In February 2015, militants from the Libyan wing of the Islamic State (IS) brutally executed 21 Egyptian citizens in Libya. All those executed were Coptic Christians. The Egyptians were taken hostage about a year ago near the Libyan city of Sirte. IS militants have previously carried out a number of such crimes. The dozens of victims they have executed have included citizens of Iraq, Syria, the US, Britain, France, Japan, and Jordan. Quite likely the goal of these bloodthirsty attacks is to try to intimidate everyone who is fighting against IS and to instill in them the fear of imminent death should they fall into the hands of its militants. To some extent this tactic is working. For example, after the Islamists executed their captured Jordanian pilot, the UAE, which is part of the US-led anti-IS coalition, halted airstrikes by its pilots over the Islamists’ positions, until the US «can guarantee the complete safety of all pilots carrying out airstrikes on IS.»
In the video showing the execution of the Egyptian citizens, IS leaders announced that they were executing those «who carry the cross» and the «new crusaders battling Islam.» The cynicism and duplicity behind such statements is clear: first of all, the executed Egyptians were civilians, not involved in the fighting against IS, and second, many of those killed by IS were Muslims - and the gruesome execution of the Jordanian pilot burned alive in an iron cage was a vivid example of this. After the execution of the Egyptians, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made a televised appeal to his fellow citizens, in which he stated that Egypt «will make a retaliatory strike against IS at the most opportune moment».
It is no accident that the Islamic State terrorists chose citizens of Egypt as their latest victims. It was an act of intimidation and revenge designed to punish that nation for her ongoing struggle against radical Islamism. After all, President Morsi, a sycophant of the Muslim Brotherhood, was removed from power in Egypt in July 2013 by an army led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, then the minister of defense. The ouster of the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, was the army’s way of meeting the demands of all the leftist, liberal, and nationalist political parties, as well as the al-Nour party (the Party of Light), which together claimed to have collected more than 20 million signatures calling for Morsi’s resignation. The actions of the Egyptian army were supported by Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior, its Constitutional Court, the directors of Al-Azhar University (Cairo’s most famous center of Islamic learning), and the Coptic patriarch.
Radical Islamists, among them the current leaders of the Islamic State (at that time known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]), who also led a terrorist war in Syria against Bashar al-Assad’s government, plus Al-Qaeda and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, saw the actions of el-Sisi’s Egyptian army as a blow to their plans. And all the more so, because later on Egypt’s new leadership, headed by el-Sisi, banned the operations of the Muslim Brotherhood and labeled it a terrorist organization.
In turn, the Muslim Brotherhood’s extremist groups and the jihadists who had infiltrated Egypt from neighboring countries began a war of terror against the Egyptian government. They committed terrorist attacks in Egyptian cities, including assaults against law-enforcement officers and military personnel in Cairo and Alexandria. The terrorists were most active in the Sinai, where they created an armed group known as the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. In the district of Sheikh Zuweid in Central Sinai, the Islamists equipped a communications center capable of tracking the movements of the Egyptian army and even eavesdropping on the army commanders’ negotiations. The radical Islamist forces in the Sinai included 12 takfiri groups that supported IS militants, in addition to detachments of jihadists known as the Supporters of the Holy House (Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) (1). Since January 2015 the Egyptian army has been conducting widespread anti-terror operations on the Sinai Peninsula, involving aircraft, tank units, and army special-forces brigades. According to statements from the Egyptian army command, the result has been the destruction of approximately one hundred militants, weapons depots, command posts, and a communication center.
During their military operations, the Egyptian air force has repeatedly struck Islamist militant targets inside Libya. It is important to note that the institution of the Libyan state was wiped out after the overthrow of Gaddafi. The new regime in Libya is far from able to fully control the country. Power in the provinces is actually in the hands of local clan and tribal organizations that maintain their own paramilitary groups. Most of those are made up of the «insurgents» that fought against Gaddafi. They operate fairly openly within Libya, recruiting new fighters and creating camps to train them, plus using weapons seized from the warehouses of the former Libyan army, as well as weapons provided by NATO during the struggle against the Gaddafi regime. Libya has, in effect, become a hotbed of radical Islamism. Muammar Gaddafi battled against this force. More than 600 jihadists served sentences in his prisons for involvement in terrorist Islamist groups. After Gaddafi was overthrown, they were all released and joined various armed groups that espoused armed jihad as the means to creating an Islamic state.
There are currently two centers of power in Libya. One of the leaders of the Libyan Islamists, the former head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, is one of the leaders of the General National Congress (GNC), which is controlled by Islamists and based in Tripoli. A counterweight to the GNC is the Libyan government in the city of Tobruk, which is recognized by the UN and the international community, and on whose behalf troops from the newly created Libyan army work to support the Egyptian army’s operations against Islamist groups.
According to the Egyptian military, radical Islamists in Libya have established approximately 20 training camps for militants, who are then dispatched to Egypt to commit terrorist attacks. In retaliatory strikes, Egypt’s air force has dealt massive blows to these targets. Egypt also put forward a proposal in the UN that an international blockade of the Libyan coast be introduced in order to prevent the Islamists’ being supplied with weapons and new fighters infiltrating their ranks. At the UN, a spokesman for the Libyan government proposed lifting the embargo on arms shipments to Libya, which was introduced in 2011, so the Libyan army can take a more active role in the fight against the Libyan wing of IS. The Russian UN representative did not rule out Russia’s participation in the blockade of the Libyan coast, nor the possible involvement of Russian peacekeepers in the fight against IS.
It can be assumed that terrorist attacks against Egypt by the Islamic State (IS) have been prompted by the Egyptian leadership’s policy on rapprochement with Russia, including military-technical cooperation, which was strengthened after President Putin’s recent visit to Egypt. IS is a threat to Russia as well as Egypt, due to the Islamists’ threats of a «jihad to liberate Chechnya.» Expanded cooperation between Russia and Egypt in the fight against radical Islamism, as well as Russia’s military and political support for actions against IS in Libya, is in the mutual interests of both Cairo and Moscow.
(1) www.ahram.weekly.com - A shift in strategy? 18.02.2015