We perish because we know not… #TLENews
The images match the worst of Islamic State’s atrocities: black-clad fighters and an English-speaking jihadist taunt the West before slaughtering their victims in orange jumpsuits on a Libyan beach.
Their masked leader turns to the Mediterranean and points a bloodied knife towards Europe, declaring, “We will conquer Rome, God willing.”
The execution of 21 Egyptian Christians by militants in Libya proclaiming allegiance to Islamic State was an announcement that the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has spread from Syria and Iraq to Libya. Militants have profited from chaos to claim a North African outpost a boat ride away from Italy’s coast.
International reaction came swiftly. Egyptian jets pounded suspected militant sites in Libya, and Paris joined Cairo in calling for UN action to halt the militants’ spread.
Libya appears to be Islamic State’s most successful move yet beyond its Middle East heartland, likely attracting more recruits and increasing Western fears of a new North African base for jihadist fighters.
Yet even as they thrive in Libya’s unrest, Islamic State sympathizers must contend with rivalries and factional infighting that make securing the sort of territorial gains that IS has made in Iraq and Syria more complicated.
“The statement in Libya is more a statement of defiance,” said Hassan Hassan, co-author of a book on IS. “By killing Christian civilians, they were delivering a message that they’re expanding.”
The rise of IS comes as no surprise. Libya has descended into factional fighting, leaving the country almost lawless nearly four years after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall.
Two competing governments backed by militia brigades are scrambling for control. Diplomats have fled, Tripoli’s airport is a bombed-out shell and oil flow is a trickle as combatants trade rockets and air strikes.
Libya’s IS sympathisers have used social media to display shows of strength, parades of armed men and appeals to implement sharia law in the eastern city of Derna, a stronghold of Islamist militancy.
But this year IS militants in Libya have escalated operations. Last month, they claimed an assault on the Tripoli Corinthia hotel, killing nine people.
Islamic State gunmen also attacked Libya’s Al-Mabrook oilfield, where France’s Total owns a stake. Some victims were beheaded.
A US government source said US officials do not yet know how many attacks by Islamic State sympathizers are directly tied to the central organisation or are just “copycat” claims.
But analysts said the Egyptian killings, their video release via an official IS outlet, exerpts from an IS magazine on the hostages and the executions themselves suggested ties with IS command.
In December, General David Rodriguez, head of the US Africa Command, said a couple of hundred militants were in training camps in eastern Libya that were likely to send fighters to Syria.
Now foreigners are being killed fighting for Islamist groups in Libya. Tunisian newspapers carry death notices of jihadists who have died not only in Syria or Iraq, but also in Libyan cities like Benghazi.
For Egypt, the rise of Islamic State just over its border is worrying. Egyptians officials see ties between Libyan Islamists and militants in the Sinai.
“What you have is a chaotic country where Islamic State and other militant groups are untouchable, on your border,” a senior Egyptian security source told Reuters. “Our goal is not to contain terrorists with air strikes, our goal is to eradicate terrorism in Libya.”
Libya is also host to Ansar al Sharia, blamed by Washington for an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi where the US ambassador died, and al Qaeda-linked groups as well as smaller Islamist rivals whose motives are more local than global.