Vella ‘alarmed’ by advance of Islamic State ‘franchise’ in Libya

Foreign affairs minister says presence of jihadists in eastern Libya is not new, but advances made by fundamentalists allied to the Islamic State in the North African country are “alarming”.

Jihadist groups inside Libya are opening up a new front: in the port city of Derna, whose unique environment places it between green mountains, the Mediterranean Sea, and the desert, both Al Qaeda and now the Islamic State are embroiled in a turf war.

Earlier this week, it emerged that the Libyan jihadist group – the Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam, or Islamic Youth Shura Council (MSSI) – had announced Derna was claimed as part of the ‘caliphate’ that the Islamic State is seeking to extend over the Muslim world.

Foreign affairs minister George Vella, who said that the presence of jihadists in eastern Libya was not new, said the advances made by fundamentalists allied to the Islamic State in the North African country were “alarming”.

“This incursion is not new to North Africa – Tunisia and Algeria have been concerned for a while with the presence of ISIS fighters returning from Syria and Iraq.”

ISIS leaders have not commented on this alleged ‘annexation’ of Derna, but the move was enough to deepen rivalry with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, which has nationalistic aspirations.

Vella said that Derna has been home to the most extremist Islamist factions in Libya since the fall of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Asked whether this was of concern to Malta and other nations, Vella said “such developments are of great concern, especially for the Libyan government in Tobruk and Egypt, which is only a few kilometres away from Derna.”

This week, Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni was in Cairo to discuss military training programmes with Egypt as the Libyan government in Tobruk seeks to build an army and regain control of the country.  

Vella said there was no easy solution to the jihadist recruitment in the Middle East and Europe given the complexity of the situation in Libya, Syria and Iraq.

Vella said that the Maltese government was making its utmost to aid Libya achieve stability, while mitigating any possible security risks posed by terrorist cells which could infiltrate the region, Malta included.

Yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Libya’s capital Tripoli for talks with the country’s warring factions fighting over control of the oil producer, in the highest-level visit of a foreign visitor for three months.

The UN chief said he would urge Libyan parties to push forward with political dialogue to restore stability to country.

Maltese envoy Joe Mangion, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, and special envoys from the UK and France are in Tripoli alongside Ban Ki-moon, as the international community seeks to convince warring factions to recognise the Tobruk government as the sole legitimate government.


Black flags in Derna

Photos and videos on Twitter have delivered images of masked members of the MSSI taking to the streets of Derna, wearing military uniforms, driving pickup trucks, and brandishing rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine guns, and anti aircraft cannons.

On 3 October, they formally claimed Derna as part of the Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’, refashioning the city as Wilayat Darnah – the province of Derna within the Islamic State.

MSSI then organized a forum at al-Sahaba Mosque, employing the ISIS slogan khilafah ala manhaj al-nabawiyah (the Caliphate upon the methodology of the Prophet). Hundreds took part in the event, which included sermons and recreational games for children under the ISIS flag.

Eyewitnesses who spoke to London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat said one of the men was a Saudi national known as Abu Habib, who heads the local Shari’a court set up by the MSSI.

During the rally, two speakers appeared on the stage, which was covered in ISIS flags, and called on the crowd to abandon the “infidel ideas and principles” underlying the modern Libyan state and join what they referred to as the “Islamic state” or the “caliphate” by swearing allegiance to ISIS and to Jaish Al-Islam’s leaders.

MSSI cars have also been photographed brandishing the ‘hisba’ – Islamic Police – sign, with the writing ‘al-amr bi-l-marouf wa-l-nahi an al-munkr’ (the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice) in smaller text below.

Derna has a long history of jihadism: in 2007, United States troops in Iraq uncovered a list of foreign fighters for the insurgency there, finding that 52 of the 112 Libyans on the list came from Derna.

Since May, MSSI has been conducting security patrols in Derna, and calling individuals to account for their “non-Islamic” behaviour, sometimes through vigilantism. The group also instituted hudoud – criminal punishments under Shari’a law – in mid-July, with a public execution at a football stadium on 18 August.


Tobruk warplanes against Jihadist gangs

Libya has been in the throes of inter-militia fighting and teetering on the brink of an overarching national divide between military hardliners and anti-Islamists from the Zintani Brigade; and Islamist camps in the East. Two rival governments are now located in the eastern city of Tobruk and in the capital, Tripoli, recently claimed by Islamist forces from Benghazi.

In Derna, which numbers 80,000 residents, the MSSI Shura Council still faces rivalry from the Islamist militia Abu Salim Martyrs’ Brigade, which is an Al Qaeda affiliate and has national aspirations not to secede from Libya.

The MSSI’s bases outside Derna have been bombed by warplanes believed to be loyal to Tobruk.

And fighting near Tripoli has seen 100,000 fleeing the city, the United Nations refugee agency reported earlier this week.

The main area of recent displacement is around Warshefana, a suburb of Tripoli, and about 15,000 have fled from fighting around the Benina area outside Benghazi, it said. Most displaced people are living with local families but others are sleeping in schools, parks and non-residential buildings converted into emergency shelters.