Foto: M.T. Elgassier

The Egyptian strategy in Libya: between diplomacy and military intervention

by Alessia Melcangi, Atlantic Council – University “La Sapienza”

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The latest developments in the Libyan crisis seem to have given new impetus to the Egyptian diplomatic initiative; Cairo’s intention to temporarily abandon the military option in support of dialogue between rival groups comes as a result of the ceasefire announced by the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Tripoli at the end of August 2020. If the diplomatic option would be ineffective or would not guarantee Egypt’s strategic interests in that country, Cairo could go back to the military option, which was never com-pletely set aside

Latest developments in the Libyan crisis and Cairo’s intentions

The latest developments in the Libyan crisis seem to have given new impetus to the Egyptian diplomatic initiative: in fact, on September 23, President al-Sisi hosted a meeting in Cairo between the Libyan National Army’s leader, General Khalifa Haftar, and the spokesman of the Tobruk parliament, Aguila Saleh. The purpose of this talk was to solicit the warring parties to restart the political process under UN supervision with the aim of restoring security and stability in the country (Ahram, 2020).

Cairo’s intention to temporarily abandon the military option in support of dialogue between rival groups comes as a result of the ceasefire announced by the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Tripoli at the end of August 2020. Egypt is not new to this type of strategy which, since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, has followed two main directions: on the one hand, Cairo uses political mediation as a tool to achieve a diplomatic solution to the conflict; on the other hand, logistically and militarily it supports  Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli, together with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Recently Egypt went as far as threatening to start a conflict for the defense of its own national security and its interests in Libya (Melcangi, 2020).

As a consequence of Ankara’s intervention in support of the GNA ‒, following the December 2019 agreements signed between Turkey and Libya on maritime border demarcation and military cooperation (Butler, Gumrukcu, 2020)   ‒, Egypt decided to abandon the diplomatic option and recalibrate its moves in Libya. Turkey represents not only a geopolitical rival, whose strategic projection, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, represents a threat for al-Sisi, but also one of the fiercest supporters of political Islam that Cairo, together with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia always try to obstruct.

The LNA forces’ retreat from the Western front in April 2020, pushed Cairo to resume the diplomatic path, asking for a ceasefire: the motivation behind this move was to avoid the general’s collapse and the loss of Cyrenaica into the hands of Ankara. On June 6, 2020, al-Sisi, supported by Haftar and Aguila Saleh, announced the so-called “Cairo Declaration” (Mezran, Melcangi, 2020), an intra-Libyan resolution for the relaunch of the pacification process. However, the declaration provoked the strong opposition of Ankara and the government of Tripoli. The diplomatic option had therefore turned into a warning of war launched by al-Sisi against the GNA and its supporters, positioned near the so-called red line of Sirte-Al-Jufra, at the gates of the rich and disputed “oil crescent”.

Historically, Libya  has been a country of great importance for  Egypt from  different perspectives: from a domestic security perspective, to avoid the spillover of violence into its territory and penetration of jihadist groups, especially from the porous frontier bordering Cyrenaica; from an economic viewpoint , to deal with the consequences of the drastic decrease in remittances from Egyptian migrants working in Libya, which represent a serious threat to Egypt’s stability and internal security. But also, to reaffirm its image as a geostrategic regional pivot ready to defend its interests in a disputed area as strategic as the Eastern Mediterranean.

Following the latest events, Cairo has decided to abandon its assertive posture and return to a diplomatic strategy: on September 29, 2020 an important talk between the military delegations representing the GNA and the Libyan National Army was held in Hurghada. The principal topic discussed in this meeting was the possible restart of negotiations within the 5+5 Joint Military Committee (JMC). Strongly supported by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), this meeting allowed Egypt to gain international recognition for its commitment to restarting peace dialogue between the various Libyan factions (UNSMIL, 2020).

Analysis, assessment, forecast

Al-Sisi, during his speech at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, affirmed his support for restarting the political peace process under the aegis of the UN; but, at the same time, President al-Sisi stressed once again that violation of the red-line that goes from Sirte to Jufra, would trigger a strong military reaction by Egypt. So, Egypt seems to want to avoid an expensive military intervention with unpredictable results, but not at any cost. If the diplomatic option would be ineffective or would not guarantee Egypt’s strategic interests in that country, Cairo could go back to the military option, which was never completely set aside. Considering the extreme fluidity of the Libya context, the choice between weapons and diplomacy is far from being obvious (Melcangi, 2020).

