TIME Libya

ISIS Re-Establish Their Hold On Qaddafi’s Home Town After Crushing a Rebellion

Libya Sirte ISIS
Goran Tomasevic— Reuters Libya Dawn fighters fire an artillery cannon at ISIS militants near Sirte in March 2015.

The U.N. says 38 were killed in the rising

Fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militants have reestablished dominance over the Libyan city of Sirte after using brutal force to suppress a rebellion by residents of the city in recent days.

The militants shelled a residential neighborhood and hung at least four bodies from lampposts in the coastal city, according to witnesses who spoke to the U.N. Support Mission in Libya. The militants also beheaded 12 people, according to the foreign minister from Libya’s internationally-recognized government who spoke to officials from Arab states in Cairo on Tuesday.

The fighting in Sirte underscores the persistence of an ISIS-dominated enclave in Libya that emerged from the chaos of a civil war pitting two rival governments and a range of local militias against one another. For months, neither of the competing governments or their allied military forces have demonstrated an ability to dislodge the extremists.

In the context of the Libyan political stalemate, the fighting in Sirte also raises the question of whether ISIS can maintain a hold on its only territorial island outside of the group’s heartland in Iraq and Syria. ISIS was driven out of a separate enclave in the eastern Libyan city of Derna after a campaign by a rival militia earlier this summer.

“It’s not a coincidence that those who rose against ISIS in Sirte were just a group of shabab, you know, it’s like the local boys. There was never any attempt by the Tobruk government to put together a military force to fight against ISIS in Sirte or in the surrounding areas,” says Claudia Gazzini, a Tripoli-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

The rebellion in Sirte began after ISIS shot dead a local preacher, Khaled Ben Rajab al-Ferjani, who was known for his opposition to the group, on the night of Aug. 10. Members of the sheikh’s Firjan tribe, attacked ISIS but were defeated. As many as 38 people died, according to estimates cited by the U.N.

The details of the fighting in Sirte are disputed and impossible to verify. In a video uploaded to YouTube that claims to document the clashes on the night of August 11, the sound of explosions and automatic gunfire can be heard in the darkness. A widely circulated photo identified as emerging from Sirte appears to show bodies hanging from scaffolding.

Frederic Wehrey, an expert on Libya at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says the conflagration in Sirte could represent an underlying problem with ISIS’ strategy in Libya, where the group may be attempting to replicate its approach in parts of Iraq and Syria by attempting to win the support of some local groups. According to Wehrey, ISIS had in fact recruited members of the same tribe that rebelled against it in Sirte.

“ISIS is moving in and it’s playing this tribal card, in some cases the tribes. Local tribes may support it out of expediency and self-protection as they do in Iraq or Syria,” he says. “But that’s a thin bargain, and something went wrong here in Sirte, and the bargain unraveled. In some cases it shows the limits of ISIS’ expansion in Libya that they bump up against these tribal barriers and they’re forced to act with great brutality.”

The city of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast in north central Libya, has been a focal point for the jihadists in the last year. The group, who reportedly include a number of foreign fighters, established a foothold as state institutions receded across the country in the the civil war.

Sirte is the hometown of Muammar Qaddafi, the dictator who ruled Libya until his demise in the NATO-backed uprising of 2011. According to Gazzini and other experts, the ISIS branch in the city succeeded in recruiting people who still profess loyalty to the old regime, offering them a chance at a comeback from the years when they faced persecution under the forces that came to power following the revolution.

Sirte was where ISIS abducted Coptic Egyptian workers who were among the 21 men executed on video in February. Some of the workers were seized from a vehicle while attempting to flee the city after other Christians were murdered in the town. Sirte is also believed to be the base for the group’s raids on the oilfields in the desert south of the city.

At the meeting of Arab diplomats in Cairo on Tuesday, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Dairi called for the removal of a U.N.-imposed arms embargo, arguing that the ban was depriving his government of the weapons it needs to battle the jihadists. That demand, supported by Egypt, was a restatement of a long-held position by the recognized government, which only controls parts of Eastern Libya.

Experts monitoring the fighting in Libya cast doubt on the foreign minister’s argument.

“It’s clear that the inability of the Libyan military to tackle situations like Sirte, to tackle terrorist groups like ISIS is not only the result of their lack of weapons,” says Gazzini. “It’s primarily the result of their inability to coordinate and to put together a military force that is capable of intervening in such scenarios.”

Meanwhile, as in Iraq and Syria, ISIS have established a stronghold, which could be a base for future growth in Libya and beyond, amid the vacuum of civil war.

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s Security In Question After ISIS Beheading of Croatian

Tomislav Salopek is the second foreigner to be killed by extremists in the last two years

A photo claiming to show the decapitated body of a Croatian hostage killed by ISIS-backed fighters is raising renewed concern about security in Egypt for tourists and foreign workers in the wake of weeks of attacks by insurgents.

The image that surfaced on social media on Wednesday appeared to show the decapitated body of Tomislav Salopek, 30, who worked in Egypt for a subcontractor for CGG, a French oil services company.

