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19 February 2015updated 24 Feb 2015 9:49am

Egypt’s long war against terror intensifies as Islamic State proves its military clout

A long, porous border with Libya puts Egypt at risk. Now it is even harder for president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to provide the security his mandate depends on.

By Sophie McBain

The video released by  the self-declared  Islamic State Wilayat  al-Tarabulus militants on  15 February was brutal and slickly produced. Masked militiamen lead 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in orange jumpsuits along a beach in western Libya, before forcing them to kneel and beheading them in the surf. One jihadist, speaking in an accented English, points his sword towards the sea and says, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.” It was a disturbing reminder of the group’s expansion, adding weight to fears that Libya is at risk of becoming – as the UK envoy Jonathan Powell put it – a “Somalia by the Med”.

In Egypt, the threat is even more immediate. The country shares a long, porous desert border with Libya to the west and is already struggling to crush IS-affiliated militants in Sinai to the east. As relatives mourned the dead in the village of al-Our in Upper Egypt, where many of the victims were from, the Egyptian military launched air strikes on IS targets in the town of Derna, eastern Libya, describing its campaign as revenge for “the criminal killings”.

Outside the Libyan embassy in Cairo, two printed notes had been taped to the wall. The first announced that the embassy would not be issuing Libyan work permits to Egyptians until further notice. The second told passers-by that the office would be closed on 17 February to commemorate the anniversary of Libya’s “glorious” 2011 revolution.

It is not an anniversary that many Libyans will be celebrating this year but neither is it one to ignore. Post-revolutionary Libya’s foremost problem is that after 42 years of near-totalitarian rule by Muammar al-Gaddafi no government has been able to wrest control from the competing armed groups to form a legitimate or even functioning central administration.

“We simply cannot have a situation where a failed pariah state festers on Europe’s southern border,” David Cameron told the House of Commons in early 2011, shortly before Nato imposed a no-fly zone over Libya and armed the opposition. Yet western governments showed less enthusiasm for ensuring that the postwar authorities could encourage militias to disband, or hand in their weapons.

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During the elections in June 2012 there seemed little reason to fear a rise in religious extremism. Islamist parties won only 19 of the 80 seats available in the General National Congress (GNC). Despite almost nightly gun battles in Tripoli, the mood was optimistic. Most people I met in Libya that spring seemed to be launching a project: a media venture, a new NGO, a business, a pro-democracy heavy-metal band.

Yet tensions rose quickly between the GNC’s governing, secular bloc, and Islamist groups and their affiliated militias. The number of men with guns did little to encourage dialogue. By 2014, the country had two governments. The internationally recognised body sits in the east, supported by forces led by Khalifa Haftar, a Gaddafi-era general who has pledged to suppress Islamism. Large parts of the west are controlled by Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamist and other militias that has installed a rival government in Tripoli.

The resulting lawlessness has allowed extremists to operate across the country. As early as 2012, fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb found a safe haven in Libya. In Derna, which in effect has had no police force or judiciary since 2011, the Islamic Youth Shura Council announced its affiliation to IS in November. It has bolstered its ranks with the return of an estimated 300 fighters from Syria and introduced its own police force, courts and education system. Since then at least two other groups, also believed to contain many foreign jihadists, have pledged their allegiance to IS, claiming to represent the three main regions of Libya.

Although there is little evidence to suggest that IS has gained a broad support base, the killing of the Egyptian Copts and last month’s attack on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli are evidence of its military clout.

Egypt’s most recent intervention is risky. In Libya, foreign bombs may give Islamists the backing they once lacked and reduce the chances of a diplomatic solution. But Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has little choice. He was elected after overthrowing the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood; his popular mandate depends on providing stability and security. Posters around Cairo depict his airbrushed, youthful-looking portrait over the slogan “Egypt against terrorism”. That pledge has become even harder to fulfil. 

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