ROME — Egypt launched airstrikes Monday morning at dawn on targets in neighboring Libya to retaliate for the barbaric mass execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians held by militants affiliated to the so-called Islamic State. Egyptian officials say more strikes will be launched on jihadists in the coming days, dragging the country deeper into the chaos that has swept Libya since the ouster of strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
The air raids came after a horrific five-minute video was posted by the militants on Sunday, apparently showing the gruesome spectacle of Coptic Christians having their throats sliced on the shores of the Mediterranean at Sirte, Qaddafi’s birthplace. Almost immediately, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al Sisi vowed revenge publicly during a television broadcast to Egyptians and the bombing followed hours later. The Egyptian leader said he would choose the “necessary means and timing to avenge the criminal killings” of Egypt’s citizens.
The mass execution of the Coptic Christians is fueling growing alarm in Rome and Paris at the lawlessness in Libya and especially at the rapid expansion of the Islamic State in a country just a short boat ride from southern Europe.
According to an Egyptian military spokesman speaking on radio, jihadist training camps and ammunition stores were hit in the airstrikes. There were also attacks on a compound in the eastern Libyan town of Derna, the jihadists’ main base in the country. Libyan warplanes controlled by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who backs one of two rival governments in Libya, joined in the airstrikes.
An Egyptian Armed Forces General Command spokesman said the attacks were to “avenge the bloodshed and to seek retribution from the killers. Let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield that protects them.”
This is the third time in the last few months Egyptian jets have struck targets in Libya, but the first time Cairo has acknowledged doing so. Last summer, the militia alliance called the Dawn of Libya, which controls Tripoli, the capital, accused Egypt and the United Arab Emirates of bombing its forces.
The video posted on Sunday shows footage of several men dressed in orange jumpsuits being led along a beach by masked militants in black. The men are then made to kneel and another masked jihadist in battle fatigues says to the camera in accented English: “All crusaders: safety for you will be only wishes, especially if you are fighting us all together. Therefore we will fight you all together.” He warns: “The sea you have hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.”
The captives, all immigrant workers in Libya who were abducted in two separate raids in December and January, are made to lie face down and are simultaneously beheaded in a scene reminiscent of a video posted last year of the mass beheading of Syrian soldiers by Islamic State militants in northern Syria. In the video, which displays the slick semi-professional techniques of Islamic State (widely known by the varying acronyms ISIS, ISIL and Daesh), the militant spokesman points northward after the executions, saying: “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.”
On Twitter, accounts associated with ISIS, posted links to the video carrying the title, “A Message Signed With Blood To The Nation Of The Cross.”
That threat would appear to be toward the Christian West as whole but Italian politicians also are taking the view that the threat is a literal one toward Italy. In recent weeks Italian officials, including Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, have begun to echo some French politicians talking about the need for a possible intervention in Libya to curb the lawlessness and halt the rise of ISIS.
Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told Il Messaggero newspaper over the weekend that “We have been discussing this for months but now it has become urgent.” She minced no words: “The risk is imminent, we cannot wait any longer. Italy has national defense needs and cannot have a caliphate ruling across the shores from us.”
Over the weekend, 100 Italians were repatriated from Libya, among them embassy employees and oil and gas workers, after another ISIS video warned, “We are south of Rome.” Many hundreds more who work in the lucrative Italian-Libyan companies remain. Renzi is due to address parliament on Thursday to outline a plan for intervention in Libya, which he says would only happen under a United Nations mandate.
In Washington, the White House condemned “the despicable and cowardly murder of 21 Egyptian citizens.” Obama officials added that the killings show “the urgent need for a political resolution to the conflict in Libya, the continuation of which only benefits terrorist groups.”
Fears for the hostages’ safety mounted last week when the latest version of ISIS’s English-language mouthpiece magazine, Dabiq, published photographs of the captives being marched on a beach and then forced to kneel at knifepoint by black-clad militants. Sunday’s video showed scenes identical to those in the still photos published in the magazine, suggesting the mass execution had happened earlier than this weekend.
On Saturday, officials with the internationally recognized parliament in eastern Libya said they believed the Egyptian hostages had already been executed.
In the past two years, the jihadist infiltration of Libya has grown pell-mell—fed by both domestic and external sources. Exploiting the drift into regional and warlord-based civil conflict that is tearing the Libya apart, jihadists have used the country for training and recruitment, the trafficking of weapons and arms for use elsewhere in the region, and even more ominously for developing affiliates.
Last autumn ISIS-affiliated militants declared an “emirate” in Derna, saying the town was now governed by the "Mujahideen of Libya,” and claiming the group was subdivided into three provincial branches covering the west, south and east of the country.
So far, the ISIS affiliate controls little Libyan territory, but it has been seeding cells along Libya’s coastal strip and this month launched a high-profile attack on a luxury hotel used by foreign diplomats in Tripoli, leaving at least 10 people dead. Last week, the militants announced they had seized control of the strategic coastal town of Sirte, roughly halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi, after overrunning government buildings.
Barbie Latza Nadeau also contributed reporting to this story.