As jihadism takes root in Libya, is Egyptian intervention far behind?
CAIRO - Egypt will find itself obliged to intervene militarily in Libya if the Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical groups overrun more territories in the neighbouring state, military experts and strategists say.
“What happens in Libya at present represents a direct threat to Egypt’s national security,” said Fouad Arafa, a retired general. “Egypt cannot stand idly by while this happens.”
While ISIS has seen strategic and battleground setbacks in Iraq and Syria, its fighters are reportedly migrating from the Levant to Libya, a country unsettled since the 2011 uprising against long-standing ruler Muammar Qaddafi.
Libya is seen as ideal soil for ISIS to take root and grow. There is little political stability; the country is vast and open; it has huge oil reserves with no strong state to protect them and it has a large number of radicals and diehard Islamists.
ISIS has captured territories, including Sirte, a coastal city of 50,000 people in northern Libya, and made it its main military command centre, and Darnah, on Libya’s north-eastern coast near the Egyptian border.
ISIS militants — estimated at 3,500 in the country now and commanded by special viceroys sent to Libya by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — are trying to close in on Libya’s oil and gas fields near Tripoli in the north-western part of the country.
All this is alarming to decision makers in Cairo, which already fights an ISIS-linked militancy in the Sinai peninsula.
Egypt’s possible intervention in Libya was reported to have been at the centre of talks between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and visiting US Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan on January 17th. The issue was reported to have dominated talks between Sisi and US Central Command commander US Army General Lloyd Austin in Cairo on January 24th.
All this seems to be a small detail of a larger picture, one of a joint US, Russian and European plan to contain ISIS in Libya and de-fang other terrorist groups in Africa, according to political analyst Abdel- Monem Halawa.
“The fear in Europe is that a stronger grip of these venomous militant groups on Libya, Somalia and large swaths of Nigeria and Cameroon will result in an endless wave of migration to Europe via the Mediterranean,” Halawa said. “The presence of the European continent in close proximity also means that a strong ISIS in Libya can easily move its theatre of operations to Europe.”
This is probably why the US Africa Command was reported in January to endorse a five-year plan to at least contain ISIS in Libya, al- Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in West Africa.
The plan, according to media reports, is to neutralise these terrorist groups and eradicate them if possible.
The plan seemed to have gone into effect a few days later with reports of the landing of US, Russian, French and Italian Special Forces south of Tobruk near the Libyan- Egyptian border — and less than 150km from Darnah.
These forces will seek to control Libya’s oil and gas fields; strip ISIS of its jumping-off base for staging attacks on Europe; and save Libya’s neighbours from the threat of ISIS.
Meanwhile, the nature of Cairo’s potential role is not clear but experts point to a number of caveats, including that direct Egyptian involvement may draw retaliation from Libya’s extremists.
Egypt had a taste of this in February 2015 when ISIS militants beheaded 21 Egyptian Christian nationals. Renewed retaliation from Libya’s radicals may force hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, working mainly in Libya’s construction sector, to return to Egypt and add to the country’s long line of jobless citizens, exacerbating internal political vulnerabilities.
Soon after the execution of the 21 Christians, Egypt airlifted thousands of its citizens from Tunisia. However, most of the workers could not find jobs in Egypt and some returned to Libya, facing danger there yet again.
“This is why our country will be walking a very fine line when it thinks of the action it should take in Libya,” political thinker Nabil Zaki said. “Egypt needs to keep the danger coming from Libya at bay, but also avoid putting the lives of Egyptian nationals in the country in danger.”