British jihadis are being urged by ISIS to avoid Syria and instead travel to Libya to open up a second front. Two British Muslims have already been killed fighting in the region on behalf of Islamic State, which has taken control of regions within the country since the fall of dictator Colonel Gaddafi in 2011.
Frequent airstrikes and a clampdown on border crossings by Turkey has made joining the Islamic State in Syria a much more risky prospect in recent months. Many jihadists either trying to enter or exit the country via Turkey have found themselves trapped in that country, unable to head back to the UK for fear of being arrested, nor into Syria itself.
Islamic State recruiters have taken to social media to offer a solution: the north African country of Libya, just 400 miles from the borders of Europe. ISIS and its affiliates have taken control of significant areas of the country since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011.
Raphael Hostey, a 24 year old graduate from Liverpool who now recruits for ISIS in Syria recently posted on Twitter: “For those who are saddened by the temporary closing of Syria and Iraq, there’s still hope!
“Hijrah [religious migration] to Libya, Yemen and Sinai [in Egypt] are available, so for anyone who can’t really wait, then these wilayat [caliphate provinces] are open for you.”
A female jihadist from London who now lives in Raqqa, Syria has also taken to twitter to urge people to travel to Libya. The woman, known as Umm [sister] Muthanna posted: “How many brothers & sisters in Turkey, cannot go back home and cannot enter in … Make your Visa and go to #IS in #Libya.” She added: “we need to raise more awareness”.
The country is now home to the largest contingent of ISIS fighters outside of Syria and Iraq. The group has headquarters in the northern coastal town of Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town, plus a network of training camps including one west of Tripoli, the country’s capital city.
Umm Muthanna urged Britons to make “hijrah” to Libya, adding: “In Libya don’t we have a state? There is still sharia there.”
Three native English-speaking women who have been living in Libya for the last few months have also been mounting recruitment campaigns for Libya on social media and chat rooms. The women, believed to be British thanks to phrases and cultural references they use, have been tracked by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a UK-based think tank, to observe how they go about recruitment, the Guardian has reported.
In late June one woman calling herself Umm Unknown wrote on Twitter: “Come to Libya. Hijra [religious migration] is not only to Shaam [Syria] now. Libya needs you too.”
“5 brothers made hijra about a month ago and they are all shaheed [martyred] … the mujahideen in Libya need you!!!!”
Another, known by the name Umm Mus’ab, arrived in Libya in May this year. She has told her followers: “Come to the land where no man will ever see your face.” Commenting on life in Libya she added: “It’s mind bogglingly great.”
The third, Umm Asiyah, was questioned via Ask.fm, an online question forum, on why she had gone to Libya. She replied: “To live under the Shariah [law] of Allah.”
She has also tweeted about being separated from her family, posting: “Every time I hear my mom’s voice I die a little may Allah get her out of Darul Kufr [land of unbelief].”
Melanie Smith, a researcher with the ISD and an expert in western female jihadis, said evidence of women travelling to a new region to live under ISIS rule represented a tipping point.
“Where we see movements of women migrating, that represents the organisation [Isis] trying to consolidate their territory and state-build rather than just fight and conquer territory. [And] the more that you consolidate that territory, the more you populate that territory, the more difficult it is for that to change,” she said.
A number of British male jihadis have already been killed fighting in Libya, The Times has reported.
They include a 21 year old from Birmingham who was killed earlier this month fighting with Ansar al-Sharia, a group affiliate to ISIS. He is understood to have first come to Britain in 1996 as an asylum seeker with his family, fleeing Gadaffi’s regime. His father was a member of a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda and outlawed by the dictator.
The man is believed to have travelled back to Libya at some point in the last four years following the death of Gadaffi, and was killed fighting government forces in Benghazi.
In March this year an 18 year old from a Libyan family residing in Harrow, London was also killed in the Benghazi area. He had travelled to Libya to join ISIS directly, rather than an affiliate group.
Libya’s proximity to Europe poses as serious security risk for the continent. Libyan ports already play host to a brisk trade in migrants from across Africa and the Middle East wishing to cross into EU territory, as the Italian island of Lampedusa is less than 200 miles away.
An ISIS report which emerged via Libyan media in January revealed that the Islamic State would be aiming at Libya “to get to Europe,” overrunning it with migrants to “turn it into hell.”