IS Harvests Rommel’s North Africa Legacy in Pursuit of Mayhem

The North Africa Campaign of WWII comprised some of the fiercest fighting ever seen across desert terrain, with momentum swinging violently between the Axis and Allied powers, before the latter’s eventual victory in 1943. The eventual success of the Campaign set up the invasion of Sicily and the subsequent Allied advance through the Italian mainland.

British tanks rumble across the desert during the North Africa Campaign
Allied tanks rumble across the desert during the North Africa Campaign

Almost 100,000 troops lost their lives on both sides, with more than 5,000 tanks and 9,000 aircraft destroyed along with countless thousands of tons of other war materiel. The rusting carcasses of some of these machines are a stark reminder of the intensity of the Saharan battles but even more significant is the legacy of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) left by the conflict.

Mile upon mile of dense minefields were laid by both sides during the fighting, with thousands of artillery shells, mortars, bombs and other munitions failing to detonate and remaining primed and deadly in the ground 75 years on.

This legacy has been a constant menace to the Bedouin tribes that continue to inhabit the region, with only sporadic Explosive Ordnance Clearance (EOC) tasks undertaken by the Egyptian government and international bodies since WWII. What remains a constant menace to the indigenous population has only recently been brought to global attention by the actions of the barbarous Islamic State (IS).

IS has made steady ground in Egypt, with the lawless deserts of the Sinai Peninsula and the Sahara now sheltering hundreds of jihadists intent on waging their terrorist war across international borders. It is has been noted that amongst IS’s wide-ranging and ad hoc armoury are devices with explosives harvested from UXO relating to the North Africa Campaign.

IS fighters in Sinai province
IS fighters in Sinai province

With more than 17 million land mines thought to remain buried across the Sahara, it is little wonder that IS has taken the opportunity to increase its chain of supply. Removing the munitions and reusing them in their crude Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) appears to be a further sign of the group’s adaptation in the face of an international onslaught.

Such a tactic may not be novel, however, with the 2004 truck bombing of the Taba Hilton now believed to have been caused by a bomb using explosives pilfered from WWII UXO.

Whilst the exact origin – i.e. Allied or Axis munitions – of the IS explosives is unclear, most media reports are attributing it to the Nazis and to one general in particular: Erwin Rommel.

Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox’, established a reputation for tactical mastery during the early phases of the North Africa Campaign, with his Panzer Divisions routing the chaotically-managed British Army during the initial exchanges in the desert.

Erwin Rommel: the Desert Fox
Erwin Rommel: the Desert Fox

Renowned and revered both in Germany and across the Allied world, Rommel would eventually be forced to commit suicide by Hitler after his alleged involvement in an assassination attempt against the Fuhrer in 1944. By then his Axis forces had been pushed out of North Africa with an invigorated Allied army led by Bernard Montgomery seizing the upper hand after the decisive Second Battle of El-Alamein in the Autumn of 1942.

Australian troops during the Second Battle of El-Alamein
Australian troops during the Second Battle of El-Alamein

UXO has contaminated huge tracts of land across the world since the 19th century, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians unable to escape the horrors of the past. It is no irony that IS – already one of history’s most hideous formations – should choose to harness this tragic legacy to inflict even more misery on those powerless to defend themselves.

Whilst it might give the Egyptian authorities and their allies a vigorous prod towards addressing this unwanted legacy – and Cairo should by no means be solely responsible for a job whose necessity has primarily been caused by the European powers – it is equally likely to encourage other terrorists to attempt similarly risky feats, harnessing the explosive remnants of war in their quest for ever greater devastation.

The days of ‘gentlemanly warfare’ – if such a thing ever existed – have long since past.

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Libya Wobbles and So Does Italy: what next for this troubled relationship?

Libya is fast becoming the next global security issue. With the Islamic State (IS) announcing its presence in the North African country by executing 21 Coptic Christians, Egypt responding with unilateral air raids, and rival militias battling for political control, Libya is as unstable as it gets.

Those who applauded the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi’s dictatorship will surely have now abandoned their initial euphoria. With vast oil reserves, huge stockpiles of weapons and intense factional discord, the international community must return its attention to the failed state. Italy has already done so.

The battle for Libya is fierce, with rival factions competing for control Source: BBC
The battle for Libya is fierce, with rival factions competing for control
Source: BBC

With only a short stretch of the Mediterranean separating the boot of Italy from Libya, the Rome government is concerned that IS may launch terrorist attacks against its economic interests and, potentially, its territory. Furthermore, the extreme unrest has precipitated increasing numbers of helpless civilians to attempt the illegal migration across Mediterranean waters, exacerbating an already costly dilemma for the Italians.

This is just the latest stage in a troubled recent history between Italy and Libya. A 2008 agreement between Gaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – hardly two pillars of just rule – looked to have buried historical enmity. Berlusconi promised $5bn in colonial reparations to Libya if Gaddafi made a concerted effort to halt the illegal migrant networks between his country and Europe.

Italy’s recent engagement with Libya began in 1911-12 during the Italo-Ottoman War. The Italians invaded the Turkish colony of Tripolitania Vilayet, driving the weakened Ottomans out of North Africa and establishing Italian Libya. Concessions by Britain and France of some of their African possessions – all part of imperialistic charity apparently – saw the colony grow in size.

Italian troops outside Tripoli in the 1911-12 war. It was the beginning of concerted efforts to establish an Italian Empire - something that would preoccupy Mussolini
Italian troops outside Tripoli in the 1911-12 war. It was the beginning of concerted efforts to establish an Italian Empire – something that would preoccupy Mussolini

Ironically, it was the British who helped kick the Italians out of Libya during WWII, after which they administered the territory until its independence. Italy had justified its invasion of Ottoman Libya, in part, through archaeology. It was imperative, its politicians had argued, to preserve the Roman ruins going to waste across the Mediterranean. Their subsequent rule was characterised by harsh treatment of the native population during a period which coincided with the rise of Mussolini and fascism.

The Italians established concentrations camps in Libya to quell unrest
The Italians established concentrations camps in Libya to quell unrest

Gaddafi and Berlusconi’s cozy agreement was soon upended by the former’s overthrow and the subsequent sanctions and embargoes placed on the fragile state. Yet Italy’s Libyan adventure may not yet be over. Over 70 years since the blackshirts were evicted, and almost 1,500 since the Romans departed, the Italians may be sucked back in.

Already the Italian government has offered to mediate a ceasefire. What more could follow? The Mediterranean has proven time and again to be an inadequate geographical barrier. It may foster a rare case of Italian diplomatic leadership, one sorely needed in the absence of a united global response to this latest crisis.