On Tuesday, 23 February, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi disclosed that Italy has agreed to allow armed US drones to take off from an air base in Sicily on a case-by-case basis for defensive missions against Islamic State (IS) militants in North Africa.
In an interview with RTL radio, Prime Minister Renzi disclosed that “if it is a matter of operations against terrorists, against potential Islamic State attackers, there is a close relationship between us and the other allies, above all the Americans.” The Italian prime minister, who has repeatedly stated that is country will not take part in military strikes in Libya without the express request of a recognized government, further disclosed that the defense mission would be authorized “case by case.” While Renzi has said that he prefers a diplomatic response to IS, which has faced US-led air strikes on the caliphate it has proclaimed across swathes of Syria and Iraq since 2014, on Tuesday he noted “but then, if we have proof that there are ‘kamikaze’ attackers preparing potential strikes, naturally Italy will do its part along with all the others.”
Late on Monday, an Italian defense ministry official disclosed that the agreement would effectively allow defensive missions and not offensive action, such as the attack on a suspected militant training camp in Sabratha, Libya that killed dozens last week. The ministry official further indicated that Italy will authorize departures from the Sigonella base near Catania only if each mission’s aim is to protect personnel, adding that so far no request had been made.
Sigonella, which is located in eastern Sicily, is home to a US Naval Air Station as well as a base for the Italian Air force. It is sometimes used for logistical support for American and other NATO forces. The Wall Street Journal has reported that US officials have been trying to persuade Italy to let them conduct such operations from the Sigonella air base for more than a year. It added that US officials are pushing for drones destined for offensive operations like the Sabratha strike to take off from Sicily, however Italian officials have baled at the step over fears of domestic opposition.
After expanding into Syria and Iraq, IS is now exploiting the ongoing chaos in Libya, where two rival government shave been vying for power since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011. The militant group is trying to establish bases in the North African state in a bid to conduct raids both in Libya and in neighbouring Tunisia, which has already been affected by IS attacks. On 19 February, the US launched an attack on a base in Sabratha, near the Tunisian border, and targeted Nourredine Chouchane, a Tunisian militant linked to two raids in Tunisia that killed dozens, mostly tourists. The aircraft that carried out that attack took off from a base in Britain.
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.
On Friday, 11 December, Tunisia reopened its border with Libya, just fifteen days after it closed the frontier following a suicide bombing in Tunis, which was claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group.
According to Walid Louguini, a ministry spokesman, “the border with Libya was opened Thursday at midnight.” On the ground sources have reported that the crossing points of Ras Jedir and Wazen-Dhehibe were opened on Friday amidst extra security.
Tunisian officials ordered that the border crossings with conflict-stricken Libya be closed after the 24 November attack on a bus that was carrying presidential guards. The attack occurred along a main thoroughfare in the capital city and resulted in the death of twelve personnel. The attack, which was claimed by IS, prompted Tunisian authorities to increase security and surveillance at its borders and to reimposed a month-long state of emergency as they try to grapple with the increased threat that is emanating from lawless Libya. Shortly after the attack, the interior ministry reported that the explosives used in that attack were the same which were used to make suicide belts that were illegally brought from Libya and seized last year.
This year, IS has claimed three deadly attacks in Tunisia. In March, twenty-two people were killed at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis while in June, thirty-eight people, mainly British holidaymakers, were gunned down at the seaside resort of Sousse. Last week, as part of increased security measures, Tunisian authorities closed the main Tunis-Carthage international airport to Libyan planes. Official sources estimate that as many as 6,000 Tunisians have travelled to fight in Iraq, Syria and Libya, with many opting to join a number of extremist militant groups that are known to operate in the region, including IS.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) group has built a base in Libya, from which to exploit tribal conflicts and expand across Africa, though experts have said that the jihadists remain vulnerable even if the West’s attention is elsewhere.
