Is ISIS going to invade Europe from Libya?
In a nutshell, no. So stop the scaremongering.
On 12 December 2014, AllAfrica.com reported on a ‘distress call’ sent by a jihadist in Derna, the Islamist-run port in eastern Libya. A fledging jihadi network was asking the Islamic State (IS) for help as it found itself besieged by more well-established extremists on one side, and the Libyan army’s jihadi cleanup force, Operation Dignity, on the other. So, local jihadist Abu Arhim al Libi sent a letter to IS leaders in Syria, advertising the availability of abandoned military hardware in Libya, and asking for money and recruits.
Fast forward two months and al Libi has now become ‘Abu Arhim al Libim’, a fully fledged IS propagandist who ‘points out with relish that [Libya] is awash with weapons from the Libyan civil war’. So terrifying is al Libim’s call to arms that, according to the Daily Mail, ‘Britain has been warned to brace itself for “boats full of terrorists”‘, as IS amphibious assault squads go on the rampage from their ‘strongholds’ in Libya.
This fearsome metamorphosis appears to be the result of a typo. In reality, Abu Arhim al ‘Libim’ is the same Abu Arhim al Libi from Derna. And his blueprint for the invasion of Europe is in fact the same letter he sent calling for help back in December. Abu Arhim al Libi is the transliteration from Arabic of the jihadi nom de guerre ‘Arhim’s dad from Libya’. ‘Libim’ does not work in this context, and is presumably a repeated typo by the translators at the Quilliam Foundation, who publicised al Libi’s letter in a piece of analysis published this week. This research has been leapt upon by much of the media as evidence of an IS invasion blueprint.
The Quilliam Foundation does some very good work countering extremist narratives, and its report into ‘al Libim’s letter’ does state: ‘It is important that one does not take the content of [al Libim’s] essay as sacrosanct – after all, it is propaganda intended to recruit jihadists to the IS cause.’ However, the sensationalist Western media’s take on the Quilliam Foundation’s assessment has transformed al Libi and pals from desperate jihadists sending a distress call into IS leaders, into the vanguard of the new invasion of Europe.
In fact, al Libi’s December letter is a sales pitch to IS, a request for money with some good slides thrown in. It was meant to convince some bored official in Raqqa to rubber stamp al Libi’s request and get some funds sent down to the brothers in Derna. In this context, of course, al Libi’s assessment is going to be as outlandish as possible, as he knows that will appeal to his audience.
This is why al Libi’s assertions are so mad. Take the claim of al Libi that has caused so much fuss in the media: ‘[Libya] looks upon the southern Crusader states, which can be reached with ease by even a rudimentary boat.’ He wants to appeal to IS officials, not terrify Westerners. After all, the ongoing tragedy of African migrants trying to enter Europe shows that rudimentary boats regularly encounter difficulties navigating even the shortest route between Tripoli and Lampedusa. Given an IS assault squad, weighed down with guns and ammunition, would have to take an even longer and more arduous journey from Sirte, or from Derna, further away on Libya’s east coast, its chances of making it even to Crete or Sicily look pretty slim.
Entertainingly, al Libi also resorts to some pretty transparent sales tactics, giving IS commanders the jihadi equivalent of a limited-time offer: ‘For this dream to become a reality, we must move quickly – partial commitment to the cause will not suffice. If we forget this military arsenal, we effectively surrender the weapons to the Crusaders.’ If al Libi was flogging laptops out of his car boot, most people would laugh at such high-pressure sales techniques. Instead, a panicked Western media has transformed al Libi’s sales pitch into the carefully orchestrated plans for a jihadist D-Day.
What is also striking in al Libi’s letter is his referencing of Western media, including Newsweek and Canada’s National Post. These references are a reminder of how much time jihadi groups spend on the internet, and how voraciously they lap up Western media reports of their activities, and how they depend on them for propaganda. Presumably al Libi, if he is still alive (two months holding the IS fort in Derna is a long time), is now lovingly clicking on every link confirming him as the best military strategist to come out of Libya since Monty.
The mass beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by IS has to be seen in this context: as a means to generate huge amounts of global publicity. The reason for this is that jihadi groups are in competition with each other. They need to attract recruits and funds from terrorist networks and their sponsors in the Gulf states. And the best way to do this is to generate fearsome headlines, showing success and the terror of the enemy. Why else did IS broadcast the mass murder of Egyptian civilians in English?
In Libya, where the jihadi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was long established as the main opposition to Colonel Gaddafi before IS or even al-Qaeda were formed, the competition among different jihadi groups is especially fierce. One way for a fledging jihadi outfit to shortcut its way to the top of the extremist pile is to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (yep – Bakr’s dad from Baghdad), and call yourself IS. This is exactly what al Libi and his comrades did back in October. Libyan news reports pointed out at the time that the alliance of Islamist groups running Derna were unimpressed by their youth group joining a jihadi outfit whose main purpose was to massacre Shia Muslims. (Libya being a country which is 99 per cent Maliki Sunni – information courtesy of Abu Arhim al Libi.)
As a result, IS needs money and recruits to establish its predominance in Sirte and Derna, and massacring 21 migrant workers for their religion, and then threatening to launch attacks against Christendom, is one sure way to attract both. One other, apparently more effective way, as the unwitting efforts of the Quilliam Foundation show, is to republish a two-month-old letter and allow the West’s collective vapours to do the rest. Abu Arhim al Libi knew his audience when he sent his sales pitch to IS. What is apparent from our reaction to the republishing of his letter, and the overblown fears of a waterborne invasion of Europe, is that IS certainly knows its audience, too.
Henry Williams is a writer based in London.