Egypt launched airstrikes on Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in Libya this week after the group abducted and killed 21 Coptic Christian Egyptians in utterly barbaric fashion, just weeks after ISIS released a video of its horrific immolation and killing of Jordanian pilot Moaz Al-Kasasbeh. But how far will Egypt be able to extend its current offensive against the group and its affiliates in Libya?
Following the commencement of the airstrikes, which were carried out in coordination with the Libyan Air Force loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized parliament in Tobruk, a clear split has emerged in terms of people’s stances on the strikes. Some see that an even stronger and more wide-ranging response is required against ISIS and other extremist groups in Libya, while others have taken a more cautious position, warning against the deployment of Egyptian ground troops in the country, which would pull Egypt into a lengthy conflict whose final results are by no means certain. There are even those who say that the strikes are actually what ISIS wants, because the groups thrives on creating and escalating tensions in the region, and benefits from any intervention against it, which has the effect of drawing in more fighters into the group’s ranks, as happened following the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
The reality, though, is that Egypt, like Jordan before it, could not simply stand idly by with its hands tied and not retaliate against the barbaric killing of its citizens by ISIS’s butchers. But anyone who has ever engaged in confrontations with terror groups knows how costly such conflicts are, as well as the large amount of patience, resources, and outside regional and international assistance that is required to successfully curtail terrorist groups. Without all this, no country would ever be able to achieve any tangible results against these groups on the ground, and any military efforts launched would come to waste.
The current airstrikes therefore count as a partial, short-term solution, they will never be enough to erase the threat of ISIS and other militant groups in Libya. However, if Egypt were to step up its current offensive and put Egyptian boots on the ground in Libya, it would allow itself to fall victim to a trap set for it by ISIS and the other extremists allied to it: a war on two fronts; one front to its east against militant groups in the Sinai, and another across its western border, a situation any standing army would find difficult and costly.
It is of course no secret that there are many in the region and beyond who would like nothing more than to bring down the regime of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt. It is also no secret that there have been recent meetings between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist militias operating in Libya aimed at taking over power in the country by use of force. There have been similar meetings with respect to Egypt, whose capture, as the traditional political and cultural center of the Arab world and its largest and most populous country, would represent a major success for these groups. From here we can see the connection between the rise of ISIS in Libya and the abduction and killing of the 21 Egyptians. There is a thread linking the two, with the aim here being the destabilization of Egypt, pulling it into a lengthy conflict that would sap the strength of the Egyptian army, which stood so valiantly against Brotherhood efforts to take over the centers of power in Egypt following the organization’s meteoric rise to power after the events of January 2011.
The rationale behind the killing of the 21 Egyptian Copts was that it would provoke Egypt into taking military action and stir up sectarian tensions in the country. When the group first announced it had abducted the men it made reference to a 2010 massacre of 58 Iraqi Christians at a Baghdad church carried out by its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq. That group had previously forced out Christians from Mosul and other places in Iraq, part of its efforts to target minorities and sow the seeds of sectarian discord in the country. It is also worth mentioning that those who carried out the attacks on the Baghdad church were also behind an attack on a Coptic church in Egypt, when they demanded the freeing of Muslim women they believed were being held hostage in a Christian monastery.
Stoking sectarian tensions was the motivation behind the Baghdad church attacks of 2010, as it was with the recent killing of the 21 Egyptian Copts. ISIS is looking for a repeat of its experience in Syria and Iraq, this time in Egypt and Libya. After all, the so-called Islamic “state” or “emirate” declared by jihadist groups in Tripoli differs little from the one declared in the Sinai by militants there, who like their counterparts in Libya, have declared their allegiance to ISIS and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s thoroughly un-Islamic and so-called “caliphate.”
What Egypt needs to do now is use its weight in the region to form a new coalition of willing and able Arab countries, in order to defeat the terrorist scourge and prevent Libya from becoming another Syria, Iraq or Yemen. For if the African countries are making joint efforts to fight Boko Haram and other terror groups in their area of the world, why can’t the Arabs do the same for such groups in theirs? After all, it is the Arabs who face the greater threat to their region and their collective security.
It could be said, however, that the current divisions among Arab countries and the conventions adopted by the Arab League will together prevent such a pan-Arab force from coming together. This is, unfortunately, a bitter reality we must confront. But another reality is that the current situation, with this ongoing soap opera we are witnessing of Arab armies dismantling and Arab countries fragmenting, cannot be allowed to continue. The formation of such a “coalition of the willing” could usher in a new beginning and new phase for Arab countries. More importantly, it would help us prevent Libya from becoming just another ISIS state—and keep the fires away from Egypt.