Islamic State militants in Libya have seized control of lucrative people-smuggling routes and are paying some desperate migrants to join their ranks, Libyan officials have said.
The number of people making the perilous Mediterrean crossing from Libya to Europe could more than double this year. Antonio Parrinello/Reuters
The Times, Monday, March 28, 2016 by Bel Trew – The number of people making the perilous Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Europe could more than double this year as a result of the closure of the Balkans route. Under a new deal between the EU and Turkey, all migrants and refugees landing in Greece will be sent back across the Aegean Sea, forcing those determined to continue their journey to attempt to cross via north Africa. There, Isis is operating desert and sea trafficking routes to generate a substantial portion of its income, officials said.
The jihadists command a 130-mile stretch of coastal territory around the central city of Sirte and operate a training hub in the western city of Sabratha. They are recruiting many young men from the seemingly endless stream of migrants passing through the land that they now control.
A US airstrike in February on the Sabratha training camps, which lie barely 60 miles from the Tunisian border, and subsequent raids by local fighters have meant a drop in the usual numbers joining the group from Tunisia. People smugglers in the area told The Times that, to make up the shortfall, Isis recruitment agents have begun luring penniless migrants with the promise of cash, paying them to man checkpoints and outposts — effectively as cannon fodder.
“Isis pay them as much as €1,000 a month, to encourage them to join,” said a Ghanian man whose job is to funnel migrants to the many Libyan traffickers who were already cashing in on the refugee crisis.
Many of the travellers arrive in Libya in the southern region of Qatrun, after crossing the Sahara desert from Niger or Chad, and pay traffickers as much as £300 for their help in slipping over the border, he said.
Before scraping together the money to travel farther north, the majority pause in cities such as Sabha, where, exhausted and penniless, they often fall prey to gangs hoping to kidnap them for ransoms. Some are tempted to join Isis’s ranks, knowing it means a free ride to the coast, the promise of good pay and protection and a roof over their heads.
Adam, a migrant from Nigeria who is being held in a detention centre in Garaboli, 35 miles east of Tripoli, said he knew of many individuals who had taken up the jihadists’ offer. “People have risked their lives crossing the desert, they are desperate. Someone comes along and offers them lots of money — and the stupid ones take it,” he said.
Libyans forced to flee their homes in Sirte when it was seized by Islamic State told similar tales of the recruitment process. They said that many checkpoints in and around Isis territory were manned by poorly equipped fighters from Nigeria, Somalia and Chad, as well as Egypt.
“The majority desperately need the money. We know they get paid 2,000 Libyan dinars [£400] a month,” said a livestock owner originally from Sirte. He said he fled to Misrata after his son was killed fighting Isis.
“Isis also go to the local farms in Sirte and tell migrant workers: ‘We will pay three times what these guys are paying you’. That is how they recruit,” he added.
Military intelligence officers in western Libya who claimed to have contact with fighters who had successfully infiltrated the Isis ranks said that the choice of Sirte, a coastal city in the centre of the country, was a deliberate one by the jihadist recruiters.
“It’s on the sea, but has straight roads down to the southern border entry area. Strategically, they made the right choice to cater for their operations,“ said Colonel Ismail Shoukry, head of military intelligence in Libya. “SubSaharan Africans come here to work to seek a better life. Isis are paying them as much as 2,000 dinars — more than they could get anywhere else.”
Brigadier-General Mahmoud Zaghil, who manages the central Libya operations room against Isis, agreed. “Their main human fighter supply is from Tunisia, but that was targeted by local forces and the US raid,” he said. “Now they are looking to operate elsewhere in the southern region.”
The strategic positioning of Sirte also allows Isis to earn a small fortune by smuggling guns and drugs — and exploiting the waves of migrants desperate to make the crossing to Europe. “Just last week we stopped a boat, and 100 of the migrants admitted to have been transferred from Sirte to take the crossing,” Colonel Shoukry said.
The people smugglers — whether independent operators or from Isis — charge migrants as much as £1,200 for a seat in a rickety wooden boat or a battered inflatable dinghy to make the perilous crossing to Lampedusa, Italy. With minimal overheads — the cost of the vessels and safe houses along the coast — the smugglers can earn as much as £300,000 for every boatload of people they send across.
The multimillion-pound business is enormously lucrative for Isis. Last year an estimated 153,000 people, mostly Eritreans, Nigerians and Somalis, crossed from Libya to Italy, according to Frontex, the EU’s border agency. That was a tenth less than the year before, because of the shift of Syrians to the eastern Mediterranean route.
However, with the closure of the Balkans route and the continued lawlessness in Libya, officials both in Libya and in Europe say the number will rise, ploughing yet more cash into Isis’s coffers. Smugglers are also beginning large-scale operations earlier than expected this year because of unseasonably good weather.
The Italian interior ministry has registered 13,829 arrivals so far this year, compared with 10,075 in the same period in 2015. “We could see double the numbers of last year. There are 6,000km of coastline and southern borders, and it’s all open,” said Mohamed Sweyib, a Libyan immigration official.
Smugglers in Libya, for their part, have told The Times that they are preparing for a bumper year, with “thousands” ready to make the crossing regardless of the risks.
This echoes warnings by European officials: Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has said 450,000 people in Libya might cross the waters this year; Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, said on Thursday that the number was more likely to be 800,000 — a fivefold increase on last year’s figure.
There are fears too that Isis will smuggle fighters across the Mediterranean to wreak havoc in Europe. “On the main port in Sirte they have written a slogan, ‘From here we march on to Europe’. Sirte is the gateway — the West must understand that,” said a Libyan volunteer soldier.