Egypt Strikes ISIS Targets in Libya

Egyptian Fighter Jet

Image courtesy of Fotalia

Egypt Strikes ISIS Targets in Libya
| published February 16, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

That the terrorist army ISIS is spreading its reach into other parts of the world is no longer a matter of debate, as it was only a few months ago when its footprint was limited to large parts of northern Syria and northern Iraq.

A massive campaign of targeted bombing, coupled with armed and unarmed drones, and a multitude of other air assets have been deployed by the United States and its coalition partners—including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq—slowed and stopped the advance of the contiguous ground forces of ISIS. ISIS had advanced to with (depending on accounts) about 35 miles of Baghdad in the south, as far west in Iraq as the border checkpoints with Jordan, and as far north in both Syria and Iraq as the long border with Turkey. Despite heavy fighting and intense house-by-house battles, ISIS has been unable to wrest the last of the border towns from Syrian and Iraqi Kurds in cities like Kobani.

But the air campaign has reached a plateau of effectiveness, halting the forward movement of ISIS in traditional terms, but perhaps forcing the militant army to develop other tools to spread its message of terror.

Now, ISIS may have seized the leadership role among extremists in Libya, where it has apparently executed—by beheading—scores of Coptic Christians and other religious minorities, posting slickly-produced videos and high-resolution photos of its violent work on the internet in order to show that it can extend its reach beyond the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq. The images showed what appeared to be 21 Egyptian laborers, all of whom had been abducted from the towns of Sirte and el-Aour in late December. ISIS militants may have crossed from Libya into Egypt to supplement its dwindling supply of hostages.

In the videos and photos, the Christians can be seen, hands tied and dressed in orange jumpsuits, being paraded along a beachfront area before being executed. The militants, as is the now familiar practice in these execution videos, were wearing hoods and masks. In the video, some spoke in Arabic, but at least one member of the militant contingent spoke with an American accent. The man who acts as spokesman in the video also says the killing of the Christians will avenge the death of Osama bin Laden. The video, shot from a variety of camera angles and professionally edited, appears to have been produced using relatively high-end digital videocameras--another indication that ISIS intends to raise the bar on media attention far above and beyond what was that of al Qaeda.

In ISIS propaganda circulated on the internet, the militants called the beheaded Christians “illegal crusaders.” In the video, some of those awaiting execution prayed softly. ISIS also declared that the murders were retribution against Egypt for its alliances with moderate Arab states, the United States, Japan and other countries in the fight against ISIS. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Egypt on a business trip last in January—declaring his country’s support in the war on terror—when ISIS publicly threatened to execute two Japanese men it had in its custody. The incident sparked a crisis in Japan, and grabbed headlines around the world. After weeks of tense negotiations, both men were beheaded by ISIS militants.

The ISIS actions in Libya represent the first official military footprint by the terror army outside of Syria and Iraq, though lone wolf attacks have taken place in the name of ISIS in France and Denmark, and other individuals with stated allegiances to ISIS have been arrested in Belgium and other European countries.

Egypt’s reaction to the gruesome execution of Egyptian citizens was swift. On Sunday and again on Monday, Egypt launched air strikes against what it believes are ISIS positions in two Libyan towns just across the border. Egyptian fighter jets hit targets in Darna, a town known by intelligence officials as a safe haven for the extremists who have begun identifying themselves as members if ISIS. Statement’s released in Cairo by the government and the military said that the airstrikes were meant to avenge the deaths of the Egyptians. Egyptian military spokespersons said that at least 50 militants were killed, though that number has not been confirmed by other military analysts or by the Pentagon. Warplanes hit weapons caches, training camps, and buildings believed to be command-and-control centers. Later media reports also say that the Libyan air force is also engaged in some of the air strikes against ISIS in other cities and towns near Libya’s border with Egypt.

Most of the executed Christians were from small towns in Egypt, and almost all had travelled to the border areas in search of work as day laborers—mostly construction, carpentry work, and oil field laborers. At least 13 of those killed were from the small Egyptian town of el-Aour. Some of the murdered Egyptians were abducted inside Libya; others were kidnapped inside Egypt.

Extremists groups have thrived in the chaos and lawlessness following the Arab Spring in several countries. After the fall of Muammar Gadhafi in 2011, many parts of Libya became lawless regions, or fell under the control of extremists warlords. Some of these groups have recently pledged their allegiance with ISIS.

Some human rights groups in Egypt had previously complained that the official Cairo response to the abductions was sluggish. An organization called Egyptian Commission for Rights & Freedoms says that the government was slow to acknowledge the kidnappings, and even slower in responding to the families of the missing.

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi decreed seven days of mourning in Egypt, and vowed to avenge the deaths of Egyptian citizens.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Fight Against ISIS: How Much Latitude Will Congress Give?; Thursday Review; February 11, 2015.

Jordan Unleashed Firepower Against ISIS; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 6, 2015.