The Islamic State terrorist group likely will launch an attack on Italy within weeks, not months, according to a senior Libyan government official.
Aref Ali Nayed, Libya’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, said in an interview that one likely method of attack would be to use stolen Libyan airliners now believed to be in the hands of Islamists in Libya.
“The horrific video showing 21 Coptic Christians beheaded in Libya contained a direct threat from ISIS to Rome,” said Mr. Nayed, using an acronym for the terrorist group. “The threat of ISIS to Italy could become a reality in a matter of weeks rather than months.”
The Islamic State could use two attack methods, the ambassador said. The first would be for Libya-based terrorists to infiltrate Italy by using one of the many boats carrying undocumented Libyans to Italy. Once in Italy, the terrorists could regroup and carry out an attack.
“Second, ISIS could weaponize a civilian airliner or small military aircraft in Libya, loading it with explosives and/or chemical weapons.” Mr. Nayed said. “Rome is one hour from the ISIS-controlled airport in Sirte.”
U.S. intelligence agencies warned in September that Islamist militias in Libya have taken control of nearly a dozen commercial jetliners that remain unaccounted for.
Intelligence reports circulated in late August included warnings that one or more of the aircraft could be used in a regional suicide attack coinciding with the Sept. 11 anniversary. No attacks using hijacked airliners took place last year.
A U.S. official familiar with the reports in September said “there are a number of commercial airliners in Libya that are missing” and that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks showed what could be done with hijacked planes.
Mr. Nayed said the recent attack in Tunisia that was claimed by the Islamic State shows that the group is capable of conducting coordinated and effective attacks with speed and precision from Libya.
“Their attacks are increasing in both frequency and scope, and we must take their threat against Italy and Southern Europe very seriously,” the ambassador said.
Mr. Nayed, a senior adviser to Libya’s prime minister for national security, also said the terrorist group appears to be part of a continuum of ever-more radical Islamists ravaging the oil-rich North African country since the ouster of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
“Libya is in very real danger of becoming an ISIS garrison and an ATM for ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq,” he said in a December speech. “There is a good chance that Libya’s oil wealth was siphoned off by Islamists and provided oxygen for the growth of ISIS during the recent Islamist regime. It certainly has not been used to make our country a better place for Libyans.”
Two key Libyan cities appear to be in the Islamic State’s hands, including the coastal cities of Derna, long an outpost of Islamist terrorists, and Sirte.
Mr. Nayed, considered a top candidate to lead Libya’s next interim government, has been visiting Washington this week to lobby for Western support in the battle against the Islamic State and to warn about the danger of terrorist attacks.
An Islamic scholar who received his early education in Iowa and Toronto, Mr. Nayed has denounced the Islamic State for its perversion of the Muslim religion.
“What we are witnessing is pure fascism using the vocabulary and trappings of Islam but without a scintilla of the profound knowledge and spirit of Islam,” he said in the speech.
“Our faith teaches us not to kill others; these people glorify killing,” Mr. Nayed said. “Our faith teaches us not to hate; these people promote hatred. Our faith teaches us to respect women; these people debase women. Our faith teaches us to help one another; these people oppress others. ISIS is the antithesis of Islam. It is the enemy of Islam in the guise of Islam.”
SAUDI NUCLEAR DETERRENT
Security analysts say disturbing signs are emerging that Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, is moving ahead with plans for creating a nuclear deterrent against Iran in anticipation that the nuclear deal being negotiated in Switzerland will not prevent Tehran from building atomic weapons.
The signs included visits this month to Riyadh by regional leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and several Persian Gulf potentates.
However, the visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif garnered the closest attention from U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
Unlike the arrivals of the other leaders, King Salman personally greeted Mr. Sharif at Riyadh airport March 4 in a sign of the closeness between the two states.
The recent visits by regional heads of state is fueling new concerns about a Sunni-Shiite conflict led by the Saudis against Iranians.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the agency’s concerns about a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia.
Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia remains vehemently opposed to regional power Shiite-led Iran, which is backing Yemen’s Houthi rebels who recently took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.
“Don’t forget that the Saudis put up most of the funds that enabled Pakistan to build the bomb,” said former CIA veteran Duane “Dewy” Clarridge, who maintains close ties to intelligence sources in the region.
“There are individuals in both governments that know that, and as a result, the Saudis have dibs on three to four nuclear bombs,” he said.
China has deployed intermediate-range Chinese DF-3 missiles that were paraded for the first time in May. News reports also disclosed last year that the Saudis have purchased medium-range DF-21 missiles, with a range of some 600 miles.
Mr. Clarridge said “the Saudis don’t need Chinese missiles” to hit key targets in Iran, namely oil and water facilities along the coast.
Fred Fleitz, a former CIA specialist on arms proliferation, said the Obama administration’s push for a nuclear deal with Iran will fuel an arms race in the region.
“Iran has continued to pursue nuclear weapons during the talks and will continue to do so with or with a nuclear agreement,” Mr. Fleitz said. “The weak agreement that the Obama administration is pushing will create a more dangerous situation by legitimizing Iran’s nuclear program and allowing it in as little as 10 years to pursue dual use nuclear technologies with no restrictions.”
The current talks with Iran and the deal being pursued “will be deeply destabilizing and could lead to war in Middle East,” he added.
CHINA MARKETS ATTACK DRONE
A brochure from a Chinese state-run company reveals new details about one of Beijing’s attack drones — called the Cai Hong-3 (CH-3), or Rainbow-3 — being offered for sale to foreign customers.
A catalog obtained by the U.S. government from China Aerospace Long-March International reveals details of the CH-3 and a missile-firing variant called the CH-3A.
The catalog provides a rare inside look at China’s drone arsenal. The CH-3 is one of nine drones being offered for sale around the world, ranging in size from very small to large-scale unmanned aerial vehicles. Several drones appear to be knockoffs of U.S.-designed remotely piloted aircraft, including the Predator strike drone and Global Hawk long-range spy drone.
“Featuring high reconnaissance effectiveness, high anti-jamming capability, diversified payloads, integrated reconnaissance/attack, easy operation and simple maintenance, the UAVs can be used for such military operations as battlefield reconnaissance intelligence collection, anti-terrorism combat, no-fly zone patrol, firing calibration, data relay and electronic warfare,” the catalog states.
The drone has been sold to Pakistan and Nigeria, where an armed CH-3A was photographed after it crashed during a mission to hit Boko Haram terrorists.
The CH-3 appears to be a copy of the Jetcruzer small civil aircraft that was built by U.S. company Advanced Aerodynamics and Structures Inc., which sold 30 Jetcruzer 500s to China in 2000.
The Chinese company also is selling two types of missiles to be fired from what it calls an “advanced medium-range UAV system.” The package includes three aircraft and a vehicle-mounted ground control system. The drone can take off and land via a remote pilot and has a retractable nose landing gear.
“The advantages of this UAV system are high reliability, high efficiency and low cost,” the catalog states. “It can be used for various flight missions such as battle zone reconnaissance, artillery fire adjustment, data-link relay, intelligence collection and electronic warfare, etc.
“CH-3A UAV can be equipped with precision guided weapons to complete reconnaissance and strike missions.”
The unarmed version has a range of 1,500 miles and can fly for 12 hours. The missile-equipped variant can fly 621 miles, has a flight time of six hours and can carry up to 400 pounds of bombs.
Among the payloads for use on the CH-3 are a four-lens electro-optical reconnaissance camera, a synthetic aperture radar capable of seeing through clouds and some structures and an airborne electronic warfare system.
The missiles that can be fired from the CH-3A include the company’s AR-1 air-to-ground armor-piercing missile that is laser-guided for precision attacks against tanks, vehicles and fixed structures. It has a range of 3 to 5 miles, with an extended range version up to 10 miles.
Additionally, the drone can carry the FT-1 precision-guided bomb.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.