ISIS is training pilots at an airbase in Libya using small planes, some possibly left over from the Qaddafi regime, and at least one flight simulator in an effort experts fear could lead to aerial attacks targeting Europe, according to regional analysts.
The terrorist group, which is bulking up its footprint in the chaotic north African nation even as airstrikes by Russia, the U.S. and other western allies pound its headquarters in Syria, is functioning unfettered in the Mediterranean city of Sirte. Given that Sirte is just a short flight from mainland Europe – Italy is closest of all - the development could mean ISIS is closing in on a bid to take its terrorism to a frightening new level with a multitude of high-profile potential targets within range.
“We know that the jihadists are trying every means to hurt the West, and if they can blow themselves up in cars they can certainly do the same with airplanes; this wouldn’t be a great novelty and is in line with their thinking and purpose to do as much harm as possible," Col. Jacques Neriah, the retired former deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence and an expert on North African affairs, told Fox News.com.
" ... if they can blow themselves up in cars they can certainly do the same with airplanes; this wouldn’t be a great novelty and is in line with their thinking and purpose to do as much harm as possible."
“We’re not talking about MIG-31 or F-16 pilots," he continued. "We’re talking about very basic, rudimentary pilots who can take off in a light plane and crash themselves into the Vatican, for instance. It takes only an hour and a half to cross [the Mediterranean Sea] from Libya to Rome.”
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told French President Francois Hollande at a meeting in Paris that "Europe must turn its attention to the militants’ rise in Libya."
Reports of ISIS training pilots out of the Sirte airbase appeared earlier this week in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. The paper cited a security official in Libya who said the Libyan Air Force had attempted to destroy ISIS training camps in Libya but had met with limited success, and highlighted the fact that a brand-new aircraft training simulator has been acquired by the radical Sunni terrorist organization as recently as October.
Fears that ISIS may be growing close to stepping up its activities from North Africa –from where tens of thousands of migrants have successfully crossed to mainland Europe by boat over the last few years - were highlighted in a recent report presented to the United Nations Security Council.
"While currently concentrated in its stronghold in Sirte, ISIL [ISIS] could seek local alliances to expand its territorial control, also entailing the risk of motivating additional foreign terrorist fighters to join the group in Libya," the Nov. 15 assessment warned. "ISIL is an evident short and long-term threat in Libya. The group is benefiting from the “appeal” and notoriety of ISIL in Iraq and in the Syrian Arab Republic.”
"Libya is strategically important for ISIL, in view of its geographical location at the crossroads between the Middle East, Africa and Europe," the reported continued, noting that ISIL had declared its governance in three provinces. "However, this division does not translate into actual control of territory, but rather demonstrates the ISIL aspirational vision for its presence in Libya."
A growing number of regional observers contend that in order to stop the increased presence of ISIS and many other Islamist terror groups in Libya urgent action needs to be taken. Outside of Syria and Iraq, Libya is the only country where ISIS governs territory. It has focused its efforts on Sirte, where the majority of Libya's vast oil resources are found. It already makes hundreds of millions of dollars from the oil fields it controls in Syria, but thus far is believed to have generally been unsuccessful in exporting Libyan oil.
"[ISIS] tried a few months ago to send a first shipment abroad and it was confiscated by the US navy," Neriah explained. "It would appear that they are not able at this point to smuggle meaningful quantities."
Huge quantities of weapons left over from the bloody fight to depose Colonel Qadaffi in 2011 continue however to find their way into terrorists' hands. Many have surfaced in Syria, Mali, and Gaza, among other places, while there is conclusive evidence that the Sinai Peninsula - scene of the downing by ISIS in October of a Russian airliner with the loss of 224 lives – is a pivotal location for the buying and selling of such weaponry knocked down to whichever terrorist organization is prepared to pay the highest price.
The embattled Libyan government has been appealing for more help to assist it fending off the Islamists from its territory but thus far there appears little appetite on the part of the international community for another direct intervention in Libya, a decision that some experts believe might come back to haunt them.
“Everybody is thinking about [ISIS] as a terrorist organization, but in fact this is a terrorist state. They have all the organs of a state," Dr. Neriah concluded. "In Mosul [in Iraq] alone they took about 2,500 armored personnel carriers from the Iraqi army, all brand new American equipment. During the civil war in Syria, ISIS and other jihadists have been manipulating and producing chemical weapons and reports have shown they have attacked Syrian forces with chemical means at a time when people thought it was only the regime that was doing so. So, this terrorist state has the means to train people."
"If the international community doesn’t intervene militarily, either through an Arab military force or an international force, I fear the outcome in Libya might be very grim.”