Photo: M.T. Elgassier

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#ReaCt2021 – Terrorism in Vienna: the Balkan clue

by Enrico Casini, Europa Atlantica

The November 2020 Vienna attack claimed by the Islamic State terrorist group, has recalled attention to the terrorist organization and its presence in Europe, especially in the Balkan area. The terrorist killed, was an Austro-Macedonian 20-year-old, who had already been sentenced to 22 months in prison in April 2019 for his attempt to reach Syria and join the ISIS militias. Fejzulai Kujtim, defined by the agencies as a “soldier of the caliphate”, is identified by the Islamic State’s propaganda organs as “Abu Dujana al-Albani”.

In the days after his death, other evidence emerged about him and about his radicalization process, as his alleged links with a network of Balkan origin jihadists, the “Lions of the Balkans”. In fact, not only had he already tried to join the jihadist militias in Syria in the past, but he is supposed to have had links with Kosovo and with this alleged network of jihadists in Europe.

This event reintroduced the theme of the jihadist presence in the Balkan area, a topic known to European intelligence agencies and experts in the field for a long time. The countries of Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, have long been affected by the phenomenon and by the presence of jihadist subjects. So much so that, due to their geographical position at the heart of Europe, it was feared that they could become a sort of potential logistical hub for jihadism towards the Old Continent. Moreover, the presence of jihad veterans in the Balkan Area goes back to the Balkan wars of the nineties and it was confirmed both by the flows and numbers of foreign fighters who left these countries, and by the surveys that revealed the presence of networks linked to jihadists of Balkan origin in Europe.

According to the Combating Terrorism Center of West Point, “Western Balkans Foreign Fighters and Homegrown Jihadis: Trends and Implication”, by Adrian Shtuni, the foreign fighters who left the region between 2013 and 2016 would have been about 1070, including a high number of women and children: it would seem that about 460 returned. The presence of Balkan jihadists in the ranks of the Islamic State was known, even among the units of mono-ethnic fighters. It is no coincidence that the Islamic State had in the past invested in ad hoc campaigns of recruitment of Balkan jihadists. Remember the famous video “Honor is in Jihad” trying to blow on the fire of resentment and historical fractures present in this region, repeatedly upset by religious conflicts, and where there is always a situation ready to trigger violent reactions with different forms of extremism. Different items could increase other new tensions: the spread of jihadist ideology in the area related with other forms of violent extremism, combined with the current health crisis, remain of great concern. Regardless of the case in Vienna and the investigations that have also involved our country in the past, undoubtedly the threat of the presence of jihadists and the spread of forms of violent Islamist radicalism in some areas of the Balkan region, is an issue to be reckoned with and which concerns not only the Balkan countries.

As history taught us on several occasions, the Balkans remain a strategic crossroads in the heart of Europe, but also a land where there are different cultures, peoples, religions. A land crossed by rivalries on which often, in history, the aims and ambitions of medium and great powers are also included. Rival powers that even to these days, in this region, are going to try to extend their influence, sometimes also taking advantage of its divisions and its fragility. In this context, the jihadist threat in the Balkans is still alive and present and it could be smoldering, like embers under the ashes, waiting to show itself and strike, putting the security of the area and the rest of Europe at risk.



QAnon: the new global threat?

by Andrea Molle

Scholars and analysts typically look at conspiracy theories focusing on their conduciveness to fake news and the adverse effects on the electoral process. However, the attention should now increasingly be switched to assessing their security implications, especially in the case of QAnon.

QAnon has been able to exploit mechanisms of “gamification” and “customization,” typical of some ARG (Alternate Reality Games) and open-world videogames to spread. Mainly exploiting existing social networks, the movement has had repercussions in real life and inspired violent actions, which have dramatically increased its appeal, just as in LARP (live-action role-playing game) groups.

