ALGIERS/CAIRO (Reuters) – The images match the worst of the Islamic State (IS) group’s atrocities, black-clad fighters and an English-speaking extremist taunt the West before slaughtering their victims in orange jumpsuits on a Libyan beach.
Their masked leader turns to the Mediterranean and points a bloodied knife towards Europe, declaring, “We will conquer Rome, God willing.”
The execution of 21 Egyptian Christians by militants in Libya proclaiming allegiance to IS was an announcement that the group has spread from Syria and Iraq to Libya. Militants have profited from chaos to claim a North African outpost a boat ride away from Italy’s coast.
International reaction came swiftly. Egyptian jets pounded militant sites in Libya, and Paris joined Cairo in calling for UN action to halt the militants’ spread.
Libya appears to be the terror group’s most successful move yet beyond its Middle East heartland, likely attracting more recruits and increasing Western fears of a new North African base for extremists.
Yet even as they thrive in Libya’s unrest, IS sympathisers must contend with rivalries and factional infighting that make securing the sort of territorial gains that IS has made in Iraq and Syria more complicated.
“The statement in Libya is more a statement of defiance,” said Hassan Hassan, co-author of a book on IS. “By killing Christian civilians, they were delivering a message that they’re expanding.”
The rise of IS comes as no surprise in Libya. Two competing governments backed by militia brigades are scrambling for control. Diplomats have fled, Tripoli’s airport is a bombed-out shell and oil flow is a trickle as combatants trade rockets and air strikes.
Libya’s IS sympathisers have used social media to display shows of strength, parades of armed men and appeals to implement harsh Sharia law in the eastern city of Derna, a stronghold of extremist militancy.
But this year IS militants in Libya have escalated operations. Last month, they claimed an assault on the Tripoli Corinthia hotel, killing nine people. IS gunmen also attacked Libya’s Al-Mabrook oilfield. Some victims were beheaded.
In December, General David Rodriguez, head of the US Africa Command, said a couple of hundred militants were in training camps in eastern Libya that were likely to send fighters to Syria.
Now foreigners are being killed fighting for terror groups in Libya. Tunisian newspapers carry death notices of radicals who have died not only in Syria or Iraq, but also in Libyan cities like Benghazi.
In Derna, a conservative city where hardliners once resisted Gaddafi, residents say IS supporters are exerting more influence, cracking down on public smoking and shisha pipe cafes.
IS is adept at propaganda that often exaggerates its victories. In one image, IS militants parade in a long column of Toyota jeeps near Sirte. Another image in Derna shows IS supporters driving white SUVs with ‘Islamic Police’ emblazoned in black.
Residents and activists in Derna were wary of talking about militants, who have carried out assassinations there. They said a Yemeni, believed to be named Abu El-Bara El-Azadi, arrived in Derna late last year as a representative of IS.
IS has gathered local support in Derna through the Shura Council of Islamic Youth. Even in its main Libyan base, analysts and residents say, it is not fully in control and faces resistance from competing groups.
IS may be “poaching” from other movements, especially among younger fighters.
Residents said after the video was released, IS members increased security and some leaders went underground.
“There now is a seed group of battle-hardened men who have fought with ISIS,” said Harleen Gambhir at the Institute for the Study of War. “ISIS is exerting control over Derna and it now has operating space to plan larger attacks.”