Salopek was kidnapped in July on a desert road on the outskirts of Cairo, some 50 kilometers from the city’s edge, according to an early official account. The gunmen who seized him released his Egyptian driver, according to the same account.

If confirmed, it would be the second killing by insurgents of a foreign worker on Egyptian soil, and the first that resembles previous executions of hostages by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Moreover the death of a foreign worker abducted in Egypt’s “mainland” undermines recent attempts by Egypt’s military-backed government to project an aura of security and renewal after years of unrest.

“Egypt is trying to increase foreign direct investment but it’s going to make it difficult to bring foreigners who want to work as part of that investment because of concerns over risk,” says Angus Blair, president of the Signet Institute, an economic and political think tank in Cairo.

“It’s more bad news. Egypt’s authorities have banned all movement of foreign workers outside of armed convoys,” he says, referring primarily to workers in the oil and gas sectors working far outside Egypt’s cities. Blair says he did not expect recent event to affect tourism, as tourist sites are “protected by the military.”

The execution of a foreign hostage could also suggest a new approach for the so-called Sinai Province of the Islamic State, which has waged a deadly insurgency against the Egyptian state. The “Sinai Province” grew out of another group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which allied with ISIS in 2014.

To date, the majority of those attacks have been concentrated on Egypt’s military and police, in Sinai, Cairo, the Nile Delta and elsewhere. In 2014 the militants killed an American oil worker, William Henderson.

Following an increase in attacks in June and July, security has been ramped up at Egyptian government and foreign buildings in Cairo. Trucks unloading concrete blast walls are a familiar sight in the capital. In one attack in July, a bomb destroyed part of the Italian consulate in central Cairo.

The still image of a headless body that emerged on Wednesday identifies the victim in Arabic as a “Croatian prisoner ‘whose country participates in the war on the Islamic State.’” Superimposed alongside the image are two clippings from Arabic media seemingly meant to confirm Croatia’s participation in the coalition against ISIS. One clipping appears to be a screenshot from the website of the Jordanian newspaper al-Dostor.

The image shows a head stacked on top of a headless body, the hands bound behind the back, a stream of blood oozing from the neck onto desert sand. Adjacent to the body is a knife plunged into the sand, while behind the body is the black flag used by ISIS fighters. Projected onto the sand are shadows of what appear to be two people, possibly the executioners, standing behind the camera.

In a video released a week ago, Salopek’s captors threatened to kill him within 48 hours unless the Egyptian government released “Muslim women” from prison in what could be a reference to the thousands detained in a two-year political crackdown since the military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi from power.

That ultimatum was issued on the eve of Egypt’s inauguration of the Suez Canal, a project hailed by the government as a turning point for the Egyptian economy. For days, a lavish state-sponsored celebration of the canal dominated headlines in Egypt, largely burying news of the threat on Salopek’s life.

TIME Egypt

Egypt to Open New Improved Suez Canal

Mideast Egypt Suez Canal
Nariman El-Mofty—AP A woman looks at a new section of the Suez Canal during a media tour in Ismailia, Egypt, on July 29, 2015.

Canal expected to double its capacity by 2023

Egypt has completed construction of a multibillion-dollar expansion of the Suez Canal that the government says will boost the country’s economy and aid world trade.

The expansion was a massive project completed in just one year after it was initially projected to take three. It adds 35 kilometers of new channels, in addition to 37 kilometers of existing waterways that were dredged to allow larger ships to pass. According to the Suez Canal Authority, 258 million cubic meters of earth were removed from the desert to cut the new channels.

The development will allow more ships to pass through the canal on a given day, reducing wait times for one of the world’s most important shipping channels. The government expects that the project, along with increases in world trade, will increase the daily number of ships from 49 at present to 97 a day by 2023. The project’s total cost is more than $8 billion, but the government claims it will more than double the annual revenue generated by the canal, which is currently around $3 billion.

The canal was completed in 1869 and it allowed ships to get from Europe to South Asia without sailing around Africa. Control of it was considered so important that Britain, France and Israel tried to wrest it away from Egypt in 1956

For Egypt’s military-backed government, the completion of the project at lighting speed offers a chance to project an image of competence, prosperity, and stability after years of unrest following the 2011 uprising that unseated president Hosni Mubarak. The new portions of the canal are set to be inaugurated next week in an elaborate ceremony in which the government is expected tout the new canal as glorious achievement.

The task of portraying Egypt as stable takes on a particular urgency since the Egyptian state is fighting an ongoing battle against insurgents based in the Sinai Peninsula. An upsurge in attacks began in July 2013 after Egypt’s armed forces deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi who had been elected a year earlier. Since June, militants have assassinated Egypt’s chief prosecutor, attacked military positions, and launched a missile at a naval vessel in the Mediterranean.

“If they’re able to carry it out without any compromising security incidents, they’re also going to use this as an opportunity to project a different image of Egypt, an image of Egypt as stable, able to carry out major public works, and defend competently against these jihadi enemies,” said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation in New York.

