Recent moves by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] to assert itself in Libya have led to clashes with al Qaeda-affiliated jihadis there, experts say, and Egypt stepped into the fray Monday by launching new airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya.
On Sunday, core-ISIS officially anointed its Libyan affiliate by releasing a savage new video of camouflage-clad jihadis dramatically slicing the necks of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt who were abducted in Libya.
The video had similar graphics and cinematic flourishes to ISIS' other major pieces of propaganda from Syria and Iraq, including track and crane camera moves as the victims in orange jumpsuits compliantly knelt in the wet sand of a Mediterranean beach for their final living moments as stars of the Libyan ISIS affiliate's debut.
While ISIS has increasingly been publicizing its presence in Libya -- and worrying many U.S. counter-terrorism officials, who say Western leaders have been too distracted by such hostage execution videos themselves -- the group's expansion is meeting resistance from the clearly dominant jihadi groups there with ties to core-al Qaeda, experts say.
"Because ISIS is so brazen in what they do and their propaganda machine is so prolific with videos like this, it's easy to see where their fighters are and what they're doing," Thomas Joscelyn, an ISIS expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told ABC News. "Al Qaeda and their allies try to hide what they're up to. They don't advertise it with videos."
Al Qaeda's experienced operatives, whether currently in the group or with experience fighting with them, are plentiful in Libya. Several groups with clear links to al Qaeda in Pakistan were involved with overrunning two U.S. diplomatic and intelligence compounds in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, which killed four Americans including the ambassador. ISIS is directly challenging them in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Sinai and in Yemen.
"The whole Islamic State strategy is to peel away the most extreme among the extremists, the most hardened, violent part of the jihadist world," Joscelyn said. "Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is trying to control and rein in the violence. It's two different models."
Video Draws Deadly Retaliation
Egypt struck back Monday after ISIS released the video showing the beheading of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Claiming to target ISIS arms depots and training camps in the east of the country, state TV said Egypt launched airstrikes at dawn in “response to criminal acts of terrorism elements and organizations.”
A spokesperson for Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al–Thinni, who holds tenuous control over Libya’s internationally recognized government, told the BBC that the Egyptian strikes were part of a coordinated effort with Libya to strike the eastern city of Derna, home to extremists loyal to the Islamic State.
It’s the first attack inside Libya that Egypt has publicly acknowledged -- in spite of accusations from Islamists in Libya that Egypt has carried out strikes on jihadists on behalf of Libya’s air force.
"Eight strikes have been conducted so far. The plan is to target all IS [ISIS] locations in the country wherever they are," said Mohamed Bzazh, a Libyan government spokesman.
Libyan Air force commander Saqer al-Joroushi told Reuters that Libyan planes had targeted Sirte and Bin Jawad, and on Egyptian state TV, Joroushi said the strikes had killed “not less than 40 or 50” people.
"What happened now is not the first crime, and it's a clear proof and confirmation of the increasing threat of terrorism in Libya,” Bzazah said.
In the nearly four years since longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was killed in Libya, the country has been plagued by instability giving birth to opportunist militant groups nationwide and two rival governments, one led by the Libya Dawn movement in Tripoli and the second, headed by al-Thinni, operated out of Bayda and Tobruk.
Libya 'Ripe' for ISIS
Over the last year, the combination of Libya’s civil war breaking out and the rapid rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq means Libya was “a really ripe opportunity for ISIS seeking to expand,” said Christopher Chivvis, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center and a senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation.
Analysts said jihadis loyal to ISIS began to gain a foothold in the country last fall but burst into the limelight at the end of January when five foreigners, including an American, were killed at Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel by attackers pledging allegiance to the group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Chivvis said there’s no doubt a relationship exists between the Libyan Islamists and to the core ISIS group, which released the weekend video, “but I would be surprised if it was one of direct command and control -- if these groups were taking orders on specific operations directly.”
“More likely,” he said, "they’re inspired by the idea of what appears to be the most popular and most gruesome jihadists organization today. ... And it’s clear that ISIS is actively trying to encourage them.”
Last month, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani challenged al Qaeda on its home turf by welcoming in an audio speech the pledges of fealty made by some Taliban commanders.
"The factions will assemble against you and the rifles and bayonets will multiply against you. But you are up to it, with Allah’s permission. So unsheathe your swords and take out your spears," al-Adnani advised them.