CAIRO – Egypt hit back Monday with airstrikes aimed at ISIS-affiliated jihadists in Libya who are believed to have beheaded more than a dozen Egyptian Coptic Christians.
Egyptian F-16 jets took off in the early hours of Monday to bomb ISIS camps, training areas and weapons depots in Libya, the Egyptian military said.
“Avenging Egyptian blood and punishing criminals and murderers is our right and duty,” it said in a statement broadcast on state television.
It wasn’t immediately clear where in Libya the airstrikes hit or how much damage and casualties they might have caused.
The bombing raids came after ISIS released a gruesome video Sunday that appeared to show the beheadings of the Egyptian Christians on a beach.
Threats from English-speaking jihadi
The footage, bearing many of the hallmarks of previous ISIS hostage execution videos, has intensified international concerns about ISIS’ deepening reach into countries far beyond its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
The slickly produced video shows the apparent mass execution with jihadists in black standing behind each of the victims, who are all dressed in orange jumpsuits with their hands cuffed behind them.
Some of the hostages cry out “Oh God” and “Oh Jesus” as they are pushed to their knees.
The five-minute video, released by ISIS’ propaganda wing al-Hayat Media, includes a masked English-speaking jihadi who says, “The sea you have hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah, we will mix it with your blood.”
The video threatens Egypt, which shares a long border with Libya, and also Europe, whose shores lie across the Mediterranean Sea.
‘The right of retaliation’
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had warned Sunday that his country “reserves the right of retaliation and with the methods and timing it sees fit for retribution for those murderers and criminals who are without the slightest humanity.”
He also declared a week of mourning in the Muslim majority nation for the dead Christians.
The U.S. government condemned the killings, saying ISIS’ “barbarity knows no bounds.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Sunday to offer condolences, the State Department said.
Twenty-one Egyptian Christians were kidnapped in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte in two separate incidents in December and January. They were reportedly from impoverished villages and went to Libya looking for work.
Although the ISIS video showed around a dozen men being beheaded, officials said that all 21 Christians were believed to have been killed.
Egypt is already fighting against ISIS-allied militants on its own territory in the Sinai Peninsula, where dozens of people were killed in a series of attacks in January.
Growing ISIS presence in Libya
But concern has increased over ISIS’ rising influence in Libya amid the power and security vacuum prevalent in the country since the 2011 uprising that overthrew former dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
CNN reported in November that fighters loyal to ISIS had complete control of the city of Derna, which has a population of about 100,000 and is situated not far from the Egyptian border.
Jihadists with allegiance to ISIS had also expanded their presence westward along the Libyan coast, forming chapters in cities including Benghazi, Sirte and even Tripoli, the capital, according to Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist now involved in counter-terrorism for the Quilliam Foundation.
In an example of their spreading reach, a Libyan branch of ISIS claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a luxury hotel in Tripoli that killed 10 people, including one American.
“There’s been a real radical Islamist presence in Libya for some time,” said Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. “What’s worrying is now they are self-identifying with ISIS.”
Ties between ISIS branches
Questions remain over how much direct command and control the ISIS leadership in Syria and Iraq has over its North African affiliates.
The killings of the Egyptian Christians has filled in some of the detail. Before the grisly video was released, ISIS had released photos in its English-language magazine Dabiq, claiming they had been executed.
“There’s certainly communication between the Libyan affiliate and the affiliate in Syria about matters of importance to both of them,” said CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen.
He said the ties between Libyan jihadists and ISIS’ precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq, “go back a very long time.”
The links between the different branches present “a real challenge to the West” for Western leaders, Francona said, as U.S. President Barack Obama asks Congress to formally authorize the use of military force in the war against ISIS.
“While we can come up with a military solution or a military operation in a restricted area like Syria and Iraq, what do we do when it expands to North Africa?” Francona asked. – CNN