Egypt’s el-Sissi says Iraq, Syria militants headed to Libya

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) – Egypt’s president said the defeat of the extremist Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria was likely to have forced militants to seek a safe haven in neighbouring Libya, from which they will later cross into his country where his security forces have been battling militants in the Sinai peninsula and, more recently, in its vast western desert.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi also said Egypt’s ongoing arms buildup was designed in part to equip the country to deal with terrorism and redress the “strategic imbalance” in the region created by conflict and turmoil engulfing several countries in the area like Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

Egypt has since 2014 spent more than $10 billion on French-made Rafale fighter jets and helicopter carriers, MiG-29 fighter jets and assault helicopters from Russia and submarines from Germany. Moreover, Egypt receives $1.3 billion in annual US aid.

El-Sissi would not be drawn into specifics about militants leaving the battlefields in Iraq and Syria after they lost almost all territory they seized in 2013 and 2014. He said it was only “natural” for them to move to Libya, where mostly militias wield influence over large swathes of territory, and eventually to Egypt.

File photo shows Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during a panel discussion in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. – AP

“We must have the military capabilities that compensate for that imbalance in the region and to counter terrorism,” he said at a news conference late Wednesday. “This is a threat not just faced by us, but also by Europe,” he told a wide-ranging, two-hour news conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in southern Sinai.

There are no reliable estimates for the number of militants fighting Egyptian security forces, but they are believed by experts to number in the low thousands. Ominously, there has been an uptick in recent months in attacks in Egypt’s western desert close to the Libyan border, raising questions on whether the area has become a second theatre of operations for the militants beside Sinai.