In almost ritual concert, twenty-one handcuffed Egyptians—all dressed in orange and dwarfed by their massive black-clad executioners—were marched to the Libyan seashore, made to kneel and summarily beheaded. The picture that followed showed crimson lapping waves, returning to the sands the blood with which they had been drenched. The short chilling video, worthy of a professional horror movie, left one wondering once more just who could really be behind this group of rag-tag terrorists.
The world was outraged—and moved swiftly, although with varying degrees of efficacy. That very night, Egypt sent its warplanes inside Libya, targeting weapons caches and training camps, and killing dozens of militants. That one attack by Egypt amounted to a significant and debilitating contribution to combating a threat that is very clearly moving well beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., a pre-planned White House conference took place to explore ways to combat violent extremism. More talk than substance, the conference evolved largely into a study on the root causes of radicalism. It ended with President Obama calling on all nations to “put an end to the cycle of hate” by expanding human rights and peaceful dialogue.
President Obama stated there once again that defeating ISIS and radical extremism cannot be done through military power alone, and that the world also needs to win the hearts and minds of the impressionable youth from which these groups recruit.
Egypt is on the front lines of both of these battles. President El-Sisi has led the world in calling for tolerance and a “religious revolution.” At the same time, Egypt continues—all but alone—to combat terrorism within and outside its borders.
This must change. The focus on ISIS and affiliated terrorist groups must broaden beyond Iraq and Syria. Many in the international community now recognize the threat posed to Egypt on its western and eastern borders and the implications for the broader region and even Europe. The hideous mass execution of Egyptians in Libya and the ongoing attacks in Sinai are just the latest examples of the very real threat Egypt—and the world—continues to face.
And yet, despite this, the U.S. continues to prevent the transfer of critical aid and military equipment to Egypt. The administration has also failed to utilize tools at its disposal—a security exemption and national security interest waiver included in foreign assistance appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2015—to provide support to Egypt that would help bolster the country’s counterterrorism and border security efforts.
Has the world not learned any lessons from the eighties and nineties? The Mujahedeen (Islamist freedom fighters) were dispatched to Afghanistan, funded and supported in a war against communism. Theirs was a hardy and fiery brand of Islam that was seen as a useful ideological tool to fight communism and bring down an already weakened USSR. But religious ideology cannot be easily contained once it has outlived its usefulness. Following the collapse of the USSR, these fighters then became the founding assets for what later became al Qaeda.
The ISIS threat may seem far removed from the U.S.—for now. If left unchecked, it is far from certain that the next generation of terrorists will remain local. ISIS as we know it now may morph into a new group and another acronym, but the ideology will remain—as the next generation of terrorists becomes ever more vicious.
Strong and visible American support for Egypt now would help change the reality on the ground. Winning the hearts and minds of people will take years. ISIS today, however, represents a clear danger that will not stop at the region. U.S. policymakers should not drag their feet nor impede Egypt’s ability to confront terrorists within its borders or assist in the international coalition’s efforts to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS.
Dina Khayat is founder and chairman of an asset management company based in Egypt. She has published numerous op-eds on US-Egypt relations.