After attacks last week at the oil facilities at Ras Lanuf and Es Sider and a suicide bombing at Zliten, which marked the deadliest suck attack in post Gaddafi Libya, guards at Libya’s Zueitina oil terminal were reported by AFP and Reuters to have repelled an attempted naval assault.
Reuters reported the account of a spokesman who stated that ‘guards repelled the attack before the boats reached the port, hitting one of the vessels and setting it on fire.’
The attack in Zliten, in which a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with explosives into the courtyard of a police training center, killed forty seven and wounded over a hundred more. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack and identified a militant it identified as ‘Abu Yakin Tunisi’.
After the suicide bombing in Zliten the Libya Herald quoted another security source who stated that “We had information that a boat arrived at the town’s shore two days ago carrying a number of strangers,”
The use of a naval vessel to circumvent local checkpoints is nothing new, refugees and migrants have used the Libyan and Tunisian coasts as a point of departure Europe.
As the security situation in Libya deteriorated, EU counter people smuggling efforts spearheaded by the Italian Navy and after Islamic State released videos Egyptian and Eritrean Christians, use of the ‘Central Mediterranean’ route actually decreased in 2015.
The attempted assault on Zueitina though, suggests Islamic State’s branch in Sirte is at least attempting to develop offensive amphibious capabilities.
If the Islamic State launched an amphibious assault on Tunisian, Maltese or Italian territory it could force the hand of Libya’s neighbors.
The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has reportedly been redirecting its foreign recruits to join its Libyan branch instead where according to recruiting materials obtained by the Quilliam Foundation, a counter extremist think tank, Islamic State emphasizes the abundance of weapons in Libya and its proximity to European coastlines when recruiting fighters.
According to a 24-page United Nations Report on the Islamic State in Libya published in late 2015 the Islamic State in Libya, unlike other ‘affiliates’ such as Boko Haram, coordinates directly with the group’s central command led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
The UN report, also noted the prominent role Tunisians play in Islamic State’s Libyan command structure. The claimed use of a Tunisian suicide bomber in Zliten could have been a calculated move by Islamic State to raise tensions between Tunisia and Libya. The flow of Tunisian fighters into Libya is significant because as the UN report indicated the Islamic State initially found that local sources of manpower had been largely tapped by Libya’s myriad of militia, instead it has relied on fighters from neighboring countries including Tunisians and other jihadis who fled France’s operation Barkhane in Mali.
Islamic State affiliated Jund al-Khilafah claimed responsibility for the Bardo Museum attack in Tunis in March, the Sousse beach resort attack in June and the suicide bombing in central Tunis in November.
The Bardo and Sousse attacks were both perpetrated by attackers trained in Libya, at camps outside Sabratha. The Semtex explosives used in the Tunis bombing are believed by the Tunisian security officials to have originated in Libya.
Those attacks prompted Tunisia to build a ‘security wall’ along its border with Libya, close the Libyan border for 15 days after the November attack, and restrict flights from Libya.
According documents leaked to the German publication ‘Der Speigel’ 150-200 German soldiers, with an unspecified number of Italians, would begin training Libyan forces in Tunisia in a few months. The training would take place in Tunisia because of security concerns in neighboring Libya.
In May the European Union had advanced plans to the United Nations for an Italian led military intervention in Libya to dismantle people smuggling networks.
France’s Defense Ministry also revealed it had flown reconnaissance missions over Libya in November as the Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier was being deployed for strikes in Syria following the attacks in Paris.