Why Libya is ringing alarm bells in Italy

As Rome rings alarm bells over the deteriorating situation in Libya, The Local investigates the ramifications of a conflict across the Mediterranean.

Why Libya is ringing alarm bells in Italy
Soldiers in Benghazi, eastern Libya, in February 2015. Photo: Abdullah Doma/AFP

Italy has in recent weeks become increasingly vocal about the conflict raging in Libya, pleading with its European and international partners to make the country a priority on the world stage.

While other nations have nodded in agreement that the situation in Libya is critical – the country now has two governments vying for power and Islamic militants gaining ground – the rallying cry has been left to Italy, the country which has most at stake.

As put by Raffaele Marchetti, professor of international relations at Rome’s Luiss University, “Italy has already lost a lot, and if things get worse it could lose a lot more.”

“The two countries are quite interdependent in economic terms and this situation has already caused damage. Italy has always played a special role there…it’s the western country that is most present in operating there,” Marchetti tells The Local.

The inextricable ties between the two countries endure more than 70 years after Italy’s colonial rule came to an end, cemented through trade and the exploitation of Libya’s energy assets.

But these have taken a hit in the years since Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted and killed in 2011. In November two Italian workers were freed months after being kidnapped in Libya, while last month Italy closed its embassy in the country and shipped its staff home.

Photo by Mahmud Turkia/AFP

Most attention on Italy’s business interests in Libya has focused on energy company Eni, which continues to extract oil and gas in the country despite security risks. Islamic militants have this week attacked and reportedly taken control of some oil fields in central Libya.

The security of oil and gas infrastructure is one of Italy’s top priorities in Libya, Marchetti says, both within the country and offshore platforms.

The Italian Navy this week began an exercise in the Ionian Sea, off Italy’s southern coast, seen by some commentators as a show of strength in the Mediterranean.

“If these resources are attacked or sabotaged, this would be a problem. Having the navy there helps stop these attacks,” says Marchetti.

Energy companies operating in Libyan waters have also become involved in the migrant crisis, which has been fuelled by the increasing danger faced by those who stay in the country.

A tug boat for oil platforms this week raised the alarm over a capsized boat, an accident in which at least ten migrants died and 121 were rescued by the Italian authorities. January and February saw a 43 percent jump in the number of migrants fleeing from Libya to Italy, compared to the same period last year.

READ MORE: Ten dead after migrant boat capsizes off Sicily

Photo by Gabriel Buoys/AFP

The influx of arrivals has put further financial strain on Italy, fuelling anti-immigrant sentiment and boosting support for far-right political parties.

Fears that Islamic militants could travel to Italy by sea posing as migrants – a theory for which the Italian government has found no evidence – have been heightened by Isis making direct threats against Rome.

Roberto Aliboni, a scientific advisor at the Institute of International Affairs (IAI) in Rome, however plays down the threat from Isis.

“There won’t be Isis troops at Saint Peter’s,” he tells The Local, despite the jihadists specifically calling for attacks against the seat of the Catholic Church.

More likely is someone already in Italy taking up Isis’ call to violence, similarly to Paris earlier this year when 17 people were killed by homegrown French extremists. “This is a risk that should be confronted by the security services,” Aliboni says.

Marchetti agrees that while Italian intelligence services have identified concrete threats against Italy, talk of terrorists marching on Rome serves a different purpose for Isis.

“Many of these threats are formulated in order to gain internal support, rather than representing an effective threat to the target. They help mobilize people within their ranks,” he says.

Photo by AFP

While the Italian government has so far pushed for a political rather than military response to the Libyan conflict, Aliboni says that Isis becoming more powerful could pave the way for intervention.

A shift from a diplomatic to a military solution would, however, face opposition at the UN, where Aliboni predicts Russia would use its veto power to block the use of force. “I think that they [Italy] should offer Russia the opportunity to contribute to peacekeeping,” he says.

Russian opposition to military force stems not only from its criticism of air raids on the country in 2011, but also due to more recent developments.

Marchetti believes Russia’s relations with the EU and the US are currently too tense to consider an agreement on Libya being reached. “Russia would not be ready to endorse any action led by the west. The situation has deteriorated so much it’s difficult to envisage common action,” he says.

France, Germany, Spain, the UK and the US have thrown their support behind Italy in calling for urgent political action on Libya.

But Marchetti foresees Italy staying centre stage, as groups including Isis seek to gain power in Libya: “The moment Isis took ground in Libya, a confrontation with Italy was inevitable. Because Italy is the most important international actor in Libya – if you want to take control of Libya you need to face Italy.” 


Ship’s captain threatens to bring stranded migrants to Italy to end limbo

The captain of the Sea Watch 3 charity rescue vessel threatened on Tuesday to enter Italian waters illegally to bring 42 migrants to shore after 13 days in limbo at sea.

Ship's captain threatens to bring stranded migrants to Italy to end limbo
The Sea Watch 3 has been waiting off Italy for more than ten days. File photo: Federico Scoppa/AFP

“I will enter Italian waters and bring them to safety on Lampedusa,” Carola Rackete said in an interview with La Repubblica daily, in reference to the island off Italy's southern tip.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has banned the Dutch-flagged vessel from approaching under a “closed ports” policy, which has seen migrants repeatedly left in limbo at sea.

READ ALSO: More than 40 people left in limbo on rescue boat off Italy

Rescued people aboard the Sea Watch 3 in January 2019. Photo: Federico Scoppa/AFP

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg on Tuesday declined to intervene but called on Italy to “continue to provide all necessary assistance” to vulnerable migrants.

The German NGO Sea-Watch had asked the ECHR to impose “interim measures” on Italy, saying the court could ask Rome to take urgent steps to resolve the standoff in order to “prevent serious and irremediable violations of human rights”. 

Salvini said Tuesday the charity vessel could “stay there until Christmas and New Year” but would never be allowed in.

Of the 53 migrants initially rescued by the Sea Watch 3 off Libya on June 12th, Italy took in 11 vulnerable people.


On Lampedusa, where Salvini's anti-immigration League won 45 percent in May's European elections, a priest has camped out in the street to demand those onboard — including three minors — be allowed to disembark.

Dozens of German cities have said they are ready to welcome them, and the Bishop of Turin, Cesare Noviglia, said Monday his diocese would be willing to take them in.

“We can't hold on any longer. It's like we're in a prison because we are deprived of everything. Help us, think of us,” one migrant from the Ivory Coast said in a video broadcast by Sea Watch.

In January, 32 migrants rescued by the vessel were stranded on board for 18 days before they were allowed to disembark in Malta thanks to a distribution deal made between several European countries.