Day after day throughout this long, hot summer, the same extraordinary tableau has played out in the Mediterranean. Rickety boats, many barely seaworthy, and invariably groaning with migrants including women and children, have made their uncertain way towards the coast of Italy.
Often they are intercepted by military vessels from one European nation or another — including Britain — and the passengers pulled to safety. All the boats have come from Libya, but the migrants are not taken back there and deposited on the shore. That would be far too sensible. Instead, they are ferried to Italy, where most seek to make their way up into central Europe, with an eye on Germany or the UK.
The BBC sometimes hails these rescues as ‘miracle’ escapes. But that is not the full story. As I discovered for myself in war-torn Libya, the truth is much more complex and disturbing. For these boat people are part of a billion-pound business operated by Islamic extremists.
David Cameron’s government used the might of the RAF to help depose Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. Pictured, Gaddafi (left) and Mr Cameron delivers a speech in Benghazi in 2011 (right)
It is just one of the most visible signs of the chaos which has engulfed Libya since David Cameron’s government used the might of the RAF to help depose Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. This week, the Commons foreign affairs select committee laid the blame for Libya’s collapse into violent disorder and anarchy — and the resulting rise of Islamic State there — firmly on Mr Cameron.
The committee report said that the intervention — carried out alongside the French air force — was undertaken with no exhaustive intelligence analysis, led without formal planning to regime change and failed in its moral responsibility to help reconstruct the country after the fall of Gaddafi.
It is the result of that ill-planned intervention that today, all along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, more than one million people are waiting in the searing heat to begin the final leg of their journey to Europe.
Originating from countries such as Chad, Mali, Sudan, Ghana, Somalia and Pakistan, as well as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, they have travelled to within striking distance of Europe using ‘al tubbu’ — Arabic for ‘the Tube’.
This is the nickname for the network of smuggling routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the shores of the Med, which were once used to carry gold, spices and ivory by camel train from the heart of the continent to Europe.
Now, the Tube — which sees Islamic gangs pass their cargo on to other traders at established stopping points in the Sahara — is being used to transport a far richer bounty: people.
As I discovered, the scale of this booming business is nothing short of incredible. At ports and cities from east to west, the streets are lined with migrants. Many gather by roadsides, hoping to be hired as labour to help pay for the final stage of their journey. Thousands more are held at ‘detention centres’, which are in reality little more than holding pens used by armed gangs before the human cargo is shipped on to Europe.
More are held at illegal camps run by rebels who murdered President Muammar Gaddafi five years ago, after he had warned that the country would be taken over by Islamic extremists and criminal gangs.
His words have been proven horribly prescient. Indeed, I found irrefutable evidence that Islamic State is now using the country as a base to smuggle terror cells into Europe among the migrants, a fact that has been ignored despite warnings by British and European intelligence agencies.
The sheer scale of this crisis has gone unreported — television crews and journalists have hitherto only reported from rescue boats after invitations by charities keen to raise more funds — because Islamic State has offered bounties of up to $1 million for each Westerner handed over to the fanatics, who have set up military training camps throughout the country.
As a result, correspondents based in Libya have fled, while foreign embassies are locked and deserted, the staff long since evacuated. Eerily, at one 400-room international hotel in Tripoli recently — which was packed with businessmen after the war ended in 2011 — I was the only guest.
The reason for the terror is understandable. Libya has been in chaos since Gaddafi was overthrown by rebels backed by Nato airstrikes. And into this vacuum has stepped Islamic State, who preach that all non-believers should be slaughtered, along with homosexuals and adulterers.
Under siege from Western airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, where the ISIS headquarters are based, the terror group has shipped thousands of fighters to Libya, where it plans to utilise the porous borders and flood Europe with terrorists.
The extremists announced their arrival in Libya last year by beheading 31 Egyptian Christians. Forced into orange boiler suits, the victims were massacred on a beach and film of the sickening event was released to the world.
With bases in the east, south and west of the country, Islamic State are believed to have more than 6,000 fighters in Libya. So far, they have crucified non-believers, murdered Western hostages and introduced compulsory ‘re-education’ classes advocating barbaric interpretation of Islamic law.
With three rival governments all claiming power, and millions of guns in circulation, there has been a complete breakdown in law and order.
Such anarchy means that it is simple for Islamic State to send extremists among the migrants who make up the mass exodus to Europe.
