The Islamic State Launches Another Offensive in Libya, What Next?
On the evening of Sunday 15 February, after a few hours of hype and pre-announcements by Islamic State twitterati, a video entitled “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross” was released by the Islamic State affiliated al-Hayat Media Center. In the video, as already rumored in the past few days, the execution by decapitation of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians kidnapped in Sirte in the month of January was shown amid threats to Egypt and its alleged military and economic backers: “western crusaders”. Whilst no sure elements are available as of yet, analysts point to the possibility that the video was shot in the month of January and its release carefully orchestrated and timed to achieve maximum visibility and impact, as normally happens with “Iraqi” and “Syrian” IS media products.
In the aftermath of the video release, Egypt announced its intention to deliver retribution to those responsible for the killing of the 21 Copts. Strikes over Derna were reported already in the early hours of Monday morning, whilst Egyptian state television broadcasted solemn footage of F-16 taking off in the darkness of night to chase Egypt’s foes. It is worth noting that, after several unconfirmed rumors emerged last summer about Egypt’s involvement in Libya, these strikes represent the first official Egyptian military operation abroad since the time of the first Gulf War. Khalifa Haftar and other members of Operation Dignity were quick to express their solidarity to Egypt and to make clear statements in favor of the Egyptian Army’s decision to carry out airstrikes over Libyan territory. As a matter of fact, the Libyan Air Force affiliated with Operation Dignity announced the closure of Libyan airspace in anticipation of several military operations and warned the population living in Ghariyan, Sabratha, Zawia, Zuwara, Ajilat, Al Mshashya, Ajmal and Misrata to expect attacks. Meanwhile, in Tripoli, the rump GNC and its cabinet continue to be in denial and remain adamant that the IS is not present in Libya. Furthermore, although they admitted that non-authorised armed groups took control of a few administrative buildings in Sirte, they also boasted of an imminent military operation to re-take full control of the city.
At the time of writing this post it was still unclear what implications and repercussions the release of the video showing the decapitation of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians could have on Libya and the broader region. Cairo was quick to retaliate over Ansar al-Shari’a, IS and other Jihadists groups’ positions in the country, and looking back at last week’s sale of 24 Rafales fighter jets from France to Egypt, it is easy to imagine that Sisi and his regional backers bankrolling the acquisition had already contemplated a more active military role for Egypt in the region regardless of Sunday’s event. Therefore, although a “boots on the ground” operation remains highly unlikely, it seems that Egypt sees the beheadings merely as an opportunity to pursue its regional policy, targeting existing bulwarks of Islamist and Jihadist groups in North Africa, without running the risk of being subjected to international condemnation.
From the perspective of Libya, the biggest risk the country is running right now is that of Operation Dignity commanders, and other hardliners within the Tobruk camp, using these events to re-vamp all-out hostilities with rival Libya Dawn forces. Lumping together all groups with a religious undertone and generically labeling them as “terrorists” has proved to be a tragically detrimental strategy in the past months, achieving only an escalation of violence and ideological polarization within the country. Should Haftar and his allies decide to go down this path again, there is a concrete risk that all progresses made in the past few weeks of UN-backed negotiations will be squandered and the situation inside the country brought back to stage one. The warning sent out by Operation Dignity Air Force to Zuwara, Misrata, and other key Libya Dawn constituencies does not come as an encouraging sign.
At the international level pressure is now on also for Italy, France and all other western stakeholders who hinted in the past few weeks at the possibility of a military intervention under a UN mandate. Whilst this was clearly a rhetorical tactic employed to put pressure on both negotiating sides, international stakeholders must now make sure that negotiations continue as before, or possibly with an even heightened sense of urgency. Matteo Renzi’s declaration that “this is no time for military intervention” is an encouraging confirmation that western stakeholders are moving in the right direction. In the end, the establishment of a national unity government, the undertaking of a process of national pacification inclusive of all moderate sides and the pursuit of a Libyan and rule-of-law based solution continue to constitute the only viable strategy to defeat in the long term extremism and other radicalization phenomena. Policies aiming to foster a new Libyan state whilst stopping the advance of the IS in Libya and in the broader southern Mediterranean shore must not be influenced by instinctive reactions to the brutalities displayed yesterday.