Sunday’s release of an ISIS video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya prompted a swift military reprisal from Egypt, despite a messy civil war and potentially limited fighting capacity.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, a former head of the army, vowed Sunday evening to “punish these murderers” and retaliate in self-defense. Since then, Egypt’s air force claims to have killed at least 64 ISIS fighters at three separate sites in Libya. (RELATED: Who Were ISIS’s Egyptian Christian Victims?)
But the payoff may not be as strong as anticipated. A common joke among Washington’s Middle East insiders is that the Egyptian air force can’t fly at night — or in cloudy conditions.
David Schenker, a former Pentagon official who directs the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Program on Arab Politics, agrees that Egypt’s military can come up short of expectations. “They’d much rather build tanks they’re not going to use,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview, noting that with millions of dollars in annual American military aid, Egypt could have elected to strengthen its border with chaotic Libya years ago. Instead, Egypt has recognized that “in terms of popular perception, it’s important that they be seen as protecting their citizens,” so like Jordan before it, Egypt rushed to authorize airstrikes against ISIS targets.
But Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, points out several crucial differences between Jordan’s reaction to the immolation of pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh and Egypt’s response to the latest offense. Kasasbeh “was a military man representative of his government,” he told TheDCNF, “not a random foreign worker.” And while it was unclear whether Jordan would be intimidated or provoked by the attack, Gartenstein-Ross says that the beheadings in Libya were clearly “designed to provoke intervention,” and, by their own twisted logic, provided ISIS with 64 new “martyrs,” dying at the hands of secular-led Egypt, to use for recruitment purposes.
ISIS’s Libyan franchise may also be attempting to maneuver against other Islamists in the country. The two main factions in the civil war, a secular-led coalition called Libya Dignity and a grouping of Islamists called Libya Dawn, may soon reach a truce. ISIS’s Libyan operations have involved more flashy one-off attacks than retention of territory. By denouncing the talks between Dignity and Dawn, it would then distinguish itself as Libya’s “irreconcilable” jihadi brand, attracting more supporters impressed by its unwillingness to compromise with “infidels and apostates.” (RELATED: Libya, Torn By Rival Factions, Struggles To Govern)
Egypt has had its own ISIS-related problems since before the 21 Copts were abducted and killed in the coastal city of Sirte. A group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has killed over a thousand Egyptian police and soldiers in the Sinai peninsula for years. In November, it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and was designated Sinai Province (Wilayat Sinai).
As Schenker puts it, for better or worse “Egypt has bigger fish to fry,” and it’s unlikely to wade much further into Libya. But one serious option may remain: the United Arab Emirates has been using Egypt as a staging ground for attacks on ISIS in Libya for months. “They’re not going to fix Libya,” but a renewed UAE-Egyptian joint effort to enforce border security and support the Libya Dignity anti-Islamist campaign may help tip the balance in Egypt’s favor.
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