Prefaced by extensive speeches and interviews that appear to take place in the Islamic State’s strongholds in Syria and Iraq, the footage of the killings, if confirmed, would be the first evidence that the group’s leaders in those countries are coordinating with fighters who have taken up the group’s banner in those parts of Libya, compounding fears of its expansion across the Mediterranean.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, released a video in February that appeared to show masked fighters in its western Libyan branch, the so-called Tripolitanian province of the Islamic State, beheading a group of Egyptian Christians who had been abducted in the city of Surt. The group has now established control of Surt, and its fighters there are sporadically battling militia troops from the nearby city of Misurata.
The video released on Sunday appears to show Islamic State fighters in what it called “Fezzan province,” in the south, and “Barqa province,” in the east, carrying out executions according to the group’s trademark rituals.
Militants in Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, Nigeria and elsewhere have all pledged loyalty to the Islamic State and its self-declared caliphate, but Libya is the first country outside the group’s territory in Syria and Iraq where its core leadership has demonstrated practical communication and collaboration with its far-flung “provinces.”
If more confirmation of its authenticity emerges, the new video will upend both Western and Libyan views of the Islamic State’s presence in the country. Fighters in the three regions of Libya had previously claimed responsibility for various acts of violence carried out in the Islamic State’s name, but most analysts presumed that those claiming responsibility were probably independent locals trying to capitalize on the group’s fearsome reputation.
Now fighters in all three provinces appear connected enough to the core group’s leadership that they were able coordinate mass executions, film them independently and send the footage back to Syria or Iraq for production and release.
During the last five minutes of the half-hour video, the footage cuts back and forth between scenes in the southern desert and a beach along the coast, at one point displaying both with a split screen.
Masked fighters lead a row of bound captives dressed in black into the desert and then shoot each of the prisoners in the back of the head. Another group of masked fighters leads a row of prisoners in orange jumpsuits along a beach and then beheads each of them with a long knife, placing the severed heads on the bodies lying on the sand in bloody surf.
“You will not have safety even in your dreams, until you accept Islam,” declares a masked figure, speaking English with an American accent, pointing a revolver toward the camera. “Our battle is a battle between faith and blasphemy, between truth and falsehood.”
Of all the places the militants have used the group’s name, Libya may also be uniquely vulnerable to penetration because of the collapse of any central authority since the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi four years ago.
Over the last nine months, its feuding militias and city-states have split into two main warring factions — one controlling the capital, Tripoli, and the other including the internationally recognized government that has fled to the eastern cities of Tobruk and Baida. Both factions have so far appeared more concerned with fighting each other than uniting to stop the Islamic State’s expansion.
What’s more, Libyan banks and homes still hold significant wealth. Vast oil deposits wait below ground, and the country’s long Mediterranean coast is a useful departure point to destinations in Europe or around the region.
It was not immediately possible to confirm that the victims executed in the video were in fact Ethiopians who had traveled to southern or eastern Libya, as the Islamic State’s narrators in the video suggested. Some of the Egyptian Christians killed by the Islamic State in western Libya were recognized in the earlier video by their families in Egypt as relatives who had been abducted in Surt, helping confirming the video’s authenticity.
Merna Thomas contributed reporting from Cairo.