Violence associated with QAnon should be analyzed and challenged in the same manner as religious terrorism and deviant cults to which the group shares the following traits:

  • First, QAnon is structured as theology, which has gradually become a paradigm through which adherents perceive and interpret reality in a distorted fashion. In social psychology, this effect is known as apophenia, or the recognition of patterns and logical connections in random and nonsensical data.
  • Secondly, QAnon has a prophetic, eschatological worldview. It can be summarized in the idea that the world is experiencing the final stages of a cosmic war between Good and Evil. Any failure of such a prophetic framework, like Trump’s political demise, will not result in the end of the movement. Indeed, there are safeguard mechanisms that are activated to contain the damage and ensure that group members engage in acts of rationalization, often ritualistic and in some cases involving violence, to assure the survival of the movement.
  • Thirdly, QAnon is an all-inclusive experience, whereas affiliates are embedded in a social bubble, made up of people with substantially homogeneous opinions. This process facilitates a dynamic that in sociology is defined as “social encapsulation,” the isolation of the subject from external influences that could compromise his socialization and loyalty to the group. Followers of QAnon also display an alarming and growing level of hyper-aggression in interpersonal interactions.
  • Finally, social characteristics such as lower culture, a tendency to irrational thinking, right-wing extremist political views, religious extremism, young age, or economic instability make people on average more attracted to QAnon. However, none of these traits allow us to define an ideal recruiting profile. In fact, like a cult, QAnon is not a phenomenon that exclusively impacts specific demographics. Additionally, individuals can be involved in the movement harmless ways, such as simple disseminators of information or “researchers” or, in the most severe cases, as zealot “militiamen” who end up getting involved in criminal and violent acts.

The political use of QAnon is extremely worrisome. In the USA, where QAnon now operates in a network of several white supremacist groups, the so-called “conspiracy caucus” is a fundamental political actor of what we can call the Trumpverse. In Europe, QAnon has not yet reached momentum and the complexities shown in the United States. As of today, the European QAnon community essentially deals with three issues:

  • the American presidential elections;
  • the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • the fight against the European Union.

In all instances, followers consider them intertwined elements of the same international plot hatched by the Deep State’s satanic-pedophile cabal.

It is evident in the analysis of the social media presence of QAnon that followers show growing interest toward political extremists, particularly in the sovranist right. For the time being, no European political party seems to be infiltrated by QAnon, as has instead happened in the USA. However, isolated political actors such as Orban, the Hungarian premier, seem to favor conspiracy theories in their political action and propaganda. The high marginal utility of conspiracy theories is moving sovranist political positions closer to those of QAnon. The immediate advantage is to attract the voting favors of its followers, but in doing so, paving the way for its members to obtain positions of power within the continental party system, not unlike what happened in the American Republican Party’s case.

In summary, QAnon represents a growing danger to Europe. The followers of Q are not just dangerous because of their subversive project. However, above all, they are a threat for the ease with which they multiply, radicalize, and for the all-inclusive and potentially violent ways they pursue their goals, demonstrating a high level of cohesion and drive in the pursuit of their objectives. They are comparable to a religious terrorist movement, and it is necessary to treat QAnon as such.

The terrorist movement of QAnon: its evolution from the Pizzagate to the assault on Capitol Hill

by Andrea Molle

January 6, 2021, will always be remembered as the day the US Congress was assaulted by a handful of Trump supporters incapable of admitting he lost the presidential election. It was supposed to be a dull session of Congress that should have just certified Joe Biden’s victory. Instead, Capitol Hill was invaded by dozens of protesters whose intention was to find and destroy the electoral college votes in a vain attempt to prevent the inevitable fall of Donald Trump. Despite his constitutional duties, the outgoing President failed to condemn them and the violence that would later cause four victims among the protesters. Instead, he asked them to leave and return home, expressed loved and admiration, and, most importantly, took once again the opportunity to repeat his unfounded claims of voting fraud. In what many analysts already see as the most dangerous constitutional crisis since the Civil War, among the protesters stood the followers of QAnon led by Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman,” a legendary figure of the movement well-known to the authorities and all scholars of conspiracy theories.

What is QAnon, and why does it represent a danger to democracy?

The QAnon brand gathers the followers of the “conspiratorial revelations” of an anonymous internet user: a collective pseudonym named Q. QAnon is an American movement that, thanks to the COVID pandemic -19, has spread in over 70 countries and presents an extremely high risk of radicalization. The origin of QAnon is relatively recent, although conspiracy theories are typical of American society, at least since the Cold War. The need to carefully monitor this movement stems from the fact that its content and recent activities, including the Washington DC events, suggest that QAnon poses an extreme radicalization and public order issue.

When and how was QAnon born?

