- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2015

As President Obama tries to contain the chaos in the Middle East, the Islamic State group is increasingly bent on expanding the battlefield into North Africa, where the extremist group’s grisly beheadings of Egyptian Christians in Libya prompted a double wave of retaliatory airstrikes from Cairo on Monday.

Egypt’s government said its fighter jets pounded Islamic State camps and arms depots across the border in Libya, in the morning and in the afternoon, in response to a horrific video of the beheadings that analysts described as the clearest indication to date of the Syria- and Iraq-based group’s westward spread toward the Southern Mediterranean.

For the U.S. and its allies, the move signals just one more headache from a region that has been increasingly wracked by crisis in recent months.

“This video is the Islamic State really announcing their expansion into Libya,” said Andrew L. Engel, an analyst who has written extensively on the group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

What’s worse, he said, the development appears to part of a deliberate strategy to ease pressure on the jihadi group in Syria and Iraq by drawing Washington and its allies toward a major front opening in North Africa.

Mr. Engel said the video was not only about the Islamic State’s establishment of a base in Libya, but also about an explicit threat to the West.

The most gruesome video of its kind from an Islamic State affiliate outside the group’s core territory in Syria and Iraq, the clip showed several men in orange jumpsuits with their arms bound behind their backs being led along a beach by black-masked militants.

The men were ordered to kneel, and a lone militant addressed the camera in North American-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 said. “The sea you have hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.”

The men then were laid face-down in the sand and simultaneously beheaded.

Sources within Libya’s struggling government said Islamic State-aligned militants had kidnapped the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians weeks ago during terrorist raids on the coastal Libyan city of Sirte.

The men were migrant laborers from Egypt. Before the video was released, their fate was unknown. It was not clear from the video whether all 21 were executed.

The reality that such terrorist tactics are being employed in Libya presents a new challenge for Washington, which is locked in a debate over expanding the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq while preventing the spread of violent extremism to other regions.

In a statement Sunday night, the White House condemned the beheadings as an act of “despicable and cowardly murder” and asserted that it “only further galvanizes the international community to unite against ISIL.”

Republicans say the White House strategy lacks commitment and focus. The president submitted to Congress last week legislation calling for a new war-fighting resolution that ultimately will shape the way U.S. forces can confront the extremist group during the coming years.

While Mr. Obama has called for an authorization that would allow the use of military force — unhindered by geographic boundaries — against the Islamic State for three years, the administration’s current strategy has focused largely on trying to build a coalition of regional allies to participate in bombing raids against the extremists, as well as to fight them on the ground.

The approach has yielded limited success in Syria and Iraq, where Islamic State advances have been halted but where the group continues to hold significant territory.

Jordan ramped up its airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria after the recent release of a video that showed the burning of a captured Jordanian fighter pilot, but reports show that the U.S. is taking the vast majority of military action against the extremists.

As of early February, the U.S. military had conducted 946 strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. Meanwhile, the militaries of Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates combined had carried out 79 strikes, according to an NPR report.

Expanding the alliance

Still, the swiftness with which the Egyptian military unleashed airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya on Monday suggested that the Obama administration may be expanding its regional partnership strategy against the militants in North Africa.

After the grisly video was released on the Internet, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi pledged during a televised address Sunday night to respond aggressively to the threat posed by the Islamic State, which is seen to be increasingly active in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in addition to Libya.

“These cowardly actions will not undermine our determination,” said Mr. el-Sissi, who banned all travel to Libya by Egyptian citizens and said his government reserves the right to seek retaliation. “Egypt and the whole world are in a fierce battle with extremist groups carrying extremist ideology and sharing the same goals.”

The beheading video’s producers identified themselves as members of a Libyan outfit calling itself the “Tripolitania Province” of the Islamic State. The groups earlier circulated a series of photos on the Internet expressing loyalty to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In a macabre twist, an online propaganda magazine believed to be produced by al-Baghdadi’s followers in Syria and Iraq published a still photo that appears to have been taken from the Libyan beheading video.

That the photo was published last week suggests the beheading video may have been shot more than a few days ago. It also shows a level of direct link between the Islamic State’s operation in Libya and its activities in Syria and Iraq that U.S. officials had not been willing to acknowledge.

U.S. intelligence officials expressed a rising level of concern and uncertainty about the group’s activities in Libya in recent days. National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen testified to Congress last week that Libya’s political environment is “chaotic.”

Homegrown Libyan militant groups and offshoots of al Qaeda were known to be operating in Libya, which has seen weak central control and increasing domestic clashes since the Western-led ouster of strongman Moammar Gadhafi in October 2012, Mr. Rasmussen said.

“What’s changed more recently which made the environment there even more difficult is that ISIS, ISIL has looked to also take advantage of the chaos in Libya and establish a foothold there as well,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

“We are still looking to try to assess whether that capability will manifest itself in external operations outside the region of North Africa, or if the intent is simply to give themselves the capability to attack Western interests in places like Cairo or Algiers or Tunis or Morocco,” he said. “That, by itself, would be of significant sufficient concern to warrant our attention, but we’re obviously mindful of what they might try to do to expand into Europe as well and potentially threaten our interests there.”

The Libyan strike has the potential to rally a much broader coalition to confront the Islamic State. Pope Francis and Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah were among those condemning the executions of the Egyptian Coptic Christians.

However, Mr. Nasrallah introduced a counternarrative into the mix, saying the Islamic State is a creature of the CIA and Israel’s Mossad secret service, because Israel has not been affected by the Islamic State and therefore must be behind it.

Italy, a NATO ally with major historic and economic ties to Libya, strongly condemned the Islamic State video and urged a tough response.

Mr. el-Sissi, the Egyptian president, spoke with the French president and Italian prime minister Monday about Libya and sent his foreign minister, Sameh Shukri, to New York to consult at the United Nations ahead of a terrorism conference opening Wednesday in Washington, The Associated Press reported.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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