The government’s message was clear on the banks of the canal on Wednesday, where officials had installed a billboard saying, “Welcome to safe Egypt and its secure canal.” At a news conference in the city of Ismailia, Suez Canal Authority chairman Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish repeteadly used the word “safe.”

“The whole world uses the Suez Canal. The world and the shipping lines are partners. We are sending them messages. We want to again assure everybody that the Suez Canal is very safe and secure, he said.

“The government is dealing with the whole thing in a very propagandistic manner,” says Amr Adly, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The way the project was launched was to indicate that the new military-backed regime can do something, and they have proved their capacity to do something.”

Adly said that due to a lack of transparency it was difficult to assess the potential economic impact of the expanded canal. “There is definitely a political element in it,” he says. “It has a potential of course. There is a good chance that it will increase the revenue. But the way it is being dealt with, we don’t have enough information.”

TIME Egypt

Egypt Is Struggling to Cope With Its ISIS Insurgency

Palestinian watches as smokes rises from an Egyptian coastguard vessel on the coast of northern Sinai, as seen from the border of southern Gaza Strip with Egypt
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa—Reuters A Palestinian watches as smokes rises from an Egyptian coastguard vessel on the coast of northern Sinai, as seen from the border of southern Gaza Strip with Egypt, on July 16, 2015.

A rocket attack on a warship was just the latest in a series of escalating attacks on Egyptian forces in Sinai

They have attacked on land and at sea, killing dozens of soldiers. They have assassinated a senior official in daylight and attempted to seize a small Sinai town.

The insurgents control no significant area of land, but they are far from being defeated. A season of deadly attacks by insurgents in Egypt — including those backed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria group (ISIS) — underscores an escalating insurgency that the Egyptian state is struggling to suppress.

The surge in violence began in late June when Egypt’s chief prosecutor was killed in a car bombing in daylight in an upscale Cairo neighborhood. Two days later, the ISIS-affiliated militants launched a massive assault on military positions in north Sinai, attempting to seize control of a small chunk of territory in Egypt. At least 17 Egyptian soldiers died, although some reports placed the death toll much higher.

The attacks did not stop there. Early on the morning of July 11, a bomb destroyed part of the Italian consulate in Cairo. Another attack targeted soldiers on the Suez road. Later, Wilayet Sinai published photos of a missile hitting an Egyptian navy ship in the Mediterranean. The Egyptian military said no one died, while the insurgents claimed they killed the whole crew.

“Each attack is greater than the last one. It indicates a systematic failure, both on a strategic level and a tactical one,” said Ismail Alexandrani, an Egyptian analyst currently in Washington following a fellowship with the Woodrow Wilson Center. “All propaganda or optimistic analysis of this is just wishful thinking,” he says in a phone interview, “the worst is yet to come.”

Even before the massive June 1 assault in north Sinai, violent attacks were on the rise. In June, militants launched 130 separate attacks, according to reports compiled by the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. That number marks an increase in reported attacks since the beginning of 2015.

The most significant group behind the current wave of militancy is the Islamic State’s “Sinai Province” (Wilayat Sinai in Arabic). That group, originally known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM), pledged fealty to the Islamic State group in 2014. The group has been responsible for killing hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police in recent years.

The current uptick in the insurgency began in the summer of 2013, after the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist elected the previous year. Hundreds died and thousands more have been jailed and injured in a state clampdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

The government has indicated that their response to the current violence will feature more restrictive measures. These include a proposed law that would criminalize media reporting that contradicts official accounts. The legislation initially included a two-year jail sentence for such reporting, but the draft was revised, imposing a fine of 200,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($25,530 to $63,840).

Reeling from the violence, the government is also making internal changes. Interior minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar carried out a major reshuffle of security officials, replacing 24 heads of security, according to the state newspaper Al-Ahram on Thursday. The security chiefs in greater Cairo will remain in place, while north Sinai will receive a new security director.

Arrayed against the state are multiple militant groups with varying capabilities. The Sinai Province remains the most potent, claiming responsibility for the north Sinai offensive, the Suez road attack, and the attack on the naval ship. The group did not however claim the assassination of the chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat.

According to news reports, Egyptian security officials suspect that a former special forces officer turned militant leader masterminded the attacks. The former commander, Hisham Ashmawy, recently released an audio recording in which he urged a holy war against the government.

Until recently, Ashmawy was thought to be imparting his military expertise to the Sinai Province group, but in the new recording, Ashmawy indicates he is affiliated with a new group Al-Murabitoun, aligned with ISIS’ predecessor and main rival in the jihadist universe: Al-Qaeda. The recording, posted on YouTube, opens with a video of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri.

If authentic, the message from Ashmawy illustrates the depth and complexity of the problem facing Egyptian authorities already locked in battle with the ISIS-linked Sinai Province. It could also signal divisions within the insurgency in Egypt that map roughly onto the global rivalry between ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

“Ashmawy did likely train many militants but it seems he was among the dissident voices against the ISIS pledge of allegiance,” said Mokhtar Awad, a research associate tracking Egyptian militant movements at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

“Much of his military knowledge has however been absorbed by ABM, so his departure may not necessarily translate into a blow to their capacity as they now have other (likely ISIS trained) commanders,” Awad said in an email.