The origin of QAnon is relatively recent, although the layer of conspiracy theories from which it develops has been a constant in American politics since the Cold War. Officially, QAnon was born between 2016 and 2017 following the American presidential elections, which saw the Republican candidate Donald J. Trump, already identified as a messianic figure by the various conspiracy groups, prevail over the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. With Trump’s election, the groups that had supported his electoral campaign have formed his electoral base, which is independent and often in opposition to the traditional base of the Republican Party, and which Trump has continuously referred to for its political battles. Often censored by the mainstream media, these movements ended up gathering under the label of QAnon. Thus, creating the critical mass necessary to structure a whole network equipped with a parallel social media system, such as the well-known platforms 4chan, 8chan, gab .com, Parlor, and Telegram, to spread their theories and recruit new members. Thus, the QAnon brand has become a sort of franchise that gathers all those individuals and groups who refer to Q’s revelations. However, the movement does not have a fully hierarchical organization.

Who is Q, and what do QAnon followers believe?

In the beginning, Q introduced himself as a government official, willingly revealing the truth about the alleged “deep state.” His clues, whose interpretation is left to readers, depict the existence of a cabal made up of politicians, entrepreneurs, and actors dedicated to kidnappings, human sacrifices, and satanic cults, to achieve immortality and enslave the masses after the great reset caused by the pandemic. Given that the deep state was fought only by Trump, aided by few allied sovereign leaders, his defeat is now viewed by Q’s followers as proof of the conspiracy’s very existence. For this reason, the followers of QAnon are now active supporters of the theory of electoral fraud and, as we have seen, do not hesitate to engage in violent retaliation.

How is QAnon content built?

In addition to the aforementioned core belief of QAnon, each user or “truth search group” can add or modify content and adapt the message to their needs, as shown in the following model.

Based on the empirical evidence collected in the last two years, the scientific community that studies conspiracy theories and participatory culture see QAnon in continuity with the New Age phenomenon. QAnon is considered by scholars to be a novelty in the conspiratorial world and is frequently described as a real do-it-yourself, conspiratorial, open-world. The same analysts consider the risk of mass radicalization to be very high, especially among the population’s young and less educated strata. The interactive and very satisfying nature of its conspiratorial contents and the constant references to fictional-political literature make the QAnon experience extremely compelling.

How does QAnon spread, and how does it work?

Although it was born as a marginal phenomenon, QAnon quickly took hold of social media thanks to its contents flexibility. For example, on YouTube, conservative content creators such as TRU Reporting or SGT Report channel started producing dozens of videos inspired by Q’s clues, instantly garnering hundreds of thousands of views. A few months after Q’s debut, the movement already counted on a vast network of YouTube channels, podcasts, and books devoted to fighting the “deep state.” In addition to that, the inevitable themed gadgets such as flags t-shirts ended up becoming fashionable even among those not affiliated. QAnon slogans and symbols, such as the hashtag # WWG1WGA (“Where We Go One We Go All”), also begun to populate the ecosystem of social media and conservative movements. They also appeared in daily life and demonstrations supporting President Trump, who generally opposed the liberal political world. Simultaneously, the QAnon phenomenon began to manifest its most extreme and radical side, taking advantage of some of its followers’ self-radicalization. As early as 2017, with the famous Pizza Gate, which saw a gunman raid the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, DC, claiming to be on a mission to free the children held hostage in the basement, several QAnon affiliates have been implicated in facts of crime. It is estimated that in May 2020, as many as eleven murders, two armed assaults, two kidnapping cases, and two arson attacks against a family planning center, which offers pregnancy interruptions, and a mosque are attributable to members of QAnon. The growing number of cases has resulted in the designation of QAnon as an extremist organization and a potential internal terrorist threat by the FBI. It is the first conspiracy theory to be classified as such. However, the lack of a defined and structured organization with identifiable leaders made it very difficult for the American authorities to prosecute QAnon affiliates.

In many cases, these individuals adhere to its message and exploit the ideology but operate independently. For example, in this case of the Nashville attack, the attacker was motivated by an opposition to 5G technology and the SARS-COV-2 vaccine, which he considered government tools for controlling the masses. In others, the movement is presented in a more structured way, as showed by the assault at Capitol Hill.

How widespread is QAnon?

Speaking of its diffusion, QAnon is present in more than 70 countries with activities ranging from the individuals directly affiliated to occasional reposters of content. The spread of QAnon was undoubtedly helped by the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the constant decrease in institutions’ trust. Whereas goggletrend suggests fluctuating interest, the number of Tweets related to QAnon has increased from 5 million in 2017 to over 12 million in 2020. As for the number of followers, QAnon has now exceeded 1.5 million in the US while estimating around 500,000 affiliates in Europe.

