Monday 18 December 2017

Isil attack warning signs unnoticed

Western governments now face the prospect of telling travelling citizens to take more care than ever before, writes Jim Cusack

Men in orange jumpsuits purported to be Egyptian Christians held captive by the Islamic State (IS) kneel in front of armed men along a beach said to be near Tripoli
Men in orange jumpsuits purported to be Egyptian Christians held captive by the Islamic State (IS) kneel in front of armed men along a beach said to be near Tripoli
Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

On February 11, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) murdered 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian men on a beach believed to be west of Tripoli, on the Libyan coast.

The victims, dressed in the usual orange prison suits so familiar on Isil's gruesome videos, were marched to the water's edge, forced into a prone position and had their heads cut off in a choreographed mass execution.

The professionally made video is probably too disturbing for most people to watch, or contemplate, like most of Isil's productions.

The event attracted relatively little attention. The Egyptian Copts are among the poorest and most ignored communities in the Arab world, their priests and congregations being slaughtered in significant numbers in recent years, hundreds during the brief Muslim Brotherhood period of rule in Egypt.

The important aspect of the execution of these poor workmen, from anyone considering a holiday in the sun at Sousse in Tunisia, is that this mass execution was basically on the same stretch of coastline, about 250km away; the distance from Cork to Dublin.

Isil, a Sunni group, has carried out similar atrocities in all the areas where it holds control, stretching out from Syria, east and west from Libya to Afghanistan and south into Sub-Saharan Africa.

The proximity of the mass execution outside Tripoli to the popular sun resorts on the Tunisian coast may have gone unnoticed by very many, if not all, the people who continued booking holidays.

The mass targeting of westerners in Tunisia began in earnest with the murders of 20 tourists, along with four Tunisian civilians, at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the capital, on March 18.

It has emerged that the Sousse gunman, Seifeddine Resgui (23), was trained in Tripoli alongside the two gunmen who carried out the Bardo massacre.

Before this, Isil had been using its affiliate in the Horn of Africa, Al Shabaab, to target tourist and civilian targets in Kenya.

On April 2, Al Shabaab killed 148 students and staff in an attack on Garissa University in northern Kenya, about 60km from the Somali border. This went largely unnoticed in the West and it is thought Isil is now turning its attention from Africa towards the Mediterranean, due to the greater impact it achieves through killing westerners. The beaches of the Mediterranean are a much more valuable target in terms of publicity impact.

Governments in the west are now faced with the quandary of having to advise their citizens to exercise far greater circumspection in their travel arrangements than ever before.

The holidaymakers in Tunisia were largely oblivious to the fact they were straying into the fringes of a warzone. In the aftermath of the Bardo attack in Tunis, the Department of Foreign Affairs did issue a 'travel advisory' for Irish people intending to visit Tunisia. But holidaymakers would actually have had to visit the department's website to discover the warning. There was little attempt to deter people from travelling.

The department said any Irish citizen visiting Tunisia should "exercise caution". They also gave a list of areas to avoid. These include the Chaambi Mountain national park, any area close to the Libyan border and Tunisia's greater south area and, again, the areas that touch on the borders with Libya and Algeria, the big, unstable countries between which Tunisia is wedged.

Although relatively little public attention appeared to have been shown to the previous warnings, the department's 'travel advisory' for Tunisia in March contained some chilling forewarning of last week's events.

Their statement, after the Bardo Museum attack, read: "The presence of extremist elements in Tunisia, as well as instability in neighbouring Libya, mean that there is a heightened threat of terrorism in Tunisia.

"There is a risk of further attacks, which could target tourists. Irish citizens should maintain a high level of security awareness, monitor the local media closely and follow the instructions of the Tunisian authorities and tour operators."

The department also asked people visiting Tunisia to register with the Citizens' Registration Database (/travel/citizens-registration) on its website "so that we can contact them in case of emergency... so we can find you quickly if there's an unforeseen crisis..."

The department currently advises citizens intending to visit Morocco to "exercise caution" and those wishing to visit Algeria to exercise "extreme" caution.

There does not appear to have been any significant attempt to specifically advise people that the "extremist elements" are the same Isil butchers who had beheaded the Christians four months earlier, just along the same Mediterranean coastline.

There was no mention of the voice-over warning on the Christian beheading video which contained repeated references to the war that Isil sees itself conducting against the wider non-Sunni world, and against Catholicism in particular. The final warning on the video is: "We will conquer Rome."

Following Sousse, the Department of Foreign Affairs alert for Tunisia was upgraded to "urgent".

Isil does not have the necessary foothold in Tunisia yet to carry out anything more than the 'lone wolf' attack mounted by Resgui, a drug-addict convert to the Isil cause who had trained him. If it had greater presence in Tunisia, western (mainly Christian) governments could have been faced with the situation of dozens of hostages being held captive prior to their public decapitations. The Egyptian victims had been held prisoner for three months prior to their murders.

Last week, it emerged in the Irish Times that the Defence Forces' military intelligence had predicted that if any Isil or other Islamist attack was to take place in the Republic, it would likely be of the same 'lone wolf' Resgui variety. This was described by senior security sources last week as a "possible" rather than a likely scenario, though the sources are no longer dismissing any such terrorist act here or in any 'Christian' country.

The Republic of Ireland moved way down the list of Islamist targets since the then government introduced the 2009 Defamation Act making blasphemy a criminal offence.

This was widely welcomed in the Arab world angered by the portrayal of Mohammed by cartoonists in other EU countries. The State, however, has close commercial and political links with the United States, and any US company or citizen is a prime target for Isil.

The Garda Special Branch works in close liaison with the US, British and Israeli secret services and closely monitor the activities of the small number of extremists here.

The Republic tends to have lower levels of what is termed 'radicalised' elements because of the moderate Muslim foundations laid down by the community here.

Sunday Independent

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