The posting of a video showing the beheading 20 Egyptians at the hands of Islamic State group in Libya prompted an immediate meeting of the National Defence Council to decide how to respond. It didn’t take long.
On Monday Egyptian planes carried out air strikes on four targets, training camps and weapons depots used by the Islamic State group in Libya. This prompt reaction, though, was only the first move. It heralded the beginning of a flurry of diplomatic activity.
Egyptians officials were soon in contact with European capitals and Washington to press for coordinated international intervention in Libya to stop the spread of IS group.
"We have to work together to defeat terrorism… We abandoned the Libyan people to extremist militias," Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi told France's Europe 1 radio in an interview aired on Tuesday.
Cairo also plans to use the counterterrorism summit currently convened in Washington to explore "ways to combat terrorism and extremism" in the world, announced Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdel-Ati.
Expanding the battle to Libya may be resisted by some states already involved in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. They are likely to argue that the impact of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq needs to be assessed before extending action to Libya. Nor has the UN envoy to Libya welcomed the possibility of international intervention.
Europe, though, may be more willing to become involved, at least to the extent of offering logistical support in the war on the IS group. It does not want to see a new Somalia on its southern doorstep. The UN Security Council is also due to address the crisis in Libya very soon.
Cairo is already formulating a roadmap for confronting terror, something El-Sisi hinted at in statements to French press.
He 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.
Al-Sisi also called for the arms embargo on the Tobruk-based internationally-recognised government to be lifted.
Meanwhile, military leaders from around the world gathered in Riyadh on Wednesday to discuss ways to confront the IS group, diplomatic sources told AFP.
The Riyadh meeting, scheduled for two days, brings together the main players in the anti-ISIS coalition, including Gulf states. According to AFP its aim is to provide a forum for consultation and coordination, not to make any "decisive" plans.
Intelligence and military coordination between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt has been underway for weeks, say sources, as is coordination on rapid intervention forces to confront IS militants.
On Sunday evening Cairo consulted with Paris, Rome and Washington, three capitals that the pre-recorded video of the murder of the 21 Egyptians appeared to directly address.
Reports of Monday’s from Egyptian and Libyan military sources are consistent. Egyptian Air Force F-16s carried out eight strikes targeting IS bases in the areas of Bab Shiha, Dafesh and Al-Shaari. According to General Saqr Al-Jaroushi, the Commander of the Libyan Air Force, Libyan jets simultaneously hit targets in Sirte and Bin Jawad.
Colonel Ahmed Al-Mismari, spokesman for the Chief of Staff of the Libyan Army, told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview that “we view the joint Egyptian-Libyan operation as a strategic strike against the strongholds of terrorism in Libya.”
Preliminary reports, says Al-Mismari, suggest the strikes killed about 60 people in the IS’s top tier in Libya, including 21 foreigners. He denied reports that residential areas were also bombed.
“Some areas thatmay appear to be residential are actually IS strongholds,” he said.
A senior intelligence expert told the Weekly the strike beyond Egypt’s border was an inevitable response to the killing of 21 Egyptians. It was necessary, he said, to save face, provide a boost in morale and restore Egypt’s dignity. It was also important to show that Egypt’s “fight against terrorism is not conducted through proxies, but by our own hands and weapons.” Now, he added, a strategic plan must be put in place, including the creation of an international coalition.
The IS group’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”.
“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.
An intelligence source said Egypt’s leadership understands there will be repercussions. More Egyptians in Libya may be killed, and attacks in Sinai are anticipated.
“We will pay a price at home and abroad,” says the source. “We will have to absorb the next attack by ISIS and prepare a long-term plan of action on the political, intelligence and grassroot fronts. We must be prepared for the group changing its tactics to try to surprise.”
Dispatched to Washington to participate in the US-sponsored conference on terrorism, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri will call on the international coalition led by the US against ISIS to extend the battle to Libya. Egyptian strategic experts, however, rate Shoukri’s chances of success as slim. Washington, they say, remains committed to a policy of “strategic patience” and wants the focus to remain on Iraq and Syria.
Ahmed Sewan, a member of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) advises against “dependence on a US role beyond limited logistical support and approving military operations that Arab countries could carry out”. Sewan believes European countries have more motives to intervene in Libya and the Washington conference against terrorism “will not result in any [US] tactical changes.”
France and Italy both expressed support for the Egyptian air strikes and Cairo and Paris hve agreed to call for “new measures” to fight the IS group. Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti told Il Messaggero newspaper on Sunday 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.
Within hours of the air strike Egypt signed a deal with France to buy 24 Rafale warplanes. Although these fighter jets will enter service in August at the earliest, a point has been made. Acquisition of the warplanes, worth $6.7 billion – a financial burden on Egypt considering its economy – send a powerful message, says Major General Kamal Amer, former head of military intelligence, not least that “we are acquiring weapons of deterrence to confront challenges abroad.”
On the Arab front, where condemnation of the slayings was par for the course, the positions of Jordan and UAE stand out.
Abdel-Khalek Abdullah, a leading UAE expert on international relations, told the Weekly “Egypt now is at war with IS and terrorism, and the UAE is providing all the the assistance it can to support Egypt in this war.”
“Whatever Egypt asks for from the UAE it will receive because we are all in the same bunker and there is no other better country than the UAE to stand by Egypt.”
The fight against IS is “the battle of Arabs before being the battle of the US and world because IS targets us, our religion and our faith. The UAE is very clear that it is in the forefront of fighting this group in Iraq, Syria, Libya and anywhere else.”
Al-Mismari doubts there will be intervention by ground troops in the foreseeable future but believes “there needs to be support for the Libyan army [from an Arab coalition].”
“The battle against the IS group is a military, intellectual and doctrinal one. It is obviously not a one-day or one-week battle but an extended war. The IS group will be defeated. In the end it will be defeated at the hands of Arab moderates such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan,” says Abdullah.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.