Italy Feels Pressure From ISIS

ISIS Libyan beach beheadings

Image courtesy You Tube/NBC News

Italy Feels Pressure From ISIS
| published February 18, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

Italy now feels the pressure coming from radical Islamic terror. With the mass beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, Italy sees ISIS as an imminent threat to its security, and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni urged lawmakers in Rome to unite quickly around the themes of urgency and resolve.

Last week, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) executed 21 Christians which it had kidnapped in Libya and Egypt in December and January. The murdered Christians had travelled to areas along the chaotic and troubled region around eastern Libya—most of them in search of work as laborers at construction sites or in oil fields. But in the lawlessness of Libya, a large branch of ISIS has developed its own identity and militant footprint, consolidating control over territory and pushing for de facto control over other rebel and tribal groups.

The beheadings of the 21 Egyptians sparked outrage across the world, and spurred an angry Egypt to swift military action, including multiple heavy air strikes against ISIS targets along the Libyan border with Egypt. The grisly murders, and the harsh military retributions by Egypt, have essentially brought the battlefield to within a few hundred miles of Italy’s southern shores. And after al Qaeda and ISIS inspired violence against civilians and Jews in Europe—in France, in Denmark, in Belgium—nations along the Mediterranean Sea feel a growing sense of insecurity.

ISIS already controls vast swaths of territory in northern Syria and northern Iraq—by some estimates, as much as one third of each of those two countries. ISIS also controls territory along the long border between Syria and Turkey, where it is still engaged in fierce combat for control of border towns like Kobani, as well as border checkpoints between Iraq and Jordan, and Iraq and Turkey in the north. ISIS has extended its reach southward into central Iraq almost to Baghdad. The militants’ rapid advance last spring and summer was halted when the United States and five other countries began an air campaign using fighter jets, stealth bombers and stealth fighters, and armed and unarmed drones.

But the air campaign had done little to dislodge ISIS militants from the areas under ISIS control, and the fear has been that ISIS would seek to expand its territorial reach beyond the contiguous limits of its home turf. Like Syria, Libya has been a largely failed state since the Arab Spring and the overthrow of former dictator Muammar Khadafy.

Egypt responded with power and fury to the mass beheadings of Egyptian citizens, but Italians now fear that ISIS—which does not recognize borders or territorial boundaries—will have a springboard to terror operations and kidnappings in Italy. ISIS uses abductions and the threat of grisly murders as one of its principal media tools, often videotaping and photographing its executions and posting the material online and in social media.

In Italy, Gentiloni urged the United Nations to take swift action in the fight against ISIS, and he stressed that the U.N. must find the resolve to act as intermediary in Libya, where intelligence analysts and foreign policy experts worry ISIS may gain a substantial foothold. Libya is fragmented by competing political and militant groups, including heavily armed militias and tribal groups, and bitterly divided Islamist sects and factions. Gentiloni says that these are precisely the sort of conditions which existed in Syria (and parts of Iraq) that allowed ISIS to prevail in its efforts to consolidate rebels groups and militias, and eliminate moderate opposition groups.

Italian legislators are divided over the issue of military intervention, whether through air power or combat operations on the ground. As recently as February 10 Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was stressing the need for diplomatic solutions to the Libyan crisis. But the mass beheadings of Christians kidnapped by militants has sent shockwaves through Italy, where that ISIS can easily expand its harvest of hostages and extend its terror operations onto European soil. Italy already faces a heavy burden from the flow of refugees and immigrants from Libya, an influx that brings social cost, humanitarian strains, and even the risk that potential radicals may be among those travelling with refugees into Italy. A sudden surge in violence in Libya could send thousands more civilians to its shores (just as millions of Iraqis and Syrians have fled the violence and brutality of ISIS by migrating into Turkey and Jordan.

Feeling it has a large stake in the reconstruction of social order in Libya, Italy has said it will facilitate negotiations between political and sectarian factions in Tripoli. But pressure may grow to implement military forms of intervention as well.

The United Nations is scheduled to convene an emergency meeting this week to discuss possible solutions to Libya’s chaotic, lawless situation, and possible countermeasures against the rise of ISIS along the northern shores of Africa.

Meanwhile, Egypt has said it will continue its air campaign against selected ISIS targets inside Lybia. Egypt is working with air commanders loyal to the central government in Tripoli to bomb targets suspected of being ISIS strongholds and weapons caches.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Egypt Strikes ISIS Targets in Libya; Thursday Review; February 16, 2015.

Jordan Unleashes Firepower Against ISIS; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 6, 2015.