IN yet another shocking video released by the Islamic State (IS) on Sunday, its militants in Libya are shown murdering at least 28 people, described by the group in text captions as “followers of the cross from the enemy Ethiopian Church”.
The video portrays a masked fighter in black brandishing a pistol, who makes a statement threatening Christians if they do not convert to Islam. The video then switches between footage of one group of about 12 men being beheaded by masked militants on a beach, and another group of at least 16 being shot in the head in a desert area.
Redwan Hussein, an Ethiopian government spokesman, said he believed the victims were Ethiopian migrants trying to reach Europe. Protests followed in the capital Addis Ababa.
This tragedy comes at a time when the equivalent of five passenger airplanes full of people died in the Mediterranean sea when their boat capsized shortly before midnight on Saturday, about 180km south of Italian shores.
The estimated 800 people were migrants, tempted to make the perilous journey to Europe in search of a better life.
The UN says the route from North Africa to Italy and Malta has become the world’s deadliest. It is bolstered in part by human smugglers who are taking advantage of the political crisis in Libya to use it as a launching point for boats carrying migrants.
The smugglers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the anarchy. The Islamic State - sometimes known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) - which has seized chunks of Syria and Iraq, has won the support of jihadist groups across Middle East and north Africa including several Libyan jihadist groups who have pledged allegiance to the group.
Officials had warned that Libya could become a jihadist haven on Europe’s doorstep and it is certainly going that way.
Start saving lives
But in this ironic and tragic sense, the IS will unintentionally start saving lives.
A 4.5% chance of drowning crossing the Mediterranean may not be a strong enough deterrent to stop Africa’s migrants, but the power of nightmares offered by fanatical lunatics may be enough to stop a few - particularly when the threat posed by the Islamic State is already tangible and so close to home.
Considering that, despite popular belief, there is evidence that “migration is generally a conscious choice by relatively well-off individuals and households to enhance their livelihoods”, the access to information provided by the internet showing opportunity for other possibilities “out there” will be the same medium that will show them the violent deaths of their fellow countrymen, who had also sought to make the perilous journey to Europe.
In other situations however the push factors are related to poverty, conflict, persecution or natural disasters and the lure of false promises by expensive smugglers. But the threat of death at the hands of the militants is news that can spread easily, the impact of militant groups already shaking up isolated areas in various African countries and the psychological impact of terrorism cannot be underestimated as it uses unconventional means in order to create the most horror, fear and panic possible.
Challenging deeply formed patterns
Terrorism continuously creates and reinforces in civilian perceptions an ongoing senses of threat and dread - that anyone and any place, at any time can be a victim. For the transit migrants, running towards a situation of war, kidnapping and murder could present a final new obstacle which makes the risk less worthwhile than before.
The sharp rise of IS’s influence in Africa, should it continue unchecked, has the potential to challenge deeply formed migration patterns like never before.
The group has already demonstrated its quick recruitment capabilities; in 2014 it expanded its militant forces from over 10,000 to more than 90,000 (over 50,000 in Syria, and over 30,000 in Iraq) in just three months, and this is now also happening within Africa.
Libya’s coastal town of Sirte has become a stronghold for the group within the country. Last year a group of Algerian jihadists broke away from the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) network to pledge allegiance to ISIS, and there are messages of support for ISIS from various groups in Tunisia.
In Egypt the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis network has increasingly adopted ISIS tactics to intimidate the local population, and several of its members have admitted to receiving tutelage and funding from ISIS.
Morocco and Mauritania are reported to have broken up terror cells loyal to the IS, while in Nigeria West African migration routes will be further threatened by Boko Haram’s declarations of loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the man believed to be leader of ISIS, stating that Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad will be incorporated into the Caliphate.
This curtain of growing influence across Northern Africa could therefore begin to affect migration routes, previously believed to be unshakable.
A document circulated among IS supporters as unofficial propaganda in February, and translated from Arabic into English by Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank, demonstrates the deliberate urgency the group is seeking to create roots in North Africa, and Libya in particular.
It calls upon jihadists to make their way to Libya as soon as possible, describing Libya as a massive source of potential, but one that must be tapped into soon, as it will not last forever. If it is to be “the key to Egypt, the key to Tunisia, Sudan, Mali, Algeria and Niger too”, then IS supporters must mobilise now and act fast.
Fast growing threat This fast growing threat of IS in the region will not only be a strong deterrent for Christian migrants, but for all migrants as there are also fears that they will be forced to join IS ranks or murdered.
In February this year for example there were reports that migrants in Lampedusa were forced to leave Libya by traffickers because of fears that ISIS was planning to force them into its ranks.
This may have caused migrant numbers to swell, but this will be temporary as, with expanding IS influence, fewer sub-Saharan Africans take the risk to travel North and across into Europe.
So while the group unintentionally saves the lives of transit migrants, the final nail in the coffin to dissuade them from venturing to Europe on life-threatening fishing boats, and thus ISp will also help the European Union by slowing down the number of African migrants coming onto their shores.
The region’s refugee crisis has been simmering for years, but it now appears to be spiralling out of control. The EU also currently spends about $40 million a year on Triton, a border protection initiative, which it will need to step up to assist in rescue and recovery missions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that 60,000 refugees made it to Europe in 2013 and that the number jumped to at least 170,000 last year. As many as 500,000 are estimated to make the trip this year due to instability across the Middle East and parts of Africa.
Should the ISIS curtain across North Africa come down, the impact of the group’s influence on the region will be devastating - what wasn’t expected perhaps on their part, is the potential for them unintentionally helping their “enemies” and saving lives.