Cairo announced Feb. 16 that Egyptian F-16s had carried out strikes on Islamic State camps, training areas and weapons depots in Libya in response to the group's execution of 21 Egyptian Copts. The strikes herald Cairo's increasingly public actions in the Libyan conflict as Egypt finds itself surrounded by hostile militants to the east and the west.
Though the announcement marks Egypt's first public claim of responsibility for military operations in post-Gadhafi Libya, it is clear that Egypt has been steadily ramping up its involvement in the conflict. The latest strikes may not even be the first of their kind; Egypt reportedly played a large role in UAE airstrikes on Islamist forces in Libya last August, providing bases and logistical support and possibly even sending in its own aircraft.
Egypt has also visibly bolstered its support for forces loyal to retired Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who now serves as the head of the Libyan National Army's ground forces branch under the mandate of the internationally recognized government in Tobruk. The Egyptian government has almost certainly transferred a number of aircraft to Hifter's troops, including three MiG-21MF aircraft and a few Mi-8 helicopters. Cairo is making an effort to replace its own large stockpile of Warsaw Pact-era equipment and phased-out military weaponry, and it has likely given some of it to Libyan troops despite a U.N. arms embargo against Libya. Because most of the equipment the Libyan National Army already uses also originates from the time of the Warsaw Pact, any Egyptian equipment received would be difficult to trace back to Cairo.
The Rising Islamic State Threat
The Islamic State has significantly expanded its presence in Libya over the past six months. Last November, Islamic State fighters took control of the eastern Libyan city of Darnah, near the Egyptian border. Since then, they have extended their presence westward, reportedly setting up camps in Benghazi, Sirte and even Tripoli. On Jan. 27, the militants attacked the Libyan capital's Corinthia Hotel, which usually houses many foreigners.
It is important to note, however, that the Islamic State's rise has been to the detriment of other Islamist factions in Libya, including a number of factions within Dawn of Libya and Ansar al-Sharia. Despite its shared ideology of transnational jihad, Ansar al-Sharia views the Islamic State as a competitor that can steal recruits from its ranks.
The Islamic State's footprint in Libya is also far smaller than in Syria and Iraq. Because the group poses less of a transnational threat from Libya and because external actors face unique constraints in intervening in the country, Islamic State militants in Libya have not yet drawn a high level of international military commitment. Still, this could change. The growing presence of fighters in Libya pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State could further attract the attention of foreign actors, including those that are already operating in Libya such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. It is also possible that the United States could intervene by launching air and missile strikes against Islamic State targets in Libya.
On paper, Egypt has the largest and most powerful military in the Arab world. Therefore, in theory it could deal a strong blow against the threats to Egyptian interests emanating from Libya. But in reality, Egypt continues to face considerable economic, political and military constraints that will limit its involvement in the conflict to the west.
Any extended campaign using ground troops outside of Egypt's borders would require significant financial backing, something that the hard-pressed Egyptian treasury is hardly in the position to provide. Egypt is also currently coping with a raging insurgency of its own in the Sinai Peninsula that is straining the government politically. These two factors alone will likely keep any Egyptian operations in Libya confined primarily to the use of air power.
However, even the Egyptian air force's options will be heavily restricted by inadequate intelligence and logistics support. Egypt does not maintain the dynamic intelligence, reconnaissance or surveillance assets that would be needed for flexible air campaigns that could target anything other than fixed sites. Egypt's historical focus on its eastern border with Israel has also resulted in a dearth of air bases in the west; Mersa Matruh is essentially the only Egyptian air base with relative proximity to the country's border with Libya. Egypt's lack of aerial refueling aircraft and training only compounds this problem. Taken together, these limitations will likely force the Egyptian air force to focus its strikes on eastern Libya.
Egypt's publicly claimed airstrikes point to the growing involvement of foreign powers in the Libyan conflict — a trend that is likely to continue in the future, especially if transnational jihadist groups such as the Islamic State continue to take advantage of Libya's power vacuum to grow their ranks. However, in the short term, it is unlikely that Libya will draw the same level of international attention that Syria and Iraq have, meaning that neighboring states directly affected by the conflict, such as Egypt, will be forced to shoulder the bulk of the intervention in Libya as best they can.