Egypt prepares for backlash after Libya retaliation
Cairo- Egypt’s military retaliation against training camps in Libya following a terrorist attack against Coptic Christians could result in further domestic and regional instability, experts warned.
“Opening new fronts outside national borders within the war on terrorism will necessarily be risky,” said Samir Badawi, a former Egyptian assistant defence minister. “The terrorist groups that are targeted will seek retaliation.”
Egypt outlined its new anti-terrorism strategy after at least 28 Coptic Christians were killed May 26 as they travelled to a desert monastery in the central province of Minya. The Islamic State (ISIS), which has a presence in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, claimed responsibility for the attack.
After the attack, 60 fighter jets, including newly acquired French-built Rafales, attacked training camps affiliated with ISIS and al- Qaeda in the north-eastern Libyan city of Derna.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in a televised address, said the gunmen who carried out the attack near Minya received training in Libyan terrorist camps. Analysts speculated that the arms and equipment used in the attack could have been smuggled from Libya.
“Egypt will never hesitate to strike terror camps anywhere… If it plans attacking Egypt whether inside or outside the country,” Sisi said in an announcement that signalled a shift in Egypt’s defence policy.
Egypt continued air strikes on Libya in coordination with the Libyan National Army, which is led by Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and opposes the UN-backed Government of National Accord. Haftar, however, is an ally of Cairo.
“Anyone sponsoring terrorism will be punished no matter where they are. We have not announced the cessation of military operations against terrorist training camps,” military spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Refaei told Egypt’s state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper.
Libyan militia commanders confirmed that strikes targeted two groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, not ISIS. Explaining targeting terrorist groups linked to both al-Qaeda and ISIS, Refaei said that Cairo makes no distinction between the two in the wider fight against terrorism.
“The realisation strategists in Cairo are reaching is that they cannot cut off only one head of the hydra that is terrorism and leave other heads moving freely in other places,” said political analyst Abdel Momen Halawa.
“To eradicate terrorism, Egypt must have a comprehensive strategy to bring it to an end inside and around it once and for all,” he added.
Western experts warned that focusing on the fight against ISIS in Libya could leave Egyptian security and military forces stretched in the fight against the terror group in Sinai. ISIS in Sinai — known as Sinai Province — has strengthened its presence in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
Attempts to enlist local Bedouin tribes in the fight against ISIS have borne some fruit but experts warn that Egypt’s military could find itself fighting a war on two fronts.
“Militias targeted by the air strikes will inevitably react, either directly or indirectly, both inside and outside Egypt,” Badawi warned.
In 2015, ISIS killed 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya, apparently in retaliation for Egypt’s crackdown on Sinai Province and its support for Haftar.
There are fears that Egypt’s reaction to the latest attacks on Copts will set off a new cycle of vengeance affecting Egyptian interests inside and outside the country.
The Interior Ministry placed all security directorates on high alert and sacked security chiefs in 14 provinces amid preparations for a new security plan to protect Coptic Christian sites.
There are expectations that future military strikes could include a wider bombardment of tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Sinai and even air strikes in Sudan.
“The Egyptian leadership is mindful that there will be repercussions to military action abroad,” said retired army General Hossam Sweilam. “This action will necessarily be coupled with measures to prevent any backlash.”