ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – After months of indifference to Islamist militants killing Egyptian Christians in Libya, Egypt bombed Islamic extremist targets in Libya and declared seven days of mourning following the beheading of 21 Copts.
Video released on Sunday (Feb. 15) under the logo of the militant Sunni terrorist group Islamic State (IS, formerly Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) showing the slaughter of 20 Coptic Christians and one unidentified man of African descent shocked Egypt’s Christians. While relatives and others from the slain Christians’ villages in Egypt rushed to the streets crying out their names, some family members refused to believe they had been killed.
“They are refusing to believe what happened,” said noted Coptic human rights activist Mina Thabet, adding that others were deep in mourning. “If you go to Minya, if you go to Samalut, you will find that everything is black.”
In part to intimidate “the nation of the cross [Egypt],” the Islamic State released the video of balaclava-clad men armed with knives accompanying the 21 men in orange coveralls in a single column on a beach. The 20 Copts had been kidnapped from Sirte, Libya by Islamists at the end of December and in January.
In the nearly five-minute video, the victims’ hands are bound behind their backs with zip ties; they are forced to kneel in unison in the sand, and then a man at the center of the column dressed in camouflage and a tan ski mask makes a statement to the camera in English.
“All crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes, especially when you are fighting us all together, therefore we will fight you all together until the world lays down its burdens and Jesus, peace be upon him, will descend, breaking the cross, killing the swine and abolishing jizya [tax on non-Muslims],” the man says. “And the sea that you have hidden Sheik Osama bin Laden’s body in – we swear to Allah, we will mix it with your blood.”
The camera pans one last time over the faces of the men. Some of them stare sternly straight ahead; most mutter prayers. The men clad in black then push them into the sand and cut off their heads. Unlike other IS-produced videos, the image does not completely fade to black during the killings. The moment of death for several of the victims is shown.
After the slaughter, text appears on the screen in English and Arabic stating, “This filthy blood is just some of what awaits you in revenge for Camelia and her sisters,” a reference to an alleged incident involving two Coptic women, Camilia Shehata and Wafa Constantine, who each disappeared briefly; Constantine in 2004, Shehata in 2010. Islamists have claimed the two women had left their husbands, both priests, and converted to Islam but were then held by leaders of the Coptic Orthodox Church against their will.
Although they never produced any hard evidence to support their allegations, Islamists in Egypt capitalized on both disappearances when they happened to incite violence against the Christian minority. The women both eventually resurfaced and gave statements, and in at least one television interview said they never converted to Islam. The rumor about their alleged conversion and forced detention, however, continues in Islamist circles and is used as an excuse to persecute Christians in the region.
In the video, the camouflage-clad man doing the narration points his knife in the air and declares IS “will conquer Rome.” What “Rome” refers to in IS rhetoric is debatable, but one IS recruiter exiled in Australia, Musa Cerantonio, believes that it originated in references to the Eastern Roman empire, which had its capital in what is now Istanbul, according to the March issue of The Atlantic. Author Graeme Wood writes that Cerantonio believes that Rome should be equated with Turkey, the last republic to do away with a caliphate, and that Islamic apocalyptic prophesy puts forth that a caliphate “will sack Istanbul before it is beaten back by an army led by the anti-Messiah, whose eventual death – when just a few thousand jihadists remain – will usher in the apocalypse.”
Others believe Rome refers to Italy, which has pledged troops to fight IS in Libya, or any “infidel” army (such as that of the United States), Christianity or the West.
The video next shows seawater lapping the shore, red with the blood of the killed men, before fading to black. It appeared on “The International Jihad Network,” a website used by IS and its allies to promote its ideology.
“I watched it until the end,” Thabet said. “But I could only watch it once. I felt humiliated.”
The release of the video followed the release on Thursday (Feb. 12) of the Islamic State’s online magazine Dabiq, which had photographic stills taken from the execution video, but no stills from the actual executions. As with the video, the magazine claimed the kidnapping was in “Revenge for The Muslimat Persecuted by The Coptic Crusaders of Egypt.” The statement refers to the two Coptic women alleged to have converted to Islam and been held by Copts.
In Dabiq, the Islamic State expanded on the rumors, saying the Coptic Orthodox Church had tortured and murdered both women. IS also claimed in the magazine that the Oct. 31, 2010 bombing of the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad that left 58 people dead was in retaliation for Shehata and Constantine’s alleged detention by Copts. IS claimed it had been planning the kidnapping operation and executions since the church bombing.
“At the time, the Islamic State was distant from Egypt and so could not easily target the Coptic crusaders there,” the magazine reads. “Therefore, the Islamic State leadership decided to target the Catholic Christians of Baghdad so as to teach the tāghūt of the Copts – [Coptic Pope] Shenouda [III] – that the price of Muslim blood is costly.”
The release of the video ended speculation over the fate of the 20 men. Since they were kidnapped and in particular since the release of the online magazine, family members of the group became increasingly concerned that their relatives may be dead.
On Jan. 3, a group of armed men burst into a housing complex in Sirte, Libya at about 2 a.m. and abducted 13 Christians, all of whom were construction workers or day laborers. The kidnappers, about 15 in all, quickly gathered the Christians and took them away to four vehicles. Some of the vehicles were “technicals” – pickup trucks with heavy machineguns mounted in the back. Seven other Copts had been kidnapped earlier, on Dec. 30.
The IS video was undated, causing some speculation as to when the men were actually killed. The location of the video cannot be confirmed either, although it claims it was filmed on “The coast of Wilayat [State of] Tarabulus [Tripoli],” which, if true, would place the killing within Libya, perhaps near Sirte.
On Monday (Feb. 16) the Egyptian Air Force conducted bombing missions on IS training camps in Libya in retaliation for the killings, according to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. He also called for seven days of mourning.
Egyptian officials said the first strike at dawn hit IS militant camps, training sites and weapons storage areas in Libya. Reuters reported that Libya’s air force also participated in an attack on Derna, believed to be a coastal IS base. Libyan officials said further air strikes will be carried out today and tomorrow in coordination with Egypt. A rival Tripoli-based parliament supported by some Islamist groups, however, condemned the air strikes as an assault on the country’s sovereignty.
Reuters reported that Egypt was believed to have been secretly providing support to a Libyan general fighting the rival government, and that the beheadings prompted Al-Sisi to merely expand the operation against the IS militants.
Cairo, meantime, has called on the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria to expand operations to Libya. Several Islamist movements have emerged in Libya since the ousting and killing of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, with some of them declaring ties to IS.
The families of those killed have demanded the government secure the return of the victims’ bodies. The first funeral service, held over an empty casket, was conducted in Samalut today.
The names of those beheaded on the beach are Maged Soliman Shehata, Abanoub Ayad Attyia, Yousef Shoukry Younan, Hani Abd Al-Messeih Saleeb, Kerolos Boushra Fawzy, Milad Makeen Zaky, Makram Yousef Tawadrous, Samuel Astafanous Kamel, Bishoy Ashtafouns Kamel, Mina Fayez Aziz, Malak Ibrahim Taniot, Gerges Milad Taniot and Bishoy Adel, Samuel Alahm Welson, Ezat Boushra Naseef, Louka Nagaty, Essam Badar Sameer, Malak Farag Abraam, Sameh Salah Farouk and Gaber Mouneer Adly.
“I have been in touch with the families for more than 50 days now,” Thabet said. “Every day, every hour in the day, they would call me to check if I have any more-recent information. These people, the ones who died, they have gone to be with God, and they rest in peace, so the problem now is with their families. They will live with the images of their loves ones like this for the rest of their lives.”
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