Egypt targets ISIS in Libya; ISIS claims capture of new territoryFebruary 18, 2015 in Egypt, ISIS, Libya, Terrorism
18 February– Egyptian and Libyan fighter jets conducted two waves of attacks in Derna, Libya, hours after ISIS militants released a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christian Egyptians. The attacks targeted ISIS militant camps, training sites and weapons storage facilities.
The Coptic Christians, who were seeking work in Libya, were abducted in two separate incidents in the coastal town of Sirte. The first kidnapping occurred in late December, when the group was abducted at a fake checkpoint while attempting to leave the city. Days later in early January, ISIS militants raided a residential compound in Sirte. They separated Christians from Muslims before handcuffing their captives and taking them away. The hostages were featured in the latest edition of Dabiq, the English-language propaganda magazine created by ISIS. In the issue released last week, photos show the male hostages being marched along the coastline as their captors brandish knives.
Thirteen of the victims were from the same Egyptian village, al-Our, in the largely Coptic governorate of Minya. The Egyptian government has declared seven days of national mourning. In a televised address, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi described ISIS as “inhuman criminal killers”, adding, “Egypt and the whole world are in a fierce battle with extremist groups carrying extremist ideology and sharing the same goals.” Later in the day, Sisi visited St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo to offer his condolences to Coptic Pope Tawadros II.
A statement released by the Egyptian military says, “And let those near and far know that the Egyptians have a shield that protects and preserves the security of the country, and a sword that eradicates terrorism.”
Mohamed Azazza, spokesman for Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni said that eight airstrikes had been conducted in Derna. He added, “The plan is to target all IS locations in the country wherever they are.” Libyan air force commander Saqer al-Joroushi said the Egyptian strikes had been co-ordinated with Mr Thinni’s government, and that Libyan planes had also carried out strikes. He reported that between 40 and 50 people had been killed in the first wave of strikes.
The murder of the Egyptian Copts signals that ISIS has intentions to strengthen their impact in Libya. ISIS has thrived in under-governed regions, such Syria, which is engaged in a protracted civil war, and Iraq, which under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki was divided politically along sectarian lines. The group’s modus operandi has thus far been to establish bases in regions where the sense of nationalism and political power is fractured. The same is true of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where long ignored grievances led to the most violent aftermath of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. ISIS supporters declared a branch in Egypt in November.
Underlining this strategy, ISIS fighters have sought greater ground in Libya, which has been wracked with strife since their 2011 uprising, which saw the death of Dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Libya is now in the midst of a civil war creating a vacuum in which ISIS has been able to gain foothold. ISIS has a strong presence in Derna, and earlier this month they claimed to have captured the Libyan town of Nawfaliyah. Photos have emerged of a military-style parade in the town’s streets. In Sirte, ISIS fighters also claimed to have seized several key buildings, including radio and television stations and a passport office. Independent reports confirm that the group has been operating in and around Sirte.
In this light, it is likely that Egypt’s rapid military action is in part designed to strengthen the core of Egyptian nationalism and to send a message to the extremist group that they will not be tolerated by a united society in Egypt. Sisi may even adapt pages from Nasser’s playbook and encourage a call Pan-Arabic or Pan-Islamic unity. In doing so, he may simultaneously be encouraging nationalism in the long neglected Sinai Peninsula.
Sisi has also called for a UN resolution which would allow international forces to intervene in Libya. On French radio station Europe1, he said, “We abandoned the Libyan people as prisoners to extremist militias,” and called for weapons to be made available to Libya’s internationally recognised government, which fled to Tobruk after rival militias seized power in the capital.
Asked if he would order Egypt’s air force to strike again, he said: “We need to do it again, all of us together.” On Monday, Egypt signed a £3.8 billion defence deal with France, which includes the purchase of 24 advanced fighter jets. In addition to escalating the anti-terrorism fight in Sinai, it is likely that Egypt and Libya will continue to conduct joint strategic airstrikes in ISIS held territories in Libya. Very early and unconfirmed reports suggest that Italy may also consider mobilising troops against ISIS. Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano expressed the growing alarm and urged NATO to intervene. “ISIS is at the door,” he said. “There is no time to waste.”