To many of the migrants waiting here for boats, the prospect of housing and free benefits in the EU are an unimaginable bounty, coming as they do from countries where there is no welfare state, and where millions live on less than a dollar a day.
What’s more, many of these so-called ‘refugees’ — who in reality come from countries that are desperately poor, but not at war — are also able to buy false identities from black market counterfeiters operating inside Libya, with fake Syrian passports available for less than £5,000.
These have become gold dust since the EU has agreed to accept genuine refugees from Syria and Iraq.
With all this in mind, pity poor Reda Essa, an army colonel and commander of the Libyan coastguard responsible for combating the problem.
He has at his disposal one old tug boat and two small ‘zodiac’ craft to patrol hundreds of miles of coastline. It’s a thankless task.
His despair is understandable. The EU last year launched Operation Sophia, a scheme that has seen a flotilla of warships from various EU nations picking up migrants who are crossing the Mediterranean.
Yet, perversely, these efforts to save the migrants are only adding to the scale of the crisis, with smugglers reassuring their cargo that there is little risk of drowning since EU vessels will pick them up. Indeed, most of the military ships take the rescued migrants into Italian ports. Colonel Reda scoffed at the suggestion that Operation Sophia was helping resolve the crisis — and said it was only encouraging more people to cross.
So concerned is the country’s head of the intelligence operation against Islamic State that I was summoned to his office so he could issue a public plea for help from the West to fight the terrorists. ‘These terrorists in Libya are a threat to the whole world,’ Mohammed al-Ganedi told me.
‘They are training people in camps, brainwashing them, and sending them with the migrants into Europe.’ Accustomed to working in the shadows, General al-Ganedi knows more than most about the activities of Islamic State.
‘The terrorists we are fighting come from Mali, Sudan, Chad, Somalia — the same people as the migrants,’ the intelligence chief told me. ‘These are poor, uneducated people. They get offered up to 3,000 dinar just to join — about £1,500 — which is a fortune to them.
So grave is the threat from Islamic State that former rebels in the war against Gaddafi — backed by Britain’s SAS and SBS — are now waging war in Sirte, Gaddafi’s former home town on the Mediterranean, which is the headquarters of Islamic State’s operation, and from where terrorists have been sent among the boat people to Europe.
In one instance, a Libyan people smuggler was reportedly offered £40,000 to ship 25 Islamic State fighters from Libya to Europe. In a separate case, some 40 Tunisian members of Islamic State were reported to have tried to leave Sirte by ship.
Certainly, it is all too easy for them to melt into the huge numbers attempting to make the perilous crossing from stretches of coastline notorious for smugglers.
As one people smuggler told me, anyone with money can make the trip to Europe.
A tough character who always carries a gun, he also confirmed that the smugglers had forged ‘business links’ with Islamic State, who control key areas to the east and west of Tripoli for people smuggling. Called ‘fishing’ by those involved, people smuggling is the biggest business — after arms dealing — in Libya, with each boatload of migrants earning the smugglers £100,000.
‘In a good season we can make $5 million,’ this individual told me. He added: ‘We keep the migrants in camps, empty houses or just in fields near the beach. The lorries bringing them from the south are in constant contact with us.
For the authorities attempting to combat such violent, determined gangs, the fight grows ever more desperate. Mohammed Kahloon is in charge of one official government detention centre, which houses 500 migrants caught living illegally in the country.
‘There is no government, no law, criminals everywhere — how can we stop it?’ he asked me.
Those fighting Islamic State’s extremists in Sirte have first-hand experience of just how big a threat the Islamists pose to Libya and the wider world.
During a furlough from the frontline, a group of Libyan fighters told me how these fanatics — including migrants recruited to join Islamic State for a cash bounty — are using women and children as human shields, and also packing them into vehicles driven by suicide bombers which are launched at the Libyan military forces.
‘They are lunatics,’ one fighter told me, as he sipped coffee and smoked. ‘A suicide bomber drove a family towards us.
We must hope those being rescued at sea day after day — along with the hundreds of thousands of others waiting to head to Europe from Libya — are put through the most scrupulous screening to ensure terrorists are not hiding among them.
But, disturbingly, that may be too much to hope for from Europe’s cack-handed politicians and law enforcement agencies.
As he swans off to make millions from his lucrative new career, Mr Cameron should be haunted by the hell that Libya has descended into. But whether he will lose sleep over the mess he has left behind is anyone’s guess.