The Middle East is on the brink of its fourth war (after Syria, Iraq and Yemen). DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources report that Egypt is massing large-scale ground and air forces in the Western Desert along the Libyan border, in preparation for a military campaign to capture eastern Libya – Cyrenaica - from the Islamist State of Syria and Iraq – ISIS - occupation.
The substantial naval and marine forces assembling at Egypt’s Mediterranean ports indicate the possible launching of the offensive by dropping Egyptian marines on the Libyan coast around Derna (pop: 100,000), which ISIS has made its provincial capital. They may be accompanied by simultaneous landings of paratroops from the air.
For President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi, ISIS’s presence in eastern Libya (as well as Sinai) poses an unacceptable peril to his country. He has been warned in a number of intelligence reports that the Islamic State’s terrorists have already penetrated some Egyptian towns and even infiltrated certain army units.
To counter the Egyptian plan of campaign, ISIS is rushing reinforcements to eastern Libya from Syria and Iraq. From Syria, they are traveling by air or sea through the Mediterranean; from Iraq, through the Sinai Peninsula, whence oil and drug rings smuggle them across the Suez Canal and Egypt.
DEBKAfile’s sources reveal that Egypt’s projected invasion of Libya was high on the agenda of American CIA Director John Brennan’s unannounced visit to Cairo on April 19 for a meeting with the president.
In reply to his visitor’s demand for precise information on Egypt’s Libyan campaign. President El-Sisi offered an assurance that he had no intention of keeping the Egyptian army in Libya. He would pull the troops out after defeating and disarming the jihadis and hand power to the Libyan government, which has established its seat in the eastern town of Tobruk near the Egyptian border and home to Libyan military bases and oil terminals.
The Tobruk government was set up by Libyan members of parliament who fled the capital Tripoli when it was overrun by a group of extremist Islamist militias, known as the Libyan Dawn, which included elements associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM.
The head of the this government is Abdullah al-Thinni, who is recognized by the United States and most Western governments as the legitimate prime minister of Libya.
President El-Sisi was not surprised to hear from the CIA director that the Obama administration objects to a direct Egyptian invasion of Libya, but would not oppose Cairo acting through local Libyan militias. Brennan put forward the name of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a Libyan-American, who set up a militia in the eastern Libyan town of Benghazi to fight the Islamists, aided by Libyan army units based in the region.
On March 2, Prime Minister al-Thinni and the Tobruk parliament appointed Gen. Hifter commander-in-chief of the Libyan army, promoting him to the rank of lieutenant general. He was entrusted with two missions: To liberate Libya from the clutches of the Islamic militias and to rebuild the national army.
DEBKAfile’s military sources disclose that, for the past six months, the Egyptian president has given Hifter his support and even supplied him with weapons. But he does not see him as a sufficiently powerful and emblematic figure to unify the Libyan nation.
Brennan leaned hard on the Egyptian president to follow Washington’s line, but El-Sisi refused. Their differences on the Libyan campaign were reflected by omission in the joint communiqué they issued after their conversation: After discussing “regional issues, terrorism and ways of enhancing bilateral relations, the two sides agreed to continue consultation and coordination on issues of mutual interest.”
Interestingly, Egypt is ready to throw ground, sea and air forces into its offensive in Libya, while at the same time abstaining from deploying air or ground power in the Yemeni conflict, although it is a member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed rebels. Egypt is already fighting the Islamic State’s branch in Sinai. It is now gearing up to tackle the Islamist peril on its western border.