SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt: Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi says Islamic State militants are making their way to his country via Libya after the defeat of the extremist group in Syria and Iraq.
Egypt has been battling a powerful IS affiliate in its northeastern Sinai Peninsula for the last three years, and has recently seen an uptick in attacks in its vast western desert region, which borders chaotic Libya. Al-Sisi said a “strategic imbalance” caused by the regional turmoil had forced Egypt to build up its military in recent years. The country has spent more than $10 billion since 2014 on a wide array of weaponry, including French-made Rafale fighter jets and helicopter carriers, MiG-29 fighter jets and assault helicopters from Russia, and submarines from Germany.
The shopping spree comes at a time when Egypt’s economy is struggling to recover from years of unrest since the 2011 uprising. Egypt secured a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund last year to bolster reform efforts, and it receives some $1.3 billion a year in US military aid. Speaking at a news conference at the Red Sea resort of Sharm Al-Sheikh late Wednesday, Al-Sisi said it was only “natural” that IS militants would flee to Libya, which has been mired in chaos since its own 2011 uprising.
“We must have the military capabilities that compensate for that imbalance in the region and to counter terrorism,” he said. “This is a threat not just faced by us, but also by Europe.”
Libya is split between two governments, each backed by an array of militias. Egypt supports Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, a military leader in the east who is at odds with UN-backed authorities in Tripoli. Forces allied to the UN-backed government drove IS from its main Libyan stronghold last year.
Egypt has long sought to portray terrorism as a threat originating outside its borders, but experts say the insurgency in Sinai is rooted in longstanding local grievances. New militant groups have emerged elsewhere in Egypt in the wake of the 2013 military overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president, which was led by Al-Sisi.
Last month, militants attacked Egyptian security forces west of Cairo in what appeared to be an elaborate ambush. The Interior Ministry said 16 police officers were killed, but security officials said the toll exceeded 50. Al-Sisi said subsequent operations by security forces have killed the 14 militants he said participated in the attack. He said a “foreign” militant was captured alive, and that up to 20 vehicles loaded with fighters and weapons were destroyed over the past week in the western desert. –AP