Egypt has a history of military officers joining the ranks of Islamist militants. The assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981 was carried out by a group of officers led by Abboud al-Zomour and Khaled al-Islambouli. In the current conflict, Ashmawy is not the only former military officer to defect to the insurgents. By all accounts their numbers are small, but analysts say they could be responsible for transferring knowledge to the militants.

Egypt’s central government has battled militancy in the Sinai for years. The peninsula, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, has been marginalized in the Egyptian system since Israel withdrew its occupying troops following the 1979 peace accord. Local Bedouin citizens are barred from joining the military and the people of the Sinai have been sidelined from much of the region’s economic development over the last three decades.

Regardless of the ferocity of the recent attacks, analysts also point out that the ISIS presence in Egypt looks different than it does in Syria and Iraq. The so-called Sinai Province controls no territory of any significance. Unlike the Iraqi army which fled advancing ISIS fighters last year, the Egyptian military reportedly managed to retake the town of Sheikh Zuwaid during the July 1 onslaught.

“Wilayet Sinai has and always will be a Sinai based, Sinai focused group. It can be contained. There is a reason why it is called Wilayet Sinai and not Wilayet Egypt,” says Awad. “Even ISIS central recognizes that the group has a limit. But with the ISIS pledge the group is caught between being a local actor and part of an international project.”

TIME Middle East

Jihadist Believed Killed By U.S Air Strike Had Been Eclipsed by ISIS

airstrike
Hamad Mohammed — Reuters Planes have been taking off from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN77) to strike key positions taken over by the Islamic State fighters in Iraq, August 12, 2014.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who gained notoriety for an attack on an Algerian oil field in 2013, had "faded" as a threat

A U.S. air strike targeting a top militant leader in Libya on Sunday underscored the complex and ever shifting politics of Libya’s internal conflict that has created a haven for insurgents from elsewhere in the region.

The air strike early on Sunday targeted Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian man once regarded as one of the top militant leaders in North Africa. Libya’s internationally recognized government announced that Belmokhtar had been killed in the U.S. air strike near the Libyan city of Ajdabiya. The U.S. military confirmed Belmokhtar was the target but did not say whether he had died.

Belmokhtar took refuge in Libya, where state institutions have unraveled in the years following the 2011 revolution that toppled the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The political disintegration of Libya created an opening for transnational jihadist groups including the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which found footholds in Libya after overrunning large parts of Iraq and Syria last year.

In the context of the power vacuum in Libya, ISIS and other groups have come to eclipse Belmokhtar and those loyal to him, who are best known for the 2013 attack on a gas field near In Amenas, Algeria, in which more than 100 people died. Capitalizing on a complex civil war between two rival governments, ISIS has established affiliates in each of Libya’s three regions.

“I think that his star in the broader jihadist galaxy of leaders and groups has faded,” said Imad Mesdoua, a political analyst with the consultancy Africa Matters in London. “He represents this group shift, the growing changes. The jihadist world is undergoing, in its depth, serious changes amongst themselves.”

The arc of Belmokhtar’s personal story maps onto a larger history of militancy in North Africa. Born in Algeria, he fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and returned to fight in in Algeria’s brutal civil war in the 1990s. He later moved to Mali where he became a fixture of a local insurgency. He funded his activities through hostage taking and cigarette smuggling and as a result earned the nickname Mr. Marlboro.

In spite of his notoriety (French intelligence once reportedly described him as uncatchable), Belmokhtar’s importance had already begun to wane in the lead-up to the attack on the In Amenas gas field. Prior to the attack, the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) wrote to him, scolding him as one might chide an intransigent employee. In the correspondence, discovered by the Associated Press in a house once used by the group, he is criticized for failing to file expenses and to make himself available for phone calls. Worst of all in his al-Qaeda superiors’ eyes, he had simply failed to deliver a major attack.

Belmokhtar split with AQIM, and the “spectacular” attack his bosses had hoped for came in the form of the siege on the gas field near In Amenas. “In Amenas was his claim to fame,” says Mesdoua. “It was his moment to shine in jihadist circles because he conducted a major operation.”

Belmohktar’s role in the murky and ever shifting undercurrents of the Libyan conflict is less clear. The U.S. airstrike targeting him comes at a moment of instability in Libya. In recent days, rival militias have attempted to push ISIS out of the eastern city of Derna, where the group first found local partners in Libya.

News reports indicated that the strike also targeted members of the Libyan Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is aligned with al-Qaeda and recently has been positioning itself as a bulwark against ISIS, including in Derna.

“I think the message is being sent that Ansar al-Sharia will continue to be on a possible hit list. This is understandable. It’s also problematic because in other areas of Libya we’re seeing Ansar al-Sharia pitching itself as a bastion against ISIS,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst with International Crisis Group. “Bottom line, there is a risk of creating ripple effects. What these effects will be is still not clear,” she said.

