The ISIS threat - should Malta be alarmed?

Reporter tackles the rise of Islamic extremism in the Arab world and the danger it poses to Malta and her interests

George Vella and Tonio Fenech discuss Islamic terrorism on Reporter
George Vella and Tonio Fenech discuss Islamic terrorism on Reporter

The reported mass burning of 45 Iraqi civilians yesterday and the simultaneous beheading of 21 Copts earlier this month are just the latest of many such murders by the jihadi group known as the Islamic State, previously the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The group’s evolving penchant for medieval execution and public spectacle –usually in the form of beheading by knife or immolation in a cage-, coupled with their internet-savvy propaganda videos has propelled them to the forefront of public consciousness. Threats to “conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” initially dismissed as mere crowd-pleasing rhetoric on their part, is increasingly being perceived as a genuine cause for concern in Europe and the fact that Malta has only 340km of sea separating it from ISIS-held Tripoli does little for peace of mind.

This week’s edition of Reporter, hosted by Saviour Balzan, invited Foreign Minister George Vella and PN spokesperson on non-EU foreign affairs Tonio Fenech to discuss the threat posed to Malta by Islamic extremism.

The situation vis-a-vis Maltese security and the events in Libya

Vella acknowledged that the Libya situation is “not pretty” and highly fluid. “It could go either way at any moment. The fears are real. What we see on TV and what is being reported are real” “We cannot say there is no concern on the Maltese side.”
“We must be vigilant for every shift in Libya: we have no immediate threat, but this does not mean there won’t be one tomorrow. We must watch the developments in the situation very closely. Our security forces are naturally doing everything possible to protect national security.”

Should we be worried about the proximity of ISIS-controlled Libya?

"The threat is clearly not imaginary," said Balzan,  asking the guests whether the danger of ISIS in Libya was as large as percieved.

“ISIS isn’t exporting people, they export an ideology, They do not come over, they export fear and their way of doing things,” said Vella. “ISIS created a sort of franchise. The existing extremists only needed a little push to become even more extreme. It would be foolish to deny their existence, but one must be careful to ascertain whether they are as widespread as they claim. There are reports that they had reached Tripoli, but then again there are also reports that they have followers in Sydney, Australia.”

According to Vella, the danger posed by ISIS is its radicalising of Muslims who are already part of Western societies, adding that every Muslim has the potential to become radicalised. 

Balzan pointed out that President Obama had defended Islam, saying that the extremist views of ISIS and Al Qaeda do not represent true Islam. Vella replied that there are a “hundred shades of Islamism,” from mild to moderate to extreme, conceding however that one cannot put every Muslim in the same bracket as ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Malta’s defences against ISIS

Balzan asked whether Malta is protected against attacks by ISIS. “I am more concerned that the threat will come from within,” Vella insisted. “Look at Paris. The Charlie Hebdo attack was not an attack from outside.”  Reassuringly, however, he added that the Maltese authorities have contingency plans in place and are actively sharing intelligence with other nations. He could not divulge further details for reasons of national security.

On the post-Gaddafi power vacuum

“Had the West not planned for the eventual power vacuum?” asked Balzan, observing that “every time a dictator is deposed all hell breaks loose”.

Borg replied that those coming from a democratic tradition must realise that these countries spent many years in a completely different system. “A people learns democracy over time, not overnight,” adding that the complexity of the power struggles between Libya’s many tribes is also a factor.

“The problem with Libya is that there are many different tribes and the reality is that to get rid of Gaddafi we have armed everyone.”

The problem with Libya is that there are many different tribes and the reality is that to get rid of Gaddafi we have armed everyone. Tonio Borg

Balzan observed that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has disagreed with arming Libyan factions without a central power structure. “We are learning from our mistakes,” said Borg.

The situation is made more complex by the fact that the international community had allowed a lot of weaponry to enter the country, he observed, adding that one could not expect to remove Gaddafi and have instant stability. There was no programme to collect the weapons in return for compensation. “Now they will not return the arms as they do not trust each other”.

“What Libya needs is some form of unitary government, which can begin to manage international assistance to fight ISIS. If they remain factions and international intervention takes place we will have a war within a war”.

A question of culture

Vella said that it was important to understand the psyche of the people. “We don’t always reason in the same way as a person from an Arabic culture. In Arabic culture there is a lot of retribution. Democracy is the distillate of hundreds of years of development, he said, but in Arabic culture the Koran is a way of life in itself.

When Gaddafi was removed, the West pulled out and expected them to hold a few meetings, form a party and hold elections, but they will always default to tribes.”

Is foreign intervention a good idea?

Borg declared that the PN was “definitely not advocating foreign intervention in Libya”, adding that even if the UN approved an intervention, Malta should only assist on logistics.

The impact of the Libya crisis on the economy in Malta and the region

Vella reported that there are several Maltese investments in Libya: Corinthia, St. James, factories and plants and retail outlets who up till recently were still managing to operate in spite of the unrest, but which have now had to stop.

“Being a Maltese citizen was like having a certificate that you were not to be touched, but the emergence of ISIS changed this,” he explained. “ISIS is not anti-Christianity, it is anti all who do not endorse their brand of Islamic extremism. Nobody in Libya can tell friend from foe anymore.”

The minister pointed out now that one cannot even be certain about who to deal with, in both the Tobruk and Tripoli governments.

The Opposition’s suggestion to take a more active stance against ISIS

Fenech emphasised that the Opposition is in agreement and gives its support to the government’s stand on, and dealings with, Libya. “The opposition is not there to trip up the government, this is a very delicate time.” He said that the Opposition is satisfied with the level of preparedness and readiness, adding that Government was “keeping its commitment to keep the leader of the Opposition and myself informed with developments.”
He cautioned, however against Malta ending up on the outside of newly formed coalition between the EU, the Arab league and other countries.

Reporter, hosted by Saviour Balzan, airs every Monday at 20:40 on TVM2, with a repeat at 21:55 on TVM.