ROME - Islamic State militants are goading Italy on their social media accounts by urging jihadist recruits to go to Libya in preparation for attacks on Rome, saying the strategic location of the conflict-torn North African country is perfect.
The online propaganda offensive comes as Italian authorities ramp up security measures to protect landmark sites, outlining plans to put 4,800 soldiers on the streets in Rome and in other major cities. Counter-terror officials say they worry about attacks on newspapers, synagogues and embassies - and they are mounting extra security patrols around the Vatican.
Italy has been in the grip of growing alarm following the mass execution last week of 21 Coptic Christians by extremists affiliated with the so-called Islamic State on the Libyan shore of the Mediterranean Sea, some 480 kilometers (300 miles) from Italy’s mainland.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has urged the United Nations and Western powers to consider mounting an intervention to halt Libya’s descent into chaos. The North African country is riven by two blocs of competing militias, which are backing rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk, with jihadists exploiting the anarchy.
Islamic State militants appear to be doing everything they can to stoke alarm in Italy. Since the black-clad, masked militants threatened to take their war to Rome, jihadist propagandists have been posting calls for followers to head to Libya rather than Syria, the main draw for foreign fighters.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi last month announced the group's expansion to Libya and urged Muslims to travel there. Many of the participants in what is clearly now becoming a coordinated social media campaign have been stressing the advantages of Libya as a major arena in the jihad against Europe. They are citing its proximity to southern European cities such as Athens and Rome, say researchers with the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a U.S.-based non-profit specializing in monitoring online jihadist activity.
One IS supporter even argued that the distance between Libya and Italy allows Scud missiles to be fired at Rome, adding a sketch to demonstrate his claim.
Using the Twitter hashtag #Immigration to the [Islamic] State in Libya, one supporter, Al-Gharib Al-Faresi, linked to a booklet published by the IS-linked al-Battar Media Foundation outlining the reasons for enlisting in Libya.
"Libya's oases await you, its seacoasts await you, its deserts await you, its saffron-blessed mountains await you, weapons of various categories await you, all these and more await you on Libyan soil,” the authors say.
Another prominent IS supporter uploaded an essay, written in Arabic, entitled “Libya: The Strategic Gateway for the Islamic State”, on why jihadists need to assist supporters of the so-called caliphate in their expansion from Syria and Iraq to Libya.
In the document, unearthed by researchers at the London-based think tank Quilliam Foundation, the author outlines the immense “potential” Libya has for jihadists, arguing that waging jihad in Libya could result in the Western powers being diverted from their airstrikes on militants in Syria and Iraq thereby alleviating the pressure on them.
Libya’s ‘strategic’ location for jihad
And the author identifies the “strategic geographic” location of Libya, the fact that it “looks upon the sea, the desert, mountains, and six states: Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia.” Further, the author writes, “it has a long coast and looks upon the southern Crusader states, which can be reached with ease by even a rudimentary boat.” He also discusses the ease with which weapons and ammunition can be secured from the large caches of arms that remain in Libya from the stockpiles of the former regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
The document provides “a window into the mind-set of a jihadist propagandist and recruiter in Libya, allowing us to better discern the aspects of Libyan geopolitics that are perceived as being of strategic value for IS,” says Quilliam researcher Charlie Winter.
Quilliam’s managing director, Haras Rafiq, warns: “The international community must act to help bring stability to Libya before it becomes a new Syria, whether it is for al-Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate or any other jihadist organization.”
Of particular concern for Italian authorities are jihadists infiltrating Italy as illegal immigrants and mixing themselves among the thousands of sub-Saharan Africans risking a boat journey across the Mediterranean from Libya. Authorities in Italy are already jittery and since the slaughter of the Coptic Christians there have been almost daily alarms.
On Wednesday, counter-terrorism police launched a manhunt in two central districts in Rome after it was reported that two men believed to be Libyans sought to buy firearms on the black market and tried to buy bulletproof vests and night vision equipment. “It is possible that the two alleged Libyan terrorists arrived in Italy long ago, and now have decided to act. But it is too early to tell,” an official told l’Espresso magazine. “Meanwhile, we are trying to stop them.”
Italian counter-terror officials say they are currently monitoring 50 people thought to have links with overseas jihadist groups. Some are Italian-born, others are foreign residents. But officials say they are more worried about jihadists who are not “on their radar” mounting “lone wolf” attacks similar to the assault in January in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.