“The U.S. air strike will definitely have some destabilizing effect within Libya,” said Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan political analyst. “Some people will be using it within Libya in the wider political struggle. It is bad time for the political dialogue that is taking place,” he said, referring to the U.N.-mediated effort to broker a peace deal in the country.

TIME Egypt

Former Egyptian President Faces Death Penalty

Mohammed Morsi
Tarek el-Gabbas—AP Egypt's ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi sits in a defendant cage in the Police Academy courthouse in Cairo, May 8, 2014.

Former President Mohamed Morsi will be judged and sentenced on Tuesday

Mohamed Morsi, once the elected president of Egypt, could be sentenced to death on Tuesday at the conclusion of a trial that has been one of the symbols of a state clampdown on the Islamists who once governed the country.

The former leader’s predicament is a sign of the sweeping reversal of fortunes suffered by his Muslim Brotherhood movement since he was removed from power by the military.

Morsi came to power in the country’s first election following the 2011 revolution that ended three decades of autocratic rule by President Hosni Mubarak. After a deeply polarizing year in office and a huge wave of protests against him, he was deposed by the armed forces in July 2013.

The military-backed government that replaced Morsi launched a crackdown on his supporters, producing the worst season of political violence in Egypt’s contemporary history. The Muslim Brotherhood was later designated a terrorist organization and its leaders jailed and placed on trial.

Following his removal from power, Morsi and several other former officials disappeared, their whereabouts unknown for weeks. Morsi resurfaced in in court in November 2013. When asked to identify himself, he told the court, “I am Dr. Mohamed Morsi and I am the President of the republic.”

In spite of Morsi’s defiance, the Brotherhood as an organization was sent into the political wilderness. Government and media alike portrayed them as terrorists, blaming them for a recent upsurge in armed attacks. Repulsed by Morsi’s own tone-deaf and autocratic tenure in power, erstwhile political allies abandoned them.

Several other Brotherhood leaders have been sentenced to death, including the group’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, who was convicted in a mass trial of 183 people for plotting violence following Morsi’s removal.

“The government is using death sentences as part of an elaborate signaling game in its talks with the Brotherhood, essentially holding some of the group’s officials as hostages to pressure the Brotherhood into submitting to the government’s terms,” said Aziz El-Kaissouni, a political analyst and former visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Morsi would be the trump card in that process; sentencing him to death wouldn’t leave much more room for escalation,” he said.

The former president is currently a defendant in three separate trials: one for spying, one for escaping prison during the 2011 uprising, and one for inciting the killing of demonstrators in 2012. The verdict and sentence are expected in the third trial on Tuesday.

The charges stem from violence that unfolded outside the presidential palace in Cairo in December 2012, when plainclothes Brotherhood supporters clashed with demonstrators. The incident marked a marked a political turning point. Many Egyptians saw the clashes as a troubling sign of the breakdown of public order.

Now Morsi is set to be sentenced by a court that has played a key role in the state campaign against the Brotherhood. Hundreds of Egyptians, including numerous alleged Brotherhood supporters, have been sentenced to death in mass trials. However any death sentence is unlikely to be carried out immediately.

“The judiciary is now extremely politicized and is used as a tool by the current government,” said Samer Shehata, an Egypt scholar at the University of Oklahoma. “We need no further confirmation,” he said, “that political space has closed considerably in Egypt and the country is not democratizing.”

Since the 2013 military takeover, Egypt has been shaken by an increase in insurgent attacks that have claimed the lives of hundreds of members of the security forces, particularly in the north Sinai region. Government officials blame the Brotherhood for the violence, but the organization insists that it is peaceful and has publically condemned some attacks.

In response to the expected verdict, The Brotherhood called for demonstrations on Tuesday. “The Egyptian Revolution is at a critical moment where the military junta, having failed to halt the growing protest and peaceful resistance movement, is endeavoring to push the country into a spiral of chaos using all tactics of repression, murder and torture,” the group said in a statement issued from its London office.

“The Rubicon was crossed with the mass killings of August 2013,” said Kaissouni, “Since then, we’ve been witnessing the inexorable transformation of Islamism in Egypt, manifest in the growing irrelevance of organized, nonviolent Islamist opposition, and the concurrent rise of Islamic militancy.”

TIME Egypt

Egyptians Question President’s Decision to Go to War in Yemen

President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi meeting with his Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, the chief of intelligence and military officials in Cairo on April 16, 2015.
Fadi Fares—AFP/Getty Images President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi meeting with his Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, left, the chief of intelligence and military officials in Cairo on April 16, 2015

Egypt's last foray into Yemen in the 1960s was a disaster and the country is beset by domestic problems

A public debate is unfolding in Egypt about whether to expand the country’s role in military invention against Houthi rebels in Yemen, creating a political predicament that could undermine the Saudi-led campaign to support the government.

