Last week, Toto Martello, a spokesman for the fishermen of the Italian island of Lampedusa, sounded the alarm. "The Mediterranean is becoming the world's powder keg," he said. He demanded that the Italian government declare a state of emergency in Lampedusa and Linosa, two islands halfway between Italy and Libya. "We are frightened of our boats being boarded by terrorists," Martello said.
Last month, the Islamist terror organization ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) gained a foothold near Sirte, and shocked the world with video footage of the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians against the background of the Mediterranean Sea. The atrocity provoked Egyptian air strikes on Derna, another ISIS stronghold along the Libyan coast. This unilateral Egyptian action prompted the terror-supporting state of Qatar to recall its ambassador from Cairo.
ISIS terrorists prepare to murder 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya, February 2015.
As a failed state, Libya has become easy prey for ISIS, which so far only controlled territory in Syria and Iraq. Libyan military sources say that the terrorist organization also has a huge training camp of up to 4,000 jihadists near Sabratha, just 45 kilometers from the border with Tunisia, and less than 70 kilometers west of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. The fact that ISIS has managed to secure coastal territory in Sabratha in the west, in Sirte along Libya's central coast, and in Derna in the east, indicates that the whole of Libya is in danger of being overrun by ISIS.
According to ISIS documents published by the British Quilliam Foundation, the organization intends to send terrorists across the Mediterranean, posing as migrants on the vessels that traffic people. The terrorist organization has announced that it is planning to use Libya as a gateway to Europe. From Sabratha and Sirte, ISIS is able to launch attacks on Italy and Malta. Libya is just 300 miles way from Sicily, 250 miles from Malta and only 100 miles from Lampedusa. From Derna, ISIS can easily reach Greece. Crete is only 200 miles away, the Greek mainland 300 miles.
There is also the threat of attacks on maritime targets, such as cruise liners in the Mediterranean. "It's not a matter of if. It's just a matter of when," warns maritime expert Jim Walker.
ISIS has also threatened to inundate Europe with 500,000 migrants. Last year, more than 170,000 migrants arrived in Italy by boat across the Mediterranean. Libyan militias pocket millions of dollars from trafficking African and Arab migrants in refugee boats. The Office of Migration in Rome confirms that there could be as many as half a million people in camps waiting to come to Italy.
After the gruesome beheadings of the 21 Egyptian Christian hostages, one of the ISIS murderers boasted that Rome would be the next target. "We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission, the promise of our prophet, peace be upon him," he said pointing a bloodstained finger northwards.
Former U.S. undersecretary of the Navy, Seth Cropsey, warned recently in The Wall Street Journal that ISIS is exposing Europe's southern littoral to attacks and kidnappings. He advocated greater American naval presence in the region. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. naval presence in the Mediterranean was significantly reduced. However, the risk of military conflict in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean has never been higher than today.
The arrival of ISIS in Libya constitutes the biggest danger to Europe in decades. Analysts agree that never before has Italy been so exposed. The Italian intelligence services confirm that the situation could degenerate in a matter of weeks. Military sources say that at least 20,000 troops need to be deployed in Libya to counter the danger of an attack on Italy, but Italy is only able to mobilize 5,000.
While the Italians are clearly panicking about an Islamic State just across the sea, they are unable to combat it alone. Rome is, moreover, afraid to deploy forces in Libya. "It is not the time for a military intervention," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said last week. "Our proposal is to wait for the U.N. Security Council. The strength of the U.N. is decidedly superior to that of the radical militias."
Egypt's military regime under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi also feels threatened by the presence of ISIS in Libya. In an interview with French radio station Europe 1, Sisi called for a UN-backed international intervention in Libya. Unlike the Italians and the other Europeans, the Egyptian military, however, has no qualms about acting on its own if the UN dithers too long. Cairo is currently preparing a commando and marine operation against Derna, to seize the town and destroy the ISIS stronghold there. Egypt is aware that time is running out.
Peter Martino is a current events analyst based in Europe.