Egypt Strikes Libya Islamists, Italy Wary of Intervention

Egypt calls for an international effort to “defeat terrorism” in Libya. Italy isn’t so sure.

Two Egyptian Mirage fighter jets fire missiles during a training mission, October 14, 2009
Two Egyptian Mirage fighter jets fire missiles during a training mission, October 14, 2009 (USMC/Theodore W. Ritchie)

Egypt carried out airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Libya on Monday and called for a United Nations mandate to “defeat terrorism” in the North African country.

Italy, the former colonial power, seemed ambivalent about another military intervention. While some ministers urged action, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi cautioned against “hysteria and an unreasonable reaction.”

Egypt said its aircraft had bombed training sites and weapons storage areas in Derna. Militants in the city have sworn allegiance to the jihadists who declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria last year. To what extent the two coordinate is unclear.

The strikes came after a video was released that showed the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya.

Last year, Egypt provided bases for the United Arab Emirates to carry out airstrikes against militants in the vicinity of Tripoli, Libya’s capital.

American officials said at the time Emirati special forces also operated out of Egypt to destroy an Islamist camp near Derna.

Both Arab states are apprehensive about the spread of radical Islamism in the region and support the internationally-recognized Libyan government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani that took refuge in the eastern city of Tobruk after being chased out of Tripoli by Libya Dawn, a broad coalition that includes some Islamist groups but is not affiliated to the Islamic State.

Libya Dawn is primarily supported by militants from the city of Misrata. Thani’s government leans on militias from Zintan as well as the private army of General Khalifa Haftar, a former military officer who fell out with Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi before he was deposed and killed by rebels in 2011.

NATO airstrikes helped rebels defeat Gaddafi but no government has since been able to control the various militia groups that refused to disband after the civil war ended.

Taking advantage of the chaos, jihadists have expanded from their base in Derna along the coast in recent months, declaring Islamic provinces in the territories they conquered.

Egyptian leader Abdul Fatah Sisi, a former soldier himself who came to power after overthrowing an elected Islamist government, told France’s Europe 1 radio on Tuesday the United Nations should sanction an intervention in Libya. “We abandoned the Libyan people as prisoners to extremist militias,” he said.

Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni suggested his country would be prepared to join such an international effort. Interior minister Angelino Alfano, who leads the junior right-wing party in the Italian coalition government, similarly told La Repubblica newspaper, “There is not a minute to lose. We have to intervene in Libya with a UN mission. The international community must understand that it is crucial for the future of the West.”

But Renzi walked back those comments. A statement put out by the prime minister’s office read, “There was renewed Italian commitment for strong diplomatic action within the framework of the UN and support for an urgent initiative at the Security Council to promote stability and peace in Libya.”

Libya is separated from the Italian island of Sicily by only a few hundred kilometers of sea and has been a launching pad for hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees trying to get into Europe.