Egypt said it would join the coalition that is bombing Yemen to combat the Houthis and the forces loyal to Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Egypt sent naval vessels to Yemen’s coast and Egyptian officials have said that a ground assault was planned.

But now there are signs that public anxiety is creating a dilemma for Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who must balance the concerns of a public worried about domestic security and social problems, and the pull of Saudi Arabia, a close ally that has donated billions to Egypt’s government.

Looming large in the public consciousness is the legacy of Egypt’s invasion of Yemen in 1962 and five years of fighting in which more than 10,000 Egyptian soldiers died.

The war is remembered as a disaster which partially contributed to Egypt’s 1967 defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War. In 1967, Egypt had some 70,000 troops in Yemen and many Egyptians see Yemen as Egypt’s Vietnam.

The memory of Egypt’s war in Yemen has been resurrected in recent weeks by skeptical pundits, newspaper columnists, and political parties who oppose sending troops.

Among the critics of intervention is Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a commentator and confidant of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser who ordered the 1962 invasion. “We shouldn’t jump to war,” he said on TV this month. “Yemen is a sleeping volcano south of the Arabian Peninsula. If it erupts, it will sweep the entire region.”

President al-Sisi responded to critics on April 4, saying that Egypt’s current role in the Saudi-led campaign could not be compared with the 1962 invasion, saying he cared for “every drop of blood and every son of this country.”

The debate could complicate the calculations of Saudi officials. At the outset of the assault on Yemen, Saudi Arabia touted the participation of 10 countries in the coalition. That message was dealt a setback last week when Pakistan’s parliament voted against joining the intervention. The Pakistani decision, in turn, was front-page news in Egypt.

“This all puts the Saudi position in quite a quandary, if they intended something far more muscular, because they were clearly trying to rely on subcontractors, so to speak,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. He added the Saudis are now faced with the prospect that “unless they were willing to put their own army on the ground, then they have no ground option.”

Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud met President al-Sisi on Tuesday. They discussed the Yemen crisis and the two agreed on “a major strategic military maneuver on Saudi territory.” But no announcement was made about a commitment of Egyptian troops to Yemen.

The Yemen debate also comes when Egypt’s military and security forces are battling an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and facing a steady string of bombs and armed attacks in Cairo and other cities. On Sunday alone, 13 people were killed in two separate bomb attacks in north Sinai.

“It’s been a bad couple of days in Sinai, and that magnifies the anxieties, because you’re going off to tend to this foreign engagement at a time when you’ve got perhaps containable but mounting problems at home,” said Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City.

In Egypt’s polarized political context, some commentators dismiss the concerns about the operation in Yemen as speculation. “It’s very uninformed anxiety because there’s no comparison to the intervention that happened during the glory of the Nasser years,” says Hisham Kassem, the former publisher of the privately owned newspaper al-Masry al-Youm. “None of us is in a position to speak about the military operation itself.”

“Egypt is not really participating,” says retired Egyptian Brigadier General Safwat al-Zayat. “The planning was Saudi-American. Saudi Arabia will decide, with American consultation, who will participate, and at what level.”

Khaled Fahmy, a professor of history at the American University in Cairo, said the current debate in Egypt contrasted with the political situation in Egypt during the last Yemen war in the 1960s

“Back in the ’60s when Nasser sent Egyptian troops to Yemen, no one expressed any anxiety. There was no debate,” he said. “Now in Egypt, in spite of the fact we don’t have a sitting parliament, people are writing. People are talking, so much so that the President had to allay these fears.”

The recent signs of dissent also come in the wake of a sweeping state clampdown on political opponents following the military’s removal of elected President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Morsi’s presidency and his removal left the public deeply divided, with many backing the military.

“This is the kind of situation where they [the state] could face very real public disgruntlement and dissent. There are very few issues that could produce that kind of reaction. This seems like one,” said Hanna. “There has been an interesting level of questioning. That hasn’t been the case in the past year and a half.”

TIME Yemen

Yemen on the Brink of All-Out War as Rebels Move South

People flee after a gunfire on a street in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, on March 25, 2015.
Yassir Hassan–AP People flee after a gunfire on a street in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, on March 25, 2015

Analysts fear all-out warfare could allow al-Qaeda to grow in strength and stature

Shi‘ite rebel militias forced Yemen’s President to flee the country as they advanced on the southern port city of Aden on Wednesday, in a move that threatens to tip the country into full-scale civil war.

Yemen’s U.S.-backed President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled Aden by boat on Wednesday, according to officials cited by the Associated Press. The state television network, now controlled by the Houthi rebels who seized control of the capital in September, announced a $100,000 bounty for Hadi’s capture.

The Houthis are mostly members of a Shi‘ite sect from the country’s north, and their decision to stage an offensive into the south is likely to further inflame tensions between the two regions, which in turn could also provide a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the extremist group’s Yemen-based affiliate.

“As soon as the Houthis declare victory, then the real fighting will start, which is guerilla resistance across the south,” said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst in the capital, Sana‘a. “There are big questions that pertain to the survival of Yemen as a unified state.”

