The Egyptian government said Monday that it had bombed Islamist targets throughout Libya Monday to retaliate for the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians whose murders on a beach apparently near Tripoli were recorded and posted Sunday on the Internet.
The beheading of the Egyptian Christians and the swift Egyptian retaliation further tangled Libya’s already byzantine power struggle, where two governments rule, one in Tripoli, the country’s capital, and one in Tobruk, near Libya’s border with Egypt. Militias, some of them with ties to al Qaida and the Islamic State, operate without challenge throughout the country.
The murdered Copts were some of the thousands of Egyptians who’ve come to work in Libya’s oil rich but manpower poor economy and had been taken hostage in December.
While the video claimed the Egyptian workers were killed near Tripoli, the the country’s west, Egyptian air strikes appeared primarily to strike targets in the eastern city of Derna, where the Islamic State first declared its presence in November.
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The Egyptian government, in an announcement on state-run television at about 8:30 local time, said it had conducted “retribution and response to the criminal acts of terrorist elements and organizations inside and outside the country.”
“We stress that revenge for the blood of Egyptians, and retribution from the killers and criminals, is a right we must dutifully enforce,” the narrator said as a montage of military images played on the screen.
“Honor, nation,” it continued. “This is the slogan of men who ask for death as a sacrifice for the nation. They are men who do not know the meaning of impossible. They penetrate rocks and mountains, and they challenge difficulties. They race each other for martyrdom, on land, sea and air. Their life is a heroic epic, and their martyrdom a sacrifice for dignity and a pride for Egypt.”
The 21 hostages appeared to include about 20 Coptic Christian Egyptian guest workers kidnapped from in and around the Libyan city of Sirte in two separate abductions. Thousands of Egyptians and African guest workers work in Libya, a nation with 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves and a population of just six million. Despite widespread domestic poverty, most manual labor is performed by foreign workers.
The video posted Sunday night bore the logo of the media arm of the Islamic State, which occupies portions of Syria and Iraq, and suggested that ties between the group in those countries and those who have claimed allegiance to it in Libya were closer than had been previously suspected. Groups in Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan and Yemen have also claimed allegiance to the Islamic State.
Titled “A Message in Blood to the People of the Cross,” the video was stylistically similar to previous Islamic State videos. The 21 victims wore orange jumpsuits. Each was accompanied by a knife wielding executioner dressed in black as they were led along the beach.
A masked killer speaking in fluent English cited the death of al Qaida founder Osama Bin Laden and tensions between Copts and Muslims in neighboring Egypt as the motive for the beheadings. The men were forced to lie on their stomachs, then were beheaded. The video ends with the blood of the victims pouring into the Mediterranean.
At one stage the spokesman makes reference to the conquest of Rome. Libya was once an Italian colony, and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi made reference in a speech last summer to its conquest.
“[It’s a] clear attempt to claim to be true inheritors of Bin Laden's legacy by invoking him, just as IS names training camps and schools after him,” said Aymenn al Tamimi, an analyst for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.
He also noted that Egyptian Muslims and Coptic Christians have long been rivals and that the Islamic State’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, had claimed an attack on a church in Baghdad in 2010 as revenge for the alleged captivity of “Camila,” an Egyptian Copt whose desire to convert to Islam had been thwarted by church leaders who kept her imprisoned. That tale that has become legend in Islamist circles but has never been confirmed.
Still, the tensions offered an easy excuse of the slaughter.
“The chaos of Libya provides IS a good environment to operate in with potential to expand as much as any hyper-sectarian atmosphere,” said Tamimi.
Egypt last bombed Libyan Islamist targets in August, conducting a series of secret air raids with the United Arab Emirates on Tripoli, when fighting was raging there. The United States evacuated its embassy in July.
Italy, the last remaining Western nation with a diplomatic outpost in Libya, closed its embassy on Sunday.