Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was quick to launch air strikes on militants in Libya in response to a deadly attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt – but the attacks do not seem to be targeting those responsible.
The response was popular with many Egyptians. The country’s state-owned and private news media celebrated it as swift justice, but the president has been vague about exactly who he is attacking.
The strikes have been directed at Islamist groups other than Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for Friday’s massacre of dozens in the southern Minya province and seem to be intended to shore up Sisi’s allies in eastern Libya.
“The attacks in Minya were claimed by Islamic State and there are Islamic State elements active in Libya, but reports indicate Cairo is targeting other groups,” said H.A. Hellyer, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
In any case analysts say the strikes will not do much against Islamists in Cairo, Sinai and Upper Egypt, where they have had a stronghold since the 1990s and have been attacking tourists, Copts and government officials.
Bombing the camps in Libya is seen as a diversion for a failure to defeat Islamists inside Egypt.
“It’s easier to strike a terrorist camp in Libya by air than it is to clean up serious problems inside Egypt; sectarianism, radicalisation that led to this and other attacks,” said Michele Dunne, director of Carnegie’s Middle East programme.
“All the horrific terrorism inside Egypt has purely domestic drivers and probably would be happening if Islamic State did not exist. It is not all that different from the home-grown terrorism Egypt experienced in the 1990s, before Al Qaeda or Islamic State even existed,” she said.
Egyptian and Libyan officials said strikes were launched on camps and ammunition stores belonging to the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC). Areas targeted include the western entrance to Derna, Dahr al-Hamar in the south, and al-Fatayeh, a hilly area about 20 km from the city.
Yet the DMSC has never been involved in attacks outside Libya and mostly limits its activities to Derna, rarely fighting in larger conflicts in Libya, according to Mohamed Eljarh, an Atlantic Council political analyst in Libya.
The group denies taking part in attacks in Egypt.
In fact, many suggest the air strikes were planned in advance to shore up support for Sisi’s main Libyan ally, Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Minya massacre was used as a pretext to launch.
Forces loyal to Haftar, a military strongman like Sisi, have long been fighting the DMSC, cutting off supply routes to the city and hitting it with occasional air strikes. Despite the LNA siege the military situation in Derna has been stalemated for months.
Egypt also carried out strikes in Jufra, where LNA has been fighting Islamists who fled Benghazi as well as forces linked to the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
LNA lost dozens of men there in a surprise attack on an air base earlier in May, but has since consolidated control.
The Minya attack was a catalyst for those inside the Egyptian government and military in favour of military intervention in Libya, said Mokhtar Awad, who researches extremism at George Washington University.
“This is Egypt taking action not because of the Minya attack but to drive out as many extremists as possible from the east,” he said.
‘THEY ARE ALL TERRORISTS’
Egypt says it does not target specific groups but goes after all militants who could be a threat to its security. A military spokesman told state media all groups targeted have the same ideology as those who carried out the Minya massacre, reason enough to bomb them.
“Names are not important for us, they are all terrorists. Those who carried out the Minya operation do not necessarily have to be in these camps but their followers are,” an Egyptian intelligence source told Reuters.
Egypt sees any militant activity in eastern Libya, near its border, as a threat to national security. One of the reasons Sisi supported Haftar since 2014 is to ensure all Islamists are driven out of eastern Libya.
Sisi is becpming more involved now because of improved relations with Washington, Eljarh said. He believes USPresident Donald Trump has given him the green light to fight jihadists in Libya and elsewhere.
When Sisi announced the first round of air strikes on television, he implored Trump to support him.
Trump, who has made a point of improving relations with Cairo, said his country stood with Sisi and the Egyptian people.