The Houthis stormed Sana‘a in September 2014, seeking greater representation in Hadi’s government. The President resigned in January and later fled to Aden to declare a rival government. The rebels are now allied with army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in 2011 following a pro-democracy uprising in 2011, but was allowed to remain in the country. Late on Wednesday, gunfire could reportedly be heard across the city of Aden as the rebel fighters sought to grain ground there.

The worsening violence in Yemen’s south could also turn into a wider regional conflict. Saudi Arabia moved heavy military equipment to its border with Yemen this week, perhaps out of concern that its neighbor might fall under the influence of Iran, the regional Shi‘ite powerhouse which has reportedly been arming and funding the rebels. Hadi’s government has also appealed for military intervention by other Arab states. The Arab league is set to discuss the plea on Thursday.

The offensive in the south will also empower extremist groups there, analysts say. AQAP, a sworn enemy of the Houthis, which controls territory there, is likely to position itself as the vanguard of resistance to the Houthi presence. Sunni tribes in southern Yemen, who argue that they have been marginalized by the capital since the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, may be tempted to join the group’s ranks. “AQAP has been pushing a very sectarian narrative. It helps them do recruiting along sectarian lines,” said Adam Baron, a Yemen analyst and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign relations.

That doesn’t bode well for the wider world, either. AQAP is among al-Qaeda’s most lethal franchises, and claimed responsibility in January for the deadly attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. As a result, the Yemeni affiliate has been a recurring target for the U.S. military and foreign intelligence operations, including unmanned drone strikes that have killed civilians, a source of resentment among Yemenis. But the U.S. forces won’t be able to use Yemen as a launchpad for counterterrorism operations any more; Washington evacuated all its personnel from the country on March 21 as conditions deteriorated. That leaves few obstacles to hinder AQAP’s growth.

“All the ingredients are there on the ground for al-Qaeda to grow and flourish and recruit,” said Nadwa al-Dawsari, a Yemeni conflict analyst. “They will find a lot of recruits among frustrated southern people, southern youths, southern tribes. It’ll get ugly.”

Read next: Yemen Leader Asks U.N. to Back Military Action Against Rebels

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TIME Libya

ISIS Allies Try to Cut off Libya’s Oil Revenue

A fighter from Misrata shouts to his comrades as they move to fight ISIS militants near Sirte March 15, 2015.
Goran Tomasevic—Reuters A fighter from Misrata shouts to his comrades as they move to fight ISIS militants near Sirte March 15, 2015.

The militants are trying to undermine opponents as the country descends further into chaos

A series of attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Libya’s oilfields is threatening to further undermine chances of stability in a country gripped by a multi-sided armed conflict.

ISIS, the militant group that took control of parts of Syria and Iraq last year, has found footholds in Libya as a result of a power vacuum engendered by civil war. Now the group’s own attacks on the country’s crucial oil infrastructure are denying resources to its rivals and creating conditions that could help it expand.

“The Islamic State is trying to use the disunity of Libyans, and the fact that there is fighting going on between rival armed groups to target Libya’s only source of income, Libya’s national wealth represented by the oil facilities,” said Mohamed Eljarh a Libya-based fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank.

“By attacking the oil sector in Libya, they will ensure that any unity government will be deprived of much of the funds they need to buy the weapons they need to face this group.” he said.

The attacks forced the national oil company to shut down operations at 11 oilfields earlier in March. In one assault on the Ghani oilfield, the militants killed at least nine people and took several workers as hostages, including four Filipinos, an Austrian, a Bangladeshi, a Czech, a Ghanaian, and one unidentified person. Libya’s overall oil production dropped to a reported 325,000 barrels per day in January, down from 1.7 million per day before the 2011 uprising.

Oil, along with the central bank and other elements of state infrastructure, has also become a focus of conflict between the warring parties, who are divided into two broad camps aligned to two competing parliaments, one in the capital Tripoli and the other — internationally recognized — in Tobruk. Powerful militias from the city of Misrata recently sent some 3,000 men in a bid to take control of the oil port at Sidra, currently controlled by forces of former rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran.

ISIS-aligned militias have also emerged as a rogue factor in Libya’s larger political conflict in which two rival governments and their allied militias are locked in an ongoing battle for control. Neither of the two main political groupings has been able to strike a decisive blow against the other. Neither has been able to dislodge ISIS from its local bases.

Among those strongholds, the city of Sirte has emerged as a flashpoint in the current crisis. ISIS controls key neighborhoods in the city. Its artillery-mounted pickup trucks patrol the streets and its black flag is flying over a large convention center, according to Claudia Gazzini, a Libya-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Sirte and its environs is also where ISIS militants kidnapped at least 20 of the 21 Coptic Christians whose execution they announced in a graphic online video in February. The city is also thought to be the base for attacks on the oilfields in the desert to the south.

In one such raid in February, gunmen killed the guards on the perimeter of an oilfield, then rounded up the workers, lecturing them on the Islamic State’s notion of “true Islam,” according to officials who briefed Gazzini. The attackers threatened the facility’s manager: Tell no one of this for six hours, enough time to allow the attackers to escape. Then they left, taking everything they could: Cars, equipment, guns.