Donald Trump is a critical figure in the conspiracy narrative, and QAnon remains mostly focused on American politics. However, we recently see a boom in Europe where the movement has followers on various social media. NewsGuard, an international organization that assesses news sites’ reliability, recently released an extremely detailed report on QAnon in Europe. In France, a country where the movement has been present for some time, albeit still to a limited extent, QAnon debuted thanks to the “Yellow Vests” movement and is ever since growing thanks to the No-Vax movement. In the UK, QAnon garnered support during the Brexit campaign. Without referring directly to the movement, groups such as Citizens Unite UK #wakeup use QAnon’s ideas, for example, the existence of a global elite, to push British citizens to fight the alleged government’s attacks on their rights. In Germany, the second-largest nation after the United States for QAnon’s presence, the movement entered the political debate through far-right movements and the generalized anti-Merkel sentiment that grew exponentially during the lockdown. Also, several leftist movements, particularly those linked to the climate change narrative, are increasingly attracted to his rhetoric. The number of german accounts associated with QAnon has risen to more than 200,000 according to the most recent estimate by the Amadeu-Antonio Foundation, which monitors right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism in Germany. The largest German-language QAnon channel on Telegram, Qlobal Change, quadrupled its followers in 2020 to an impressive 123,000 scoring over 18 million views for its YouTube content. In the Netherlands, social media accounts openly allied with far-right political movements have similarly borrowed themes typical to QAnon. It mostly happened when the country entered in lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Italy, the real size of QAnon is still mostly unknown. However, Q’s propaganda has entered the political debate thanks to the populist and sovranist right that accesses it through various identity movements that openly support it.

Who joins QAnon, and how to counter it?

As we have seen, QAnon raises severe concerns among analysts because of the speed, ease, and pervasiveness with which it spreads. Furthermore, it has already shown the potential for terrorist violence in America. It is therefore advisable to start monitoring QAnon’s presence on social media in Italy and establish a network of collaborations with public and private institutions that already deal with this phenomenon in Europe and the United States. It is also worrisome that mainstream sovranist movements increasingly amplify the conspiratorial message to mobilize votes without mentioning QAnon. Therefore, it is necessary to analyze the rhetoric and conspiracy themes to reach a level of understanding that makes it possible to detect them in contexts not directly related to QAnon.

We also need to understand the recruitment pathways and radicalization mechanisms. While it seems increasingly likely that the radicalization mechanisms are very similar to those of religious extremist movements, i.e., widespread self-radicalization and the presence of radicalism entrepreneurs, the target is still not entirely clear. The recruitment profile is still unclear where all the population strata are susceptible to a fascination for QAnon. The only exception is political affiliation, which may partly explain the impact of Q’s theories. A recent survey by Morning Consult, conducted between 6 and 8 October 2020 on a sample of 1,000 adults, reveals that around 24% of adult Americans believe the claims made by Q’s supporters are very or partly accurate. However, the same poll shows profound differences between Democrats and Republicans. While only 18% of Democratic voters believe some of the claims are somehow accurate, about 38% of Republican supporters consider them valid. Another survey by Daily Kos / Civiqs, which reports the interviews conducted on approximately 1,368 adults conducted from August 29 to September 1, 2020, confirms the previous findings. The results show that about one in three Republicans (33%) believe QAnon’s theory of a conspiracy about the “deep state” is “mostly true,” while another 23% say that only “some parts” of it are correct.

On the other hand, only 4% of Democrats think that the theory is even partially true, while for 72% of Democrats, it is not true at all. The explanation for the differences is likely because Republican politicians have only sporadically disavowed the claims made by QAnon supporters, potentially because they rely on them for political support. In addition to blind support for Trump, one of the most striking examples is the recent election to Congress of Marjorie Taylor Green, who directly promoted and approved QAnon’s content in interviews and on its social media channels. In Europe, several right-wing sovranist parties have adopted QAnon’s rhetoric ever since the election of Donald Trump and the establishment in Rome of Bannon’s Study Center. Several scholars consider the former advisor to President Donald Trump to be the main responsible for the normalization of conspiracy theories. However, it is still challenging to determine the direction of the correlation effect, namely whether QAnon more easily influences those who manifest right-wing political tendencies or whether the movement’s followers, regardless of their initial political positions, become more inclined to move their vote towards right-wing parties over time.

In the future, the movement will likely require the same approach used today for extreme religious movements. Unfortunately, the lack of a defined organizational structure and the potential for mass radicalization still makes it extremely difficult to offer guidelines and specific policy recommendations.