Egyptian airstrikes killed 64 Islamic State (IS) members and hit 95 percent of the intended targets, Libyan military spokesperson Mohamed Hegazy announced on Monday, as reported in the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram.
Libyan Air Forces commander Saqr Geroushi explained that the airstrikes were planned in coordination with the Libyan military. His statements aired on the privately owned satellite channel ONtv on Sunday.
The attacks targeted mansions belonging to fallen Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi’s regime in the eastern city of Derna, which allegedly sheltered IS members. At least 50 militants were killed in Derna, Geroushi said.
But an unnamed military source claimed that the operation’s six F16 fighter jets targeted Sirte and parts of Tripoli, according to the privately owned news site Aswat Masreya.
It is unclear precisely which sites were targeted, given these differing statements.
There were no civilian casualties in the operation, Geroushi asserted, adding that Libya requested Egypt’s help in the offensive.
After the operation, the Egyptian military released a statement declaring the Air Forces “achieved its targets” and returned safely to base.
Egypt launched the airstrikes in retaliation against the beheading of 21 Coptic Egyptians who were abducted in Tripoli and Sirte in early January, the statement continued.
The airstrikes began immediately after the Islamic State released a graphic video on Sunday night that purportedly showed the beheading of the kidnapped Egyptians.
The Defense Council ordered the strikes to launch in the early hours of Monday, declaring it was “Egypt’s right to defend its people’s security and stability, and obtain retribution for the criminal acts committed by terrorist groups inside and outside the country,” according to its statement.
The statement asserted that retribution for Egyptian blood is a “duty,” and sends a message to the perpetrators of the killings that “Egyptians have a shield to preserve security, and a sword to amputate terrorism and extremism.”
Last Thursday, the Islamic State released photos of the kidnapped hostages wearing orange jumpsuits as they were handcuffed, blindfolded and driven along a beach by masked men. The photos circulated amid unconfirmed reports that the hostages had been killed.
The IS then released a graphic video on Sunday evening titled, “A Message with Blood,” showing the militants beheading a group of men — purportedly the kidnapped Egyptians — on a beach in Tripoli.
In the video, a masked man states that the beheadings took place in “Islamic Libya, south of Rome,” adding, “We will fight you until Christ descends, breaks the cross and kills the swine.”
In August 2014, the United States ramped up its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by forming a 62-member global coalition to contribute to ongoing airstrikes in the region. Egypt declined to take part in the initiative, keeping its military operations focused on militants in North Sinai, especially the Province of Sinai group. Formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, this jihadi group pledged allegiance to the IS last November, and has claimed responsibility for several deadly attacks on security personnel in the embattled peninsula as well as in Cairo.
However, Monday’s airstrikes on Libya send a clear message regarding Egypt’s position on the war against the Islamic State.
Tarek Fahmy, an analyst at the National Center for Middle Eastern Studies, says that the beheadings directly affected Egypt’s sovereignty, and demanded a nationalist response.
“The killing of an Egyptian citizen is no different than that of the Jordanian pilot,” he told Mada Masr. “Egypt can’t stand idly by.”
He explains that the attack warranted a military intervention, since it was “a major development” that impacts the state’s sovereignty and national security.
However, Fahmy maintains that Egypt’s position on the Islamic State differs from that of the US, and Egypt still has reservations regarding the West’s approach.
The airstrikes are a “preliminary” action that will pave the path for Egypt’s future political and diplomatic actions, he says.
Issandr al-Amrani, the International Crisis Group’s North Africa director, says the strikes serve multiple purposes, including international diplomacy.
In response to the strikes, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry went on an emergency mission to the US to demand a more intense fight against the IS, and to demand more support for Egypt in its own war against terror.
“Egypt has been conducting this diplomacy, but the attack precipitated it,” Amrani adds.
Sisi had previously stated that the global coalition should not target just the IS, but other terrorist groups as well. However, Egypt’s decision to officially engage in military operations in Libya against the Islamic State unveils its position on the Libyan power struggle, which may also affect the success of these operations.
“Egypt has been a strong backer of the Libyan Tubruq government, and supported it with air power, weaponry and covert strikes. It is not a neutral player in Libya,” Amrani explains. He describes the division of power in Libya between rogue general Khalifa Haftar’s militia — which controls some eastern parts of Libya, including Tubruq — and the General National Congress (GNC), an umbrella of several Islamist militias that controls Tripoli.
“Egyptian diplomacy has been focused on declaring the Tubruq government the legitimate government in Libya,” he adds.
Haftar previously warned that if the Islamic State targeted Libya, the group would turn its eyes to Egypt. He insisted that borders should not get in the way of international powers standing together against the IS.
But GNC spokesperson Omar Hamdan said in a presser in Tripoli that the GNC condemns the Egyptian airstrikes in Derna as an assault on Libya’s sovereignty.
“The GNC statement shows that this camp is distrustful of Egypt, even if their forces weren’t hit by the Egyptian strikes,” Amrani says.
Critiquing Egypt’s position, Amrani believes that Egypt’s stance on regional problems has been colored by its domestic crises, such as its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood — hence the rivalry with the GNC. And rather than positioning itself deep in Libya’s power struggle, he thinks Egypt is better off contributing to efforts to build a national unity government, which would be in a stronger position to fight the IS.
The Islamic State has emerged in various locations across Libya, including Sirte, Derna, some of the West and near the southern border with Niger. While the GNC has some control over the West, Haftar — who was recently named minister of defense in the Tubruq government — has control in the East.
“Libya needs the foreign help that Egypt can offer to fight the Islamic State. But they cannot do it by themselves, especially if [political factions] are fighting each other,” Amrani concludes.
He adds that while the airstrikes might not achieve much without other forms of intervention, they are still politically significant.