KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Egypt is now conducting airstrikes against Islamist militants in Libya. It's a response to the killing of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were working there. A gruesome video of the killings was posted online over the weekend. Egyptian officials say they want help with the air campaign. They've called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. But NPR's Leila Fadel reports that some people worry that airstrikes could further inflame Libya's civil war.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The prayers at the Virgin Mary Church in a small town some 565 miles south of Cairo, were broadcast on local television.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).
FADEL: Families are grieving the 21 men purportedly beheaded by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in neighboring Libya. