ATbar Egypt's Western Front Line in the Battle against the Islamic State (in Libya)

Egypt's Western Front Line in the Battle against the Islamic State (in Libya)

03/03/2015 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  


A video released on February 15, 2015, by the jihadist Islamic State group (IS) showed the beheading of 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians and one Ghanaian. The twenty Coptic workers, mostly from impoverished villages in Upper Egypt, were kidnapped between late December 2014 and early January 2015 in the Libyan city of Sirte.

The extremely graphic video was titled, "A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross". A masked militant donning military camouflage uniform said in English: "Oh people, recently you've seen us on the hills of Al-Sham [Greater Syria] and on Dabeq's Plain, chopping off the heads that had been carrying the cross delusion for a long time, filled with spite against Islam and Muslims, and today we… are sending another message: oh crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes."[1]

"Especially when you're fighting us all together, therefore we will fight you all together until the war lays down its burdens and Jesus peace is upon him will descend, breaking the cross, killing the swine," the speaker continued. He concluded with a reference to Osama Bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader who was killed by US forces in 2011. "The sea you've hidden Sheikh Osama Bin Laden's body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood." The video ended with a shot of sea water mixed with blood, with jihadist hymns played.[2]

The Egyptian Response

Following the beheadings, President el-Sisi declared seven days of mourning and ordered the Egyptian government to give full support to the families of the victims.

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church said it was “confident” that those responsible will be punished. “The Orthodox church ... is confident its homeland would not rest until the evil perpetrators get their fair retribution for their wicked crime,” the Coptic Church said in a statement on its Facebook page.

Al-Azhar, the prestigious Cairo-based seat of Islamic learning, denounced the "barbaric" killings. "Al-Azhar stresses that such barbaric action has nothing to do with any religion or human values," it said in a statement. [3]

Egypt retaliated with air strikes against Islamic State targets in Libya’s Derna. On February 15, 2015, in the wake of the video release, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for an urgent meeting of Egypt's National Defense Council. El Sisi said that Egypt reserves its right to retaliate against the killing of 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians by the IS in Libya at the suitable time and place.[4]

El-Sisi added that he commissioned Egypt's Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukri, to travel to New York and engage in necessary talks with senior United Nations officials and members of the Security Council to "place the international community before its responsibility and to take necessary procedures in line with the UN convention and to declare that what is happening in Libya threatens international peace and security."

On February 16, 2015 Egyptian Air Force F-16s carried out eight strikes targeting IS bases in the areas of Bab Shiha, Dafesh and Al-Shaari, including training camps and arms depots.[5] According to General Saqr al-Jaroushi, the Commander of the Libyan Air Force, Libyan jets simultaneously hit targets in Sirte and Bin Jawad.[6]

Colonel Ahmed al-Mismari, spokesman for the Chief of Staff of the Libyan Army, said that “we view the joint Egyptian-Libyan operation as a strategic strike against the strongholds of terrorism in Libya.”[7]

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in an interview with Saudi news channel, Al-Arabiya, that Egyptian airstrikes against the IS in Libya are a part of Egypt’s right to defend itself.[8]

On February 16, 2015 Egypt's military said that it carried out air strikes against Islamic State targets in Libya, a day after the group released the video appearing to show the beheading of 20 Egyptians there.[9]

In a statement aired on state television, the Egyptian military said the attacks were carried out at dawn on Monday, February 16, 2015. The attack focused on IS camps, training sites and weapons storage areas across Egypt's border in Libya where armed groups have thrived amid chaos, according to the statement. "The air strikes hit their targets precisely, and the falcons of our air forces returned safely to their bases. We affirm that avenging Egyptian blood and retaliating against criminals and killers is a duty we must carry out." State television showed footage of Egyptian fighter jets that it claimed were taking off to conduct the strikes.

Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities stepped up security measures on the western and south-western borders to avoid potential infiltration by militants who wish to retaliate after the Egyptian air strikes. A state of alert was also announced on the western borders, which are said by intelligence sources to have allowed the infiltration of militants and arms coming from Libya into Egypt.[10]

The Response of the Islamic State

IS’s first response to the air raids was to post a statement on the Twitter account of Wilayet Barqa (Barqa Province). “The strikes by the Egyptian army did not result in any injuries,” it claimed, beyond killing the children of Derna. The statement then threatened the murder of more Egyptians in Libya and promised to step up attacks “until your blood flows like rivers not only on the coast of Tripoli but in the deserts of Barqa, Fazan and Sinai”.[11]

“Wait and we will wait also,” the posting threatened. “This operation will not pass quietly for the knights of Sinai. God willing, we will soon hear news.” The statement was soon followed by broadcast on Twitter of a photo of Abu Suleiman Al-Jahbazi, the man who led the beheadings.[12]

On February 20, 2015 IS militants killed 42 people, including five Egyptian workers, and 70 people were wounded, in suicide car bombings in eastern Libya in retaliation for Egyptian air strikes. The three car bombs exploded in Qubbah, a small town near the seat of the official government. According to security officials, the bombs exploded shortly before Friday prayers at a petrol station, the local security headquarters and the town council in Qubbah, the hometown of Parliamentary Speaker, Aguila Saleh. His house is close to the town council, but he was out of town at the time. "They killed and wounded tens in revenge for the bloodshed of Muslims in the city of Derna," said a statement issued by the "Islamic State, Cyrenaica Province".[13]

Hours after the attacks, troops loyal to the official government of Libya used military helicopters to attack militant targets in Derna, a military source said.

The Dilemma of the Egyptian Community in Libya

The military options being considered by Cairo concern the safety of a large Egyptian community in Libya – which, according to most estimates, is near one million - some of whom have been working there for decades and others are married to Libyans.

Egypt wishes to evacuate as many of them as possible, providing facilities for those who can reach the borders with either Egypt or Tunisia, and Egypt reached an arrangement with the authorities in Tunis to facilitate the matter. If need be, and Egypt has information suggesting that large numbers are trapped away from the borders, Egypt could consider other measures to forcefully evacuate them through a limited military intervention.[14]

The Libyan Response

Four years after rebels overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is in chaos, with two governments and parliaments allied to armed factions fighting for control, while Islamist groups exploit the power vacuum.

The internationally recognized government of prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, is based in Bayda, some 40 km from Qubbah. The House of Representatives, the elected parliament, is located in Tobruk.[15]

The capital city of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast in the far west is under the control of the rival government and parliament, set up after a faction called Libya Dawn seized the city in summer 2014, forcing al-Thinni to flee to the east.

Last month, militants claiming affiliation with the IS stormed the Corinthia luxury hotel in Tripoli, killing five foreigners and at least four Libyans.

Libya’s Air Force Chief of Staff, Saqr al-Geroushi, told Al-Arabiya TV that the Egyptian air strikes took place in coordination with the Libyan Army. “Our planes joined in the attack on the terrorist hideouts...and Egypt and Libya’s war is one and the same,” al-Geroushi added.[16]

In another interview, al-Geroushi told the Egyptian TV channel, Al-Nahar, that the Egyptian air strikes succeeded in destroying a training camp, weaponry, and a house that contained anti-aircraft missiles belonging to the Islamic State. He called on Egypt to continue its offensive along with the Libyan Army until Libya is free.[17]

Al-Thinni called for the West to launch air strikes to defeat IS militants who he said control Tripoli and have driven his government out of the capital, and made a plea for Western military intervention in a country rapidly slipping into chaos. "We have absolutely confirmed information that Al-Qaeda and IS are in Tripoli and....near Ben Jawad," he said, referring to a central town controlled by a faction that supports a rival government. "I ask world powers stand by Libya and launch military strikes against these groups," he said. "This threat will move to European countries, especially Italy."[18]
Libya's General, Khalifa Haftar, who is currently leading operations against Islamist militants in Libya, told Egypt's Dream TV that he "strongly back[s] an Egyptian military intervention." "Borders should not hinder any retaliatory strikes against these terrorist groups, and we do not reject any means of weakening such groups," Haftar said.[19]

The American Response

In response to the video, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “The United States condemns the despicable and cowardly murder of twenty-one Egyptian citizens in Libya by IS-affiliated terrorists. IS’s barbarity knows no bounds. It is unconstrained by faith, sect, or ethnicity,” adding that it “only further galvanizes the international community to unite against IS”.

The Islamic State in Libya - Background

Libya has slid into chaos as two rival governments and parliaments allied to separate armed factions fight for territory, four years after NATO war planes helped topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The United Nations has been mediating to avert a full-blown civil war in the country but little progress has been made in talks as the country is dominated by former rebels who helped oust Muammar Qaddafi but are now fighting against one other.[20]

IS took advantage of political chaos in Libya to rapidly expand its presence and to carry out a string of deadly attacks, and the group may pose a threat to Libya's neighbors and Europe.

The IS has dramatically increased its physical and media presence in Libya since the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC) of Derna pledged allegiance to it last October, after which IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recognized the Libyan "provinces" of Barqa (Cyrenaica), Tripolitania, and Fezzan as belonging to the "caliphate."[21] 

The group has released several propaganda videos boasting vows of allegiance from fighters in the country. In October 2014, Ansar al-Sharia in Derna pledged allegiance to the IS. At the same time, the group's online supporters have been aggressively recruiting while making the case for IS expansion in Libya and a new strategy in North Africa.
In November 2014, fighters loyal to IS gained complete control of Derna, not far from the Egyptian border and just about 200 miles from the southern shores of the European Union.

The Derna branch of IS counts about 1,000 fighters and operates half a dozen camps on the outskirts of the town, as well as larger facilities in the nearby Green Mountains, where fighters from across North Africa are being trained.

The IS has been bolstered by the return to Libya from Syria and Iraq of up to 300 Libyan jihadists who were part of IS' al Battar Brigade - deployed at first in Deir Ezzor in Syria and then Mosul in Iraq.[22]


Egypt is fighting Islamic terrorism in three theaters: Sinai, Egypt's mainland and Libya. Egypt is at war with the Islamic State group in Sinai and Libya but the main challenge facing the Egyptian regime is still the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt is formulating a roadmap for confronting terrorism.

President el-Sisi has stressed the importance of “drying up of the sources of financing for terror in Libya and halting arms supplies to extremist groups.” Terrorists, he added, must be denied a “safe haven” in both the Middle East and Africa. El-Sisi also called for the arms embargo on the Tobruk-based internationally-recognized government to be lifted.[23]

It remains to be seen how far Egypt's armed campaign will go against IS targets in Libya, but internationally the air strikes could represent an opportunity for el-Sisi's regime, giving it a larger role in the growing international coalition against the IS and its regional affiliates.     

The day after the release of the beheading video, Egypt asked the international coalition against the IS to extend its operations to Libya. “Egypt renews its call for the international coalition against the Da’esh terrorist organization ... to take the necessary measures to confront the terrorist Da’esh organization and other similar terrorist organizations on Libyan territories,” the foreign ministry said in a statement, using an Arabic acronym for the group. The ministry said it has kicked off international diplomatic efforts to highlight the dangers posed by Libyan militants to regional and global security.

Europe does not want to see a new Somalia or an Islamic Caliphate on its southern doorstep. France and Italy have both expressed support for the Egyptian air strikes and Cairo and Paris have agreed to call for “new measures” to fight the IS.

Italian Defense Minister, Roberta Pinotti, said that Italy is prepared to deploy thousands of men to halt the progress of Islamist radicals in Libya as part of a coalition of European and regional states. However, one of the greatest obstacles to countering the IS in Libya is finding the resources and will to organize a strategy and partners in the fight.

[1] Video shows beheading of Copts at IS hands; Egypt declares week of mourning, ahramonline, February 15, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Egypt unleashes strikes on ISIS targets in Libya, Al Arabiya News, February 16, 2015.

[4] Sisi 'reserves right of retaliation' after Copts killing in Libya, ahramonline, February 16, 2015.

[5] Passant Darwish, Egypt’s strike against IS in Libya 'quick retribution, but not enough': Security expert ahramonline, February 17, 2015.

[6] Ahmed Eleiba, Operation Derna, Al Ahram Weekly, Issue No.1234, February 19, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Egypt airstrikes part of right to self-defense: FM, ahramonline, February 17, 2015.

[9] Egypt bombs ISIL targets in Libya after mass beheadings, al Jazeera, February 16, 2015.

[10] Dina Ezzat, Beyond the strikes on IS militants in Libya, Ahramonline, February 17, 2015.

[11] Ahmed Eleiba, Oeration Derna, Al Ahram Weekly, Issue No.1234, February 19, 2015.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ayman al-Warfalli, Islamic State militants claim suicide attacks in Libya that kill 42, Reuters, February 20, 2015.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ayman al-Warfalli , Islamic State militants claim suicide attacks in Libya that kill 42, Reuters, February 20, 2015.

[16] Egypt unleashes strikes on ISIS targets in Libya, Al Arabiya News, February 16, 2015.

[17] Update 2: Egypt launches air strikes against IS militias in Libya, ahramonline, February 16, 2015.

[18] Egypt asks anti-ISIS coalition to intervene in Libya, Al Arabiya News, February 16, 2015.

[19] Egyptian airstrikes kill 64 IS militants in Libya: Libyan army spokesperson, ahramonline, February 16, 2015.

[20] Egypt asks anti-ISIS coalition to intervene in Libya, Al Arabiya News, February 16, 2015.

[21] Andrew Engel, The Islamic state's expansion in Libya, Policy Watch 2371, February 11, 2015.

[22] Paul Cruickshank, Nic Robertson, Tim Lister and Jomana Karadsheh, ISIS comes to Libya,

 CNN, November 18, 2014.

[23] Ahmed Eleiba, Operation Derna, Al Ahram Weekly, Issue No.1234, February 19, 2015.