Video apparently showing murder of 21 people comes as extremist jihadis gain support as violence grows following overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011
The latest video horror apparently released by the Islamic State (Isis) shows the mass beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya and underlines the alarming spread of the jihadi group far from the familiar killing fields of Syria and Iraq.
The gruesome film – the victims again kneeling in orange jumpsuits – confirms what had been signalled a few days ago by Isis propagandists. The language directed at these Arab Christians is as hateful and sectarian as that employed against Shia Muslims and the western journalists and aid workers whose murder by Isis has so far attracted most attention internationally.
Like the recent immolation of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh captured by the extremists in Syria, this mass killing will horrify Egyptian and wider Arab and Muslim opinion. The authorities in Cairo and their conservative allies in the Gulf are deeply alarmed by the growing chaos in Libya. Egypt and the UAE have already intervened against Islamist forces and may do so again now more forcefully.
Isis, for its part, is making a deliberate effort to advertise its reach. It has already declared three parts of Libya to be provinces (wilayat in Arabic) under its control – and the subtitles that accompanied the film of the beheadings identified the beachside location as the “the province of Tripoli” – somewhere in the region of the country’s capital, probably Sirte, where the Egyptians were taken hostage. Mention of Rome, twice, seemed to be a mocking taunt to Europeans.
Last month, Isis mounted a suicide bombing attack on the best hotel in Tripoli, an operation that killed nine and again seemed designed to dramatically signal its menacing presence far from the “emirate” of Derna in the east, where black flags have been flying since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in the 2011 uprising.
Facts about it are hard to pin down, but the group appears to be drawing support from Libyans who previously fought with the homegrown militants of Ansar al-Sharia, whose stronghold is in Benghazi, Libya’s second city. Others have returned from fighting in Syria. And, just as in Syria, Isis has been a magnet for those already inclined to the uncompromising violence of the Salafi-jihadi world view.
Significantly, the online propaganda about attacks in Libya is now being produced from the same professional-looking media channels that distribute news from the Levant. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s Iraqi “caliph”, mentioned the north African country in a boastful speech he made last November.
The growth of Isis in Libya is a symptom of the country’s violence, lawlessness and misrule four years after the 17 February revolution. It currently has two rival governments and prime ministers and an array of uncontrollable armed militias that are more powerful than any central authority. As in Syria, extremism thrives in a vacuum.
Even before firm news emerged of this latest atrocity, Italy offered earlier on Sunday to lead an international force to tackle the jihadi threat as the UN continues to try to convene talks on a ceasefire and the creation of a national unity government. The attention-grabbing effect of another act of mass murder may now focus world attention more sharply on a crisis that has been overlooked for too long.