Alan Jamieson is the author of Faith and Sword: A Short History of Christian-Muslim Conflict and Lords of the Sea: A History of the Barbary Corsairs
Although most people-smuggling into Europe takes place along the Greek-Turkish maritime border, vessels still bring refugees from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea to southern Europe. The danger that Islamic State, now well-established at Sirte in Libya, might use this people-smuggling trade to put so called sleeper terrorists into Europe has long been a matter of concern.
However, this is not the only possible threat posed by IS through a turn to the sea. Boats from Libya can not only carry refugees; they could also be used to carry out attacks on Western merchant shipping in the Mediterranean. Admiral Clive Johnstone, head of NATO’s Maritime Command, has recently warned that IS may be ready to develop its own navy to mount attacks. There are both historical and more recent precedents.
Tripoli, the capital of Libya, was, from the 16th century to the early 19th century, one of the main bases for the Barbary corsairs. Although not as famous as other North African corsair ports such as Algiers and Tunis, Tripoli was still a potent threat to Christendom, with its Muslim maritime raiders ravaging both Christian shipping and Christian coastal communities. Captured ships, cargoes and slaves brought considerable wealth to Tripoli, and Turgut Reis (also called Dragut), one of the greatest Barbary corsairs and Ottoman naval commanders, is buried in the city.
Nevertheless, Muslim piracy is not just a historical phenomenon. After the collapse of the Somali state toward the end of the 20th century, local people took to launching attacks on merchant ships near the Horn of Africa. Between 2005 and 2012, some 179 ships were captured by the Somali pirates and were only released after ransoms totaling $400-million (U.S.) were paid. International naval action and some improvement in political stability within Somalia have now largely ended Somali piracy, but there is no guarantee that such maritime lawlessness will not occur again where a failed state lies alongside important trade routes.
The Somali pirates differed from the Barbary corsairs of old in having no religious motivation for their attacks. They might be Muslims, but their principal motivation was simple criminal greed. Indeed some of the ships they seized belonged to Muslim countries. The Somali pirates were not reviving the holy war that inspired Barbary corsair attacks on Christian ships and coasts. If IS was to launch maritime attacks from Libya, it would undoubtedly restore the religious element to ship stealing and it might well prove a more determined foe than the Somali pirates.
The IS-affiliated terrorist group in the Sinai peninsula of Egypt managed to cripple an Egyptian navy patrol boat with a missile fired from the coast in July, 2015. How much more dangerous against Western shipping would be IS missile-equipped ships sailing out from Libyan ports. The ultimate nightmare scenario would of course be IS armed vessels seizing ferries and cruise ships in the Mediterranean, leading to hundreds or even thousands of Westerners being taken hostage.
No doubt such scenarios will be dismissed as unduly alarmist. However, on land the political chaos in Libya already makes that country look like “Somalia on the Mediterranean.” It is by no means impossible that the violence on land will spill out onto the sea as well, posing a major new security threat to the international community.Report Typo/Error
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