Since the overthrow and death of dictator Moamer Kadhafi, Libya has collapsed into a chaotic country, which has seen militias competing against one another for control. The country’s current insecurity has made it an ideal place for IS to expand into. While Libya not only offers an alternative base for the group, if it is forced out of its current territory in Syria and Iraq, many experts fear that it could also take advantage of the ongoing tribal conflicts and could expand southwards into the Sahel desert region of central Africa, particularly Chad, Niger and Sudan. According to one expert, “IS is provoking tensions and making alliances,” particularly between the competing Tuareg and Toubou tribes.
While for now, IS has only a limited foothold in Libya, it is enough to project violence into neighbouring states, particularly Tunisia, where the group has already claimed three deadly attacks this year. Furthermore, Libya lies just 800 kilometres (500 miles) across the Mediterranean from Italy, and is a route for thousands of refugees, which is another weakness that IS militants could exploit.
Within Libya, IS jihadists have gradually built up control of several towns that were of minimal interest to other militias already operating in the country. Most notably is Kadhafi’s coastal home town of Sirte, which is located east of Tripoli. According to Geoff Porter, head of the US-based North Africa Risk Consultancy, “Libya without a state is not really a functioning place. IS in Libya would be vulnerable to the same problems as the Kadhafi regime – including the need to import 70 percent of its food – and there’s a much smaller population from which to extort revenue and taxes,” adding, “were they to be eradicated in Syria and Iraq, they could try to relocate the bulk of their activities to Libya, but they would be a potentially more manageable threat.” The country’s long coastline and desert plains effectively leaves IS vulnerable to outside attack. However as in Syria and Iraq, the major problem for the West will be finding partners on the ground to fight IS militants. Libya currently has two governments who are vying for power: a militia alliance, which includes Islamists, that overran Tripoli in August 2014; and the internationally recognized administration that fled to eastern Libya. While Western efforts have focused on fostering a reconciliation between the tow sides, hoping that they will then turn their firepower on IS and other jihadist groups that operate in the country, months of UN-brokered talks have made minimal regress. For now, IS has been held in check by the armed opponents that operate in the country. IS was driven out of the city of Dernam in June by an al-Qaeda affiliate. It is also jostling for control in other areas.
Despite the threat that IS could take over Libya, there is little chance that the West will intervene in Libya any time soon as its attention is almost entirely focused on Syria. However there have been some international leaders who have warned of the growing threat. Amongst the few leaders to focus on Libya is Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who warned last week that it could be the “next emergency.” The Untied States has also been quietly targeting IS in the country. It has claimed to have killed its Libyan leader, Abu Nabil, with a drone strike that targeted a compound in Derna on 13 November.
Tunisia’s foreign minister confirmed Friday that ten Tunisian diplomats, seized by Libyan gunmen linked to the Tripoli government, have been released and have flown home. The foreign minister has denied that the diplomats had been traded for a militia leader and announced that Tunisia is closing its consulate in Tripoli because of the Libyan authorities’ inability to ensure diplomats’ security.
On 12 June, the Libyan Dawn militia stormed the Tunisian consulate in Tripoli and seized the diplomats. Mokhtar Chaouachi, a spokesman for the Tunisian Foreign Ministry, disclosed at the time that it remained unclear whether the attackers were holding the hostages on site or had taken them elsewhere, adding that he did not know whether the attackers had opened fire or had made any demands in exchange for the captives. On Saturday, the interior minister for Libya’s self-declared government indicated that ten Tunisan counsellor staff kidnapped in the country’s capital city are in good condition and that contact has been made with their captors. According to Interior Minister Mohamed Shaiteer, “I am in contact with the group who abducted the Tunisian staff and hopefully the staff will be freed soon.”
Early last week, a Libyan official and Tunisian source reported that three of the ten Tunisian consular staff had been freed, adding that negotiations over the remaining hostages were continuing. Speaking to reporters, Faraj Swahili, a Libyan diplomat police official, disclosed “three diplomats have been freed…after they were kidnapped in the capital Tripoli,” adding “the other seven diplomats will be released when the Libyan detainee in Tunis, Walid Kalib, is released by Tunisian authorities.” Last month, Tunisian authorities arrested Kalib, who is a member of Libya Dawn. A Tunisian court has refused to release Kalib, who faces kidnapping charges in Tunisia.