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ISIS is closing in on Europe’s backyard

Just a few days ago it was all over the news that ISIS attacked a Libyan oil refinery where nine workers are feared to have been taken hostage. In addition, Boko Haram pledged alliance to the group last week. ISIS also tried to expand in Egypt, but the well-founded Egyptian government was able to repel it and drive its members out of the country, or at least keep their activities to a minimum level. Even though these events may seem irrelevant and isolated, it is becoming increasingly obvious that ISIS leaders have targeted Africa as their next, fertile ground for expansion, a fact that will inevitably challenge the feeling of security in the Mediterranean and the Southern shores of Europe.

This strategically-organised effort to extend its activities on another continent suggests that ISIS is a novel conundrum, unlike all previous threats; a dreadfully alarming factor for Europe. Distinct from any other revolutionary groups, guerrilla or freedom fighters, or terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS seems to have developed a concrete geostrategic approach. As a sum of economic and political targets, this innovative approach focuses primarily on a strong economy, and secondly on the prevalence of fear among its rivals. Energy resources are the group’s primary high-valued targets, primarily those located in rogue or failing states, well placed in the geosphere, that can provide steady income to support its aims.

In 2013 it was Syria and Northern Iraq with their rich oil fields, where ISIS could easily overrun and control isolated cities, towns and villages and establish its strict rule of law. Now, it is becoming apparent that the next target is Libya, the Mediterranean’s most oil-rich area. The newly-established Libyan government, with its limited military means thanks to UN arms sanctions, has asked the UN to lift the embargo and assist the Libyan authorities, as they areunable to halt the illicit trade in oil or the flow of weapons in and out of the country. Finally, it is not a random move for ISIS to have chosen to accept Boko Haram’s pledge of alliance, since the latter is based in Nigeria, the world’s 12th largest producer of petroleum. How, though, might all these developments affect Europe?

It is becoming apparent that ISIS poses or will pose an imminent threat to Europe sooner than expected. An analysis by the Italian Ministry of Defence warns that ISIS has already taken control of ports and maritime assets in key Libyan territories, such as Derna, prompting real concerns that conditions could lead to a boom in piracy and maritime crime, creating a new “Somali pirate” threat on the very fringe of Europe. Imitating practice used by pirates around the Horn of Africa, ISIS could launch its own piracy operations in the Mediterranean. A threat that, up to now, seemed very distant from Europeans is now knocking at their back door. What is probably going to be different with ISIS piracy is that the targets will not only be merchant ships but also small fishing boats, yachts and even cruise liners. A pleasure cruise with 300 Westerners on board wearing ISIS-supplied orange boiler suits is a nightmare scenario for Europe.

Apart from piracy, ISIS could target marine traffic in the Mediterranean to carry out offshore terrorist attacks. With an AIS receiver at hand they could easily spot high-valued targets and launch surprise attacks. Unlike the Horn of Africa, where the average distance of marine traffic lanes from the Somali shore is 200 miles, ships cross the Mediterranean as close as 50 miles to the coast of Libya. Finally, members of ISIS will no longer have to cover great distances to reach Europe. Mingling with innocent asylum seekers on small boats heading to Lampedusa or Crete, it will be almost impossible for the Italian or Greek coast guards to spot and arrest them. ISIS masterminds could easily send hundreds of fighters to Europe to carry out acts of terrorism. Imagine the effect of a European being beheaded on European soil. Such a threat is no longer 3,000 km away, it’s in Europe’s backyard, just 180 miles off the coast of Italy or Crete.


By Polychronis Kapalidis, a Lieutenant and a Maritime Security Researcher in the Hellenic Navy, with a Master’s Degree in International Relations and Global Security from Plymouth University.

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