downed after their ship sank near off the Libyan coast.
There is a prominent difference between migrants crossing from Libya and Turkey. Most of the migrants from Libya are predominantly from Somalia and sub-Saharan African. Compared to Turkey, the Libyan state is weak and highly fractured. This would make any attempted EU deal with Libya (similar to the current one with Turkey) very difficult. Though the Italian Coast Guard has made rescuing migrants a priority, search-and-rescue is still extremely challenging. The Libyan Coast Guard, which should be a close partner in addressing the issue, lacks leadership, equipment and trained personnel. As the media coverage returns to Libya, one thing is almost certain. Large, overcrowded vessels making the long journey to Italian territory will likely result in many more tragedies over the months to come.
Italians Kidnapped In Libya Arrive Back In Italy as Reports Surface Over Possible Operation to Rescue ThemMarch 9, 2016 in Libya
On 6 March, two Italians kidnapped last July in Libya returned to Italy amidst growing questions over why two others snatched with them were killed.
Gino Pollicardo, 55, and Filippo Calcagno, 65, were met by relieved relatives at Rome’s Ciampino aiport in the early hours and were whisked away in order to be debriefed by Italy’s foreign ministry and intelligence services. They were amongst four employees of Italian construction company Bonatti who were kidnapped in the Mellitah region west of Tripoli in July.
On Thursday, 3 March, the Italian Foreign Ministry reported that two Italian civilians held hostage might have died in a gun battle that occurred in the western Libyan city of Sabratha. On Wednesday, 2 march, Libyan security forces disclosed that they had killed seven suspected Islamic State (IS) fighters in raid on a military hideout in Sabratha. They later released photographs of two Western men who also apparently died during the attack. In a statement, the Italian Foreign Ministry disclosed that the men might be two of the four employees of Italian construction company Bonatti who were kidnapped in the north African country last July. It named the possible victims as Fasuto Piano, 60, and Salvatore Failla, 47, adding that further checks were being carried out.
On Friday, 4 March, the remaining two Italian civilians were freed, just 48 hours after two fellow captives were allegedly executed by IS militants. The families of Pollicardo and Calcagno confirmed that the pair had been released, with a spokesman for security forces in Sabratha disclosing that the two men were released during a raid early on Friday, adding, “(they) were found alive during a raid by the local fighters against one of the hideouts of Islamic State in Sabratha.
Since their release however Italian media reports have since suggested that all four had been close to being freed, before plans went awry. Italian media reports have indicated that Piano and Failla, who had been separated from Pollicardo and Calcagno, had been in an IS convoy that was attacked by militiamen from Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), which is the armed wing of the non-recognized government based in Tripoli.
While the murders have increased pressure in Italy for the country to deploy Special forces to Libya, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has cautioned that any intervention would first need parliament’s approval and that Rome would not be rushed. That sentiment was echoed on 6 Mach by Italy’s Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who stated in an interview with Il Sole 24 Ore daily that “we need to avoid Libya sinking into chaos where tragic episodes like this one involving our hostages can proliferate.” He noted however that “it must be clear that there are no apparent shortcuts, muscular displays. Its true, time is short, but thee is no quick war at our door,” adding, “the government is aware of the errors of the past and is working to create the conditions for stability in Libya.”
The so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which was targeted by a United States air strike in Libya on Friday 19 February 2016, moved into the North African country in 2014 in the chaos that followed the ouster of dictator Moamer Kadhafi. In recent months, the militant group has captured a city in Libya and has become yet another player in the lawless country, where rival governments and militias are battling for control of territory and major oil reserves. IS’ desires to expand into Libya have prompted international concern, with the US increasingly placing its focus on preventing IS from spreading further into the southern regions of Libya and into the Sahara region of Africa.
- 19 November – The US State Department says it is “concerned” by reports that radical extremists with avowed ties to IS are destabilizing eastern Libya, having already seized vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
- News reports emerge that the eastern coastal city of Derna is becoming an IS stronghold.
