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Egypt announced this week it bombed bases, training grounds and weapon caches belonging to Islamic State-allied militants in neighboring Libya. The Egyptian military said the airstrikes were in retaliation for the brutal beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians at the hands of the militants, shown in a video released on Sunday.
Although this week's announcement was the first official acknowledgement of Egyptian military action inside Libya, Cairo is believed to have been involved in strikes in its neighboring country as long as six months ago.
Since the elections of June 2014, Libya has been riven by conflict between two rival coalitions - each with a parliament, prime minister and armed fighters. In August 2014, "Libya Dawn," a loose coalition of militias including moderate and extremist Islamists, Berbers and fighters from the city of Misrata, took over the capital city of Tripoli, forcing the newly elected parliament to take refuge in Libya's east. The other coalition, fighting under the banner "Operation Dignity," is led by the controversial general Khalifa Haftar. The coalition unites troops from the Gaddafi regime, as well as federalists and militias from Zintan and Benghazi and has the support of the government in the east. Militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group based in Iraq and Syria have thrived amid Libya's power vacuum and security chaos.
Haftar has the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, two regional players deeply concerned about the possibility of Islamists coming into power in Libya.
Last August, U.S. officials told The New York Times that Egypt and the UAE had secretly carried out airstrikes against Libya Dawn. The officials told the Times that Emirati fighter jets had used Egyptian bases to strike militant targets in the Libyan capital.
Libyan government officials told the Associated Press in October that Egyptian warplanes had bombed Islamist militias in the city of Benghazi at the Libyan government's request. One lawmaker claimed the Egyptian planes were “rented” from their neighbor and flown by Libyan pilots.
Egypt has denied direct involvement in airstrikes in support of Haftar up until now and it maintains it only provides training to Libyan forces loyal to its allies in the conflict.
Egypt's president, ex-military leader Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, argues that Islamist extremism poses a regional threat. His government has violently repressed the Muslim Brotherhood and is battling armed Islamist groups in the Sinai peninsula.
Sissi called this week for an international coalition to bring back stability to Libya and for lifting an arms embargo on the country. Britain and the U.S. argue that Libya needs a unified government before it can receive weapons.
The air strikes are already exacerbating Libya's divisions. Libya’s Islamist-led coalition denounced the Egyptian bombing raids this week as a violation of Libyan sovereignty. Libya's other government, Egypt’s ally, welcomed the strikes and said they were carried out with the full co-ordination of Libyan forces.
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