Battle against Islamic State expands as Egypt bombs Libyan affiliate

Egypt's airstrikes came in response to the mass beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians by IS militants in Libya. The Libyan government has called for the US-led coalition in Syria and Iraq to turn its attentions to Libya.

Hassan Ammar/AP
A man is comforted by others as he mourns over Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya and killed by militants affiliated with the Islamic State group, in the village of el-Aour, near Minya, 220 kilometers (135 miles) south of Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Feb. 16, 2015. Egyptian warplanes struck Islamic State targets in Libya on Monday in swift retribution for the extremists' beheading of a group of Egyptian Christian hostages on a beach, shown in a grisly online video released hours earlier.

Egypt claims to have launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya, in retaliation for the gruesome execution of 21 Egyptian Christians shown in a video released Sunday. The mass murder threatens to open a new front in the greater battle against the self-declared Islamic State, potentially drawing Western powers once more into military intervention in Libya.

Egyptian state television declared that government warplanes struck targets in the eastern Libyan city of Darna, a militant stronghold on the coast about 150 miles from the Egyptian border. The BBC reports that the strikes, made in coordination with the military of the recognized Libyan government based in Tobruk, targeted "camps, training sites and weapons storage areas" of the IS affiliate in Libya. According to a Libyan air-force commander, 40 to 50 militants were killed in the strike, Reuters reports.

The Associated Press reports that a second airstrike is underway.

The strikes were made in response to an IS video released Sunday showing the execution of 21 Egyptians, all Coptic Christians, at the hands of masked IS supporters. The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy writes that the video, shot in IS signature style, shows that the group's Libyan branch has "the numbers, the wherewithal, and the operational security to hold 21 captives for weeks and then carry out a highly-produced murder show in a beach without fear of intervention from Egypt or anyone else."

But Mr. Murphy also notes that Egypt's ability to respond is limited.

[Egypt's] military is mostly trained for domestic control and running the expansive business empires of its senior officers. What Egypt will actually be able to do about the group in Libya - rather than its hundreds of followers in the Egyptian Sinai peninsula - remains to be seen.

However, the days of ignoring IS in Libya will be over. Unlike in Iraq, where there's a central government to work with, or in Syria, where there's both a strong national army and outside support for Bashar al-Assad's side of the fight against Syria, Libya barely has any functioning institutions anymore. The country could prove richer pickings for the group long term - than its two current struggles to the east.

Already the recognized Libyan government in Tobruk has called for the US-led coalition attacking IS forces in Syria and Iraq to turn its attentions to Libya. Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, speaking to Reuters, asked for Western military intervention against IS and Al Qaeda members he says are present in his country.

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."

Reuters notes that the Islamist rival government in Tripoli, a group called Libyan Dawn, says it has no affiliation with either IS or Al Qaeda. The New York Times adds that at least three groups among the multitude fighting in Libya's civil war have declared loyalty to IS, "one in each of the country’s component regions: Barqa in the east, Fezzan in the desert south, and Tripolitania in the west, around the capital."

The Islamic State’s self-proclaimed provinces have compounded Libya’s instability by introducing the prospect of Islamist-against-Islamist violence between those who support and those who oppose the group. But Tripolitania has leapt to the fore as the province that most clearly threatens Westerners and Western interests.

Last month, fighters under the group’s banner claimed responsibility for a brazen attack on a luxury hotel in the capital, Tripoli, that is a hub for visiting Westerners and leaders of the Islamist-backed provisional government.

In a commentary published in the Daily Telegraph, Shashank Joshi warns that "it’s important to separate [the IS] role in Libya from the broader civil war there. Not every Libyan opposition faction is jihadist, and acting as if it were, by taking firm sides, is a recipe for disaster." 

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