How Isil hopes to extend its killing machine to the West
Isil's execution of 21 Egyptian Christians on Libya's Mediterranean shore is intended as a clear message to Europe: the group is expanding its geographical spread, and it has the West in its sights.
The slow creep of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) through Libya has gone largely unnoticed, but it is here, in a divided nation spiralling further into chaos, that Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's men are now finding fertile ground. The jihadist group - one of several now operating in Libya - gained a foothold in the port city Derna last October, after a senior Isil official travelled to eastern Libya to unite a panoply of militant factions under a single banner.
The Isil leader has since recognised the Libyan "provinces" of Barqa in the east, Tripolitania in the west, and Fezzan in the desert south as belonging to his self-styled "caliphate." Details of the group's strength remain murky, as does the extent to which they are in functional communication with their masters in Iraq and Syria. But online, Isil supporters have been making an aggressive case for continued expansion in Libya, and Western intelligence officials now fear the power vacuum engulfing the oil-rich nation will provide Isil's militants fertile ground to grow in strength.
Three years after the fall of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is split between an internationally recognised government in the far east and Islamists who control Tripoli in the west.
Militants Although each side is nominally allied with a patchwork of overlapping militias, control over the armed groups is often limited in practice.
In the early days of Isil's expansion into Libya, it has left the clearest footprint in the cities of Benghazi, Sirte and the capital, Tripoli, where it recently mounted an armed assault on a luxury hotel, killing at least eight people.
At the weekend, Isil loyalists said they had seized control of municipal institutions in Sirte, the eastern port city from which the group's Egyptian Christian hostages were kidnapped.
They claimed to be broadcasting Mr Baghdadi's sermons on local radio stations.
A key question in the months to come will be the extent to which Libya's Isil-affiliates are able to link up with militants from branches outside the country - the porous border with Egypt has been of particular concern to officials in Cairo, who say militants from Egypt's own Isil affiliate, the Province of Sinai, have travelled to Libya for training, a long journey that involves traversing the entire country east to west.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)