In what is a growing front in the war on the Islamic State, Egypt has admitted that it launched airstrikes against the group in Derna, Libya, a port city 150 miles east of Benghazi. The Egyptian military says that the attack is in response to a gruesome video showing Egyptian Coptic Christians being beheaded en masse.
The strikes are said to be the first time Egypt has admitted attacking targets in Libya, a country that has fallen into chaos over the last two years. A spokesman for the Egyptian military stated that the attack hit weapons caches and training camps and was "to avenge the bloodshed and to seek retribution from the killers" adding, "let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield that protects them."
Some 21 Coptic Christian Egyptian nationals were abducted in Libya last December. Egyptians have flocked to Libya to escape unemployment in their own country, even though Libya has become increasingly lawless following a brief period of calm after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. In Egypt, some are accusing the government of not doing enough to rescue the 21 kidnapped Coptic Christians, claiming Muslim Egyptians would, and have in the past, treated this situation differently. There is already great tension between Copts and Muslims in Egypt but this horrific video, and the resulting airstrikes, could create polar reactions. It could increase tension or help unify the country as a similar incident recently did in Jordan.
These unprecedented airstrikes come as Egypt has announced that it will be buying 24 French-built Dassault Rafale fighter jets. This order will give the Egyptian Air Force one of the most advanced fighters in the world and one with a completely different sustainment source than the US built F-16, which has been the air arm's top-line fighter for decades. The sale also gives the capable French super-fighter its first export customer after years of broken deals and rumored interest.
It is no secret that the US-Egyptian relationship has eroded since the ousting of long-time strongman and ally Hosni Mubarak and especially since the rise and fall of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government led by the now jailed Mohamad Morsi. With Egypt's first democratic government having been overthrown via a military coup — a move that chilled US relations with the Saharan state — and the subsequent election of military-leader turned President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a foreign power-backer and arms partner vacuum has emerged.
As a result, Putin's Russia stepped in, which has greatly deepened its ties with the el-Sisi government as of late, although the idea of a tight Russian-Egyptian relationship is nothing new. Before the Camp David Accords and throughout the majority of the Cold War, much of Egypt's military hardware came from the Soviet Union. Now, after the US showed huge distaste with the military's overthrow of Egypt's first democratically elected government and temporarily held back aid and arms as a result, the age of America's most favored weapons supplier status with Egypt — and the power that such a position wields over Egypt's arsenal — appears to be coming to an end.
Being high-up in the Egyptian military for the majority of his life, el-Sisi knows full well that modern American fighters and tanks are only effective as long as they are maintained by US contractors with a deep spare parts and logistics chain. This chain can be turned off at any given moment if the US has a deep disagreement with the Egyptian government, especially if it relates to how American weapons are being used and against whom. Within weeks of a US embargo on parts and service for American F-16s, Abrams tanks, Apache choppers, and other advanced systems, these weapons would turn into inanimate statues worth tens of billions of dollars. As a result of this situation, as well as a result of hiccups in US-Egyptian relations since taking office, el-Sisi is clearly looking elsewhere for weaponry that will allow his government to retain a larger amount of sovereignty.
Oddly enough, President el-Sisi, who had close ties with the US military during his career and even attended US Army War College, is an ardent anti-extremist, which would be a boon to the US in the region. This is especially true considering Egypt's neighbor, Libya, is becoming a lawless nation steeped in another, but much more fragmented and extremist-filled, civil war. To the south of Libya, Northern Mali remains an embattled terror state and similar extremist ideology is now popping up in multiple areas throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Another seemingly positive shift for Egypt is that the el-Sisi government has greatly enhanced relations with its could-be enemy, Israel. This is in stark contrast to what was seen as a low point in Israeli-Egyptian relations during the short reign of the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government.
There is little doubt that President el-Sisi has a growing fight on his hands against what is becoming an alarmingly more unified and violent form of extremism throughout the region, extremism that could very well metastasize into a truly pan-continental terrorist superstate. In order to effectively combat this he will need a strong geopolitical partner with advanced weapons to sell. It appears that America is not going to be that partner as it once was, at least not right now.
This leaves the US in quite a puzzling scenario with Egypt considering that we both have tightly aligned strategic interests and in many ways we have a much better potential partner in Cairo now than during the Muslim Brotherhood's short reign. In the past, the US would most likely facilitate Egypt putting pressure on the Islamic State in Africa militarily, yet the el-Sisi led coup remains a sticking point.
Considering that we still kiss the rings and bow down to many of the rulers who hale from the oil kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, of which pretty much none were ever democratically elected and they basically run police states to stay in power, overlooking a coup that many saw as a huge sigh of relief may be a pill we should have swallowed long ago.
If anything, the fact that we are not bolstering every regional ally willing to take the fight to the our common enemy with surplus gear may be just another clear sign that a strategy for actually defeating the Islamic State remains elusive.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com