Egypt’s bolder approach in the war on terror
For Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the possibility that terrorist attacks in Egypt were connected to poles outside Egypt was always present. The Egyptian authorities, however, were helpless against them lest they would be accused of infringing on the sovereignty of another country.
In early 2015, following the slaughter of 21 Egyptian Copts in Sirte, Libya, at the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) elements, the Egyptian Air Force conducted air strikes against them in Libya and Egypt was criticised for transgressing international law.
Egyptian authorities have revealed that it had conducted several air strikes against training camps belonging to the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna in eastern Libya. The strikes came as a response to the attack on buses in Minya in central Egypt that had killed at least 28 Copts and injured many others.
This time, there was no criticism levied against Egyptian authorities, who seemed satisfied with the air strikes and threatened that it would continue to pursue terrorists outside Egypt.
Such a bold step taken by Egypt was long overdue. It had not been possible previously because influential countries protected extremist groups in the region because these countries think that their interests are best served by these groups.
That spell has been lifted. Interested parties are realising that too much extremism and terrorism in the Middle East is a threat to Western countries. Terrorist attacks, such as the one in Manchester, England, recently and others before it in France, Belgium and Germany, tipped the scales against extremist groups. With Donald Trump in the White House, the war on terror will target countries providing financial backing or safe haven for terrorist groups.
In his speech at the Riyadh summit, Sisi clearly and frankly indicated that the best way to eradicate terrorism is by dealing with its sources first. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had taken a very critical stand of Qatar’s lenient policies towards extremist Islamist movements. Speaking at the Twitter forum in Riyadh, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made explicit references to countries sponsoring terrorism and insisted that cutting off that support was the first step in eradicating terrorism.
Egyptian authorities must have had those considerations in mind when they ordered the air strikes against extremist groups in Derna. Their action marks the start of a new phase in the war on terror. The 2015 operation in Sirte was hastily put together as a quick reaction to take revenge for the massacre and to send a reassuring message to Coptic Egyptians but the Derna strikes could set a precedent for further actions.
Cairo had secretly backed Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan Army in eastern Libya. There is no need for secrecy anymore and coordination efforts with Haftar are readily visible. Previous warnings against getting directly involved in the Libyan crisis have died out as support from abroad for extremist groups in Libya has waned.
Thanks to the tremendous progress by Egyptian security forces in their battle against terror cells in Egypt, the country’s authorities can turn their attention to outside sources of terror. During the last two years, the Egyptian government has signed weapons deals with countries in the East and in the West. While still concerned about support coming to terrorist groups in Egypt from rogue zones in neighbouring Libya and Sudan, the authorities have nevertheless succeeded in equipping Egyptian security forces with the latest weapons and equipment needed to track down and pursue terror groups.
In dealing with its enemies, be they other countries or terrorist groups, Egypt seems to have freed itself of the traditional prudent approach where external reactions seem to weigh a lot. It is now taking a bolder approach and will continue to take the initiative. The older approach was bogged down in a myriad of internal considerations that had given Egypt’s enemies the chance to continue undermining the country’s security while thinking that the state is incapable of controlling the situation.
By changing its strategies in the war on extremist groups, Egypt will confuse its enemies. They have always opted for violence knowing that the government’s reaction would not go beyond the usual statements of condemnation. But now, Egypt is part of a wider understanding among the major powers of the urgency of the war on terror and is likely to widen its anti-terror operations to include zones beyond its borders with Libya.
To succeed in its new strategy, the Egyptian government must first ensure public support for its choices by working towards easing up the economic and social crises. It must also decisively win its war on terror groups in Sinai and, finally, ensure international support for its anti-terror operations beyond Egypt’s borders.