An odd event is happening off Italy’s shores this winter. Despite the customary high winds and seas, more refugees than ever have been stuffed onto rickety boats heading for Lampedusa, the Italian island closest to the coast, as well as Sicily and the Italian mainland shore itself. Italian officials attribute the influx to the chaos engulfing Libya. The country has long been a source of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq and most recently Syria who cross on boats managed by Libyan smugglers. With militias in charge of most of the sea coast and no government in charge to stop the traffic, the usual flood has increased even in the customary down winter months. (continue below)
And Italy fears now that an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Shams in Libya, along with other radical jihadist groups are not only increasing the flow but placing their own members aboard as future sleeper cell members. The chances that Islamic radicals would plant such people aboard “cannot be discounted,” said Interior Minister Angelino Alfano. On February 14, these official fears grew: ISIS, already notorious for executing captives in Syria and expelling Christians from their homes in Iraq, broadcast a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt and one man from Chad, all of whom were migrant workers in the town of Sirte. Suddenly, ISIS’ unbridled barbarity had approached Italy’s shores. Feeding the case of nerves was the pledge of ISIS’ self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to fly the flag of ISIS over Vatican City. Italy has not experienced the kind of mass terrorist killings comparable to London, Paris or Madrid, but a case of nerves is clearly erupting. It was predictable that the disintegration of Syria would lead to a flood of refugees—and among them, radicals—to Europe and other countries. It happened during after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, when Islamic fighters returned to their home countries across the Middle East. It also occurred to a lesser, but significant extent, during the 1990s crackdown on radical groups in Egypt. Among the alumni were Ayman Zawahiri, currently top al-Qaeda leader, and Omar Abdul Rahman, in jail for life for life in the United States for having plotted to blow up New York’s World Trade towers in 1993. Not only Italy is concerned. Egypt responded to the beheadings with aerial bombings of ISIS targets. But Egypt has long had concerns long before. Weapons from Libya, many of them looted from dead leader Moammar Gaddafi’s arsenal, ended up in the Sinai Peninsula, where Islamic rebels are battling the army. Islamist fighters easily cross Egypt’s long frontier with Libya. But both face problems on how to resolve the dangers. No one has a feasible plan to pacify Libya (never mind Syria). For the past few years, Italy has pleaded with the European Union to help it patrol its Mediterranean shores and block the migrant flow. Now, both Egypt and Italy are looking to the United Nations for a possible expeditionary force to put order in Libya and provide a setting for the many warring tribes and factions to reach some sort of peace deal. Absent from all this is the United States. The Obama Administration “led from behind” in organizing air strikes that helped oust Gaddafi in 2011. It is way behind now. One of Obama’s few foreign policy doctrines is to keep US troops off the ground in the Middle East. He has already had to send planes to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria as well as some advisors to Iraq to help Iraqi forces attack rebel positions. Another dispatch of forces to the Middle East—this time to a situation that was clearly of Obama’s making—would sink any notion that he had successfully withdrawn from the quagmire of the George Bush presidency. So far, Washington is sticking to a breakthrough in a “political process.” Chances for that are extremely slim, I think. Here is a statement signed by Italy, the US, UK, France, Spain and Germany calling for diplomatic action. Here is a story about Italy’s concerns from Corriere della Sera (in Italian). And this is an account of an attack on an Italian military base in 2009.