Egypt strikes back, but how far will ISIS fight go?
ANALYSIS: Egypt has unleashed 'abrupt-yet-foreseeable' airstrikes on ISIS targets in Libya following the execution of hostages
The early-morning bombing came as a rapid response to ISIS’ release of a gruesome video showing the execution of 21 Coptic Christian hostages, who had reportedly been held hostage since January.
Egypt is currently not part of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition striking militant targets in Iraq and Syria since August 2014, but events in Libya and a militant insurgency in the Sinai may force President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to ramp up his plan of action.
Is Egypt’s aerial campaign a quick, jabbing response to the killings, or more of a lasting, longer-term approach?
“Although some may assume that Egypt is now on the sidelines, in reality Egypt is part of the anti-ISIS coalition and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Joseph A. Kéchichian, an American scholar, historian and political scientist, told Al Arabiya News on Monday.
“Cairo will hit hard against extremists, both at home and elsewhere, since it understands that the confrontation is existential between those that wish to impose the [ISIS] ‘Caliphate’ – and its extremist views – and those that support the nation-state system that aims to introduce gradual reforms,” Kéchichian added.
The footage released by ISIS’ media arm, with the title “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross,” showed the 21 Coptic hostages, handcuffed and wearing orange jumpsuits, in what has become a familiar scene in the militant group’s recent spate of grisly videos.
In a statement to Al Arabiya News Channel, Libyan Air Defense Commander Saqer al-Joroushi said “more air strikes will be carried out today and tomorrow in coordination with Egypt.”
Joroushi said in a later statement that between “40 to 50 militants” were killed in Monday’s air strikes.
In recent years, Egypt has been grappling with the Sinai Province, a group operating from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that changed its name from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and pledged allegiance to ISIS. Sinai Province has claimed a host of deadly attacks on security forces since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammad Mursi last year. Also, ISIS’ Libyan affiliate has reportedly recently made contact with Sinai Province.
"ISIS wanted to call Sisi’s bluff and show that Sisi would not attack Islamist fighters on behalf of Egyptian Copts and avenge the killings of Christians," Dr. Ashraf Ramelah, the president of the Voice of the Copts organization, told Al Arabiya News.
Dragging Cairo into Libya’s maelstrom
The large elephant in the room continues to be Libya’s internal political chaos with two rival governments operating their own armed forces under separate parliaments.
“ISIS wants to drag Cairo into the Libyan maelstrom while attacking from the Sinai,” British security analyst Richard Galustian, who has spent recent years in Libya, told Al Arabiya News on Monday. “So expect more ISIS violence in Egypt.”
Galustian deduces that Egypt is now coordinating with the air force led by General Khalifa al-Haftar, a renegade army commander fighting a loose alliance of Islamist militias named Libya Dawn.
Kayla Branson, a London-based North Africa analyst at global consultancy Risk Advisory Group told Al Arabiya News that extremist groups in Libya such as Ansar al-Sharia, have previously accused Egypt of intervening militarily against them in support of General Haftar since the spring and summer of 2014.
“They have also threatened retaliation in response to this alleged military support,” Branson added.
According to Galustian, the Egyptian strikes have “further revealed the nature of the Libya Dawn coalition.” Following the strikes, Libya Dawn’s Tripoli-based parliament “strongly condemned” the Egyptian airstrike in Libya as an “assault on sovereignty.”
ISIS’ next move?
But with Egypt’s retaliation, will ISIS continue to target Egyptian nationals or plan attacks inside the country?
“[According to] current indications, the struggle of ISIS Libya appears very locally focused on the conflict inside Libya against the interim House of Representative government and affiliated militias, rather than seeking to mount attacks inside Egypt,” Branson said.
“It is not even clear if they even have the capabilities to do so at this time,” she noted, adding that Sinai Province currently “poses the more serious threat of terrorism inside Egypt.”
On Monday morning, Egyptian state television broadcasted footage of fighter jets it said were taking off to conduct the strikes, coupled with a proud military statement.
“Your armed forces on Monday carried out focused air strikes in Libya against Daesh camps, places of gathering and training, and weapons depots,” the statement said, using the Arabic-language acronym for ISIS.
The strikes targeted “places of gathering and training and weapons depots,” according to the statement, with preliminary reports indicating that the strikes had hit the city of Derna, in eastern Libya, a hub of extremist militancy with its own separate ISIS “province.”
Also, unconfirmed early reports on social media suggested the home of Bashar al-Drissi, an alleged ISIS leader in Derna, was targeted.
Ultimately, Egypt’s military action seeks to re-assure those with a stake in the country, Dr. Max Reibman, a Dubai-based business intelligence associate analyst , also at Risk Advisory Group, told Al Arabiya News.
“The Sisi government will go far enough to re-assure the Egyptian public and foreign investors that it has a handle on the situation in Libya.
“Perhaps more importantly, from the economic standpoint, the government in Cairo needs to show that it will not tolerate violence on its borders or instability spilling over into Egypt’s western desert region, where foreign energy companies have a significant presence,” Reibman added.
Following the strikes, Egypt on Monday also indicated it would diplomatically ramp up pressure on ISIS; issuing a joint statement with France and calling for an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting on Libya.
It also requested that the anti-ISIS coalition intervene in Libya, potentially taking the U.S.-led fight beyond war-ravaged Iraq and Syria.
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