Why ISIS in Libya Has Western Leaders Worried

February 17, 2015 Updated: February 17, 2015

The recent release of a video that purportedly shows the beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians has revealed an unpleasant truth for many: ISIS is in Libya.

While the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, took over cities and areas in the North African country over the past year or so, the executions could represent a turning point for Libya, which has both a weak central government, with two main rival factions, and is simultaneously a hotbed for extremists. After the beheadings, Egypt carried out bombing missions on suspected targets controlled by ISIS in Libya.

Of note, the video published by the Islamic State-affiliated group in Libya issued a threat to “conquer Rome,” suggesting possible attacks in Europe. The execution video, perhaps in a symbolic gesture, was filmed on the Mediterranean coast. As the video ends, the footage cuts to ocean water running red with what appears to be blood.

The locations of Derna (R), Nawfaliyah (C), and Sirte (L) in Libya (Google Maps)
The locations of Sirte (L), Nawfaliyah (C), and Derna (R) in Libya (Google Maps)

In recent weeks, the Islamic State has made gains in Libya, with its militants taking over the town of Nawfaliyah in Sirte province, while they posted propaganda photos online showing a convoy of trucks and armed militants, according to the Long War Journal. There’s been conflicting reports over whether the city of Sirte is still controlled by the group, while Derna, a city of 150,000, is considered the group’s main headquarters.

Unlike Iraq and Syria, the group’s control of a coastal area could pose problems for Europe and vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.

And that has some Western leaders worried, writes analyst John Pearson for the National newspaper in Dubai.

“Western leaders worry that Libya offers the one thing not available in either Iraq or Syria—access to the coast,” he writes. The group’s “bases at Derna, Sirte, and Nawfilya are all close to the shore offering the chance for units to set sail across the Mediterranean to attack Europe.”

The Islamic State “will have expected Egypt’s air strikes and may hope the bombing brings further chaos to an already war-torn country, and with it fresh chances to expand,” he adds.

The two rival Libyan government factions aren’t likely to take action against the Islamic State, either. Since the two factions began fighting last year, there have been no concerted efforts to push back against the waves of foreign militants coming into the country. Libya had been unstable since the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011, then an all out civil war broke out last year.

“As all the attention of the two sides was on fighting the other side, this kind of group prospered in the political and military void,” says Karim Mezran, a Libya expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, according to the Wall Street Journal. “There are no good guys or bad guys there—both sides have been acting in bad faith.”

This means it’s likely up to the United Nations to consider stepping in. Following the release of the beheading video, Egypt called for a U.N. coalition to draft a Security Council resolution.

Italian Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister Paolo Gentiloni said in a statement, “The worsening situation … now calls for extraordinary engagement and a greater assumption of responsibility along the lines that the Parliament will begin to discuss on Thursday 19 February. Italy endorses this extraordinary political commitment and is ready to do its part in Libya within the framework of the decisions of the United Nations.”