Subsequent attacks have unfolded in a similar style. In each raid, Gazzini says, “They’ve gone in, looted, and gone out.”

“These are targets of opportunity for them, given the proximity to Sirte. It’s a strategy of disruption,” said Frederic Wehrey, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They’re trying to raise their stature through these spectacular attacks and increase visibility and attract recruits.”

The ISIS presence has been a source of mounting concern for the militias in nearby Misrata. On March 14, Misratan forces clashed with ISIS fighters in Sirte, reportedly killing 25 members of the local ISIS affiliate.

“The Misratan commanders told me we’re going to have to confront this threat eventually,” said Wehrey in an interview last week. “They were reluctant to go in with force because of tribal blowback, that this would trigger some kind of tribal feud.”

Meanwhile, the identity of the militants joining ISIS is a subject of dispute among Libya’s factions. Many in the broad camp allied with Tripoli assert that ISIS includes supporters of the former regime of Muammar Qaddafi, which was brought down in an armed, NATO-supported uprising in 2011.The ICG’s Gazzini says there is evidence to suggest that some Qaddafi loyalists may have joined forces with ISIS. Unlike some armed groups that take a hard line against members of the old regime, ISIS has reportedly projected a message in Libya that anyone is welcome to join, provided they pledge loyalty and accept the group’s doctrine.

“Maybe some are faking it, but also the IS rhetoric appeals to a group of former regime officials who somehow felt persecuted in these last few years,” says Gazzini. “The message Dashis [ISIS] might have been projecting out was that of acceptance as long as they repent for their sins.”

TIME Libya

ISIS Fighters Take Over Major Libyan Oilfields

ISIS Islamic State Lybia
AFP/Getty Images An image made available by propaganda Islamist media outlet Welayat Tarablos allegedly shows members of the Islamic State (IS) militant group parading in a street in Libya's coastal city of Sirte, released on Feb. 18, 2015.

Oilfield guards retreated after running out of ammunition

Fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took over at least two oilfields in Libya and attacked another on Tuesday, according to oil and government sources.

Mashallah al-Zewi, the oil minister in the Tripoli-based government said ISIS attacked the Dhahra oilfield, before retreating. He told AP on Wednesday that the militants swept down from the central city of Sirte and attacked Dhahra oil field to the south, trading fire with guards and blowing up residential and administrative buildings before eventually retreating.

Colonel Ali al-Hassi, a spokesman for Libyan oil industry security told the BBC said the same fighters first took the oilfields at Bahi and Mabruk. “Extremists took control of the Bahi and Mabruk fields and are now heading to seize the Dhahra field following the retreat of the forces guarding these sites,” he said.

Images published online by the Libya Observer news organization showed smashed metal equipment and the charred wreckage of a pickup truck at the Bahi field.

The attacks came as Libya’s warring factions escalated their ongoing conflict. Forces aligned to the government in Tobruk and the rival Libya Dawn administration in Tripoli both staged air strikes on each other’s positions on Tuesday.

Libya has passed through several phases of turmoil since 2011 when its leader Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown in an armed uprising supported by NATO airstrikes. Today, two rival governments are vying for power in a country divided among multiple armed groups.

ISIS, which sent fighters from Iraq and Syria to Libya last year, has also emerged as force in Libya, attracting some support among local militias. Last month Egyptian fighter jets struck ISIS targets in Libya after the group released a video showing the execution of 21 Coptic Christian hostages.

Read more: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

The two oil fields, located south of the city of Sirte, have been shut down for weeks in part due to security concerns. An attack on the Mabruk field last month left at least 12 people dead.

Even if they were able to operate the fields, insurgents would find it difficult to export oil via the country’s Mediterranean ports. An attempt in 2014 by Eastern Libyan rebels to smuggle crude oil was stopped when U.S. special forces boarded the ship, the Morning Glory, off Cyprus.

Experts believe that large-scale oil smuggling from Libya is more difficult than in Iraq where ISIS has been able to export oil to Turkey, Jordan and Iran.

“There’s no way to smuggle oil in Libya,” said Jason Pack, a researcher on Libya at Cambridge University. “The difference from a place like Iraq is Iraq has a long tradition of oil from the Kurdish region going in trucks to Turkey. Libya has no such tradition.”

Analysts say ISIS’s advances in Libya have been made possible by the political conflict in Libya. This week’s escalation comes as the recognized government in Tobruk officially appointed Khalifa Haftar as its armed forces chief. Haftar’s military campaign launched last year against Islamist-leaning factions has further divided the country.

“There’s ISIS in Libya because there’s a lack of a state, and there’s the ability of every militia group to control territory because the major factions won’t work together,” says Pack. “The absolutely only way to eliminate territorial pockets in places like Sirte and Derna is if these groups are willing to work together against ISIS.”

Read next: Hear Jihadi John Defend Himself Against Charge of Extremism

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