- 27 December – A car bomb explodes outside the diplomatic security building in Tripoli. The bomb, which was claimed by IS, does not cause any causalities.
- 8 January – IS claims to have killed two Tunisian journalists, Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari, who went missing in September 2014.
- 27 January – IS claims responsibility for an attack on Tripoli’s luxury Corinthia Hotel, which killed nine people.
- 15 February – IS releases a video depicting the beheading of twenty-one Coptic Christians, who all but one were Egyptians. The militant groups says that the jihadists firmed the video in January. Egypt carried out air strikes on IS in Derna.
- 20 February – IS claims responsibility for suicide bombings in Al-Qoba, which is located near Derna. The bombings killed 44 people, with the militant group stating that the attacks are to avenge losses in the air strikes.
- 19 April – A new video emerges depicting the execution of 28 Christians who were originally from Ethiopia.
- 9 June – IS announces that it has captured the city of Sirte, which is located east of Tripoli. IS had already controlled the city’s airport.
- 12 July – The group acknowledges that it has been pushed out of Derna after several weeks of fierce fighting with members of the town’s Mujahedeen Council.
- 11 August – Heavy fighting erupts in Sirte between residents and IS militants, with dozens of people reported dead.
- 13 November – The United States bombs IS leaders in Libya for the first time and states that it killed Abu Nabil, an Iraqi also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi. Libyan officials identify him as the head of IS in Derna.
- 4 December – France announces that it carried out reconnaissance flights over Libya in November, notably at Sirte, adding that it plans to carry out other flights.
- 4 January – IS launches an offensive in a bid to seize oil terminals in Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra, which lie in an “oil crescent” along the coast.
- 7 January – A suicide truck bombing at a police school in Zliten, which is located east of Tripoli, kills more than fifty people, effectively becoming the worst attack to occur since the 2011 revolution. A second attack kills six at a checkpoint in Ras Lanuf. Both are claimed by IS.
- 19 February – A US air strike on a jihadist training camp near Sabratha, west of Tripoli, kills 41 people, with officials disclosing that a senior IS operative behind last year’s deadly attacks in Tunisia was probably killed in the strike. Serbian official announce that two Serbian diplomatic officials, who were being held hostage since November 2015, were also killed in the airstrike.
On 14 December, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reported that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group is spreading from its stronghold on the Libyan coast to the interior of the country, with the aim of getting access to oil wells.
Speaking to RTL radio, Le Drian stated that “they are in Sirte, their territory extends 250 kilometres (155 miles) along the coast, but they are starting to penetrate the interior and to be tempted by access to oil wells and reserves.” Libya has 48 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves, the largest in Africa and the ninth biggest in the world.
News of IS’ spread further into Libya comes as world powers are trying to convince the country’s warring factions to lay down their weapons and to fall behind a new national unity government, warning that IS-allied groups are continuing to exploit the ongoing political chaos in a bid to take parts of the country.
Sources have reported that last week, French planes carried out surveillance flights over Libya. Comments by the French Defense Minister are likely to be a reference to reported attempts by IS militants to expand from Sirte into the town of Ajdabiya in the east. In recent weeks, there have been increasing reports of the presence of extremist groups in the town, however it remains unclear whether they are affiliates of al-Qaeda or IS. However if IS successfully manages to expand into Ajdabiya, then this could cut off oil supplies from that part of the country, where key oil terminals are located. In October, there was at least one failed attack by IS militants at the gates of Es Sidr oil terminal. Furthermore, throughout this year, other smaller oil fields in central Libya have also been attacked.
Libya has slipped into chaos since the fall of Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, which IS has exploited. The United Nations believes that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters operating in the country, including 1,500 in the coastal city of Sirte. Since August 2014, when an Islamist-backed milia alliance overran Tripoli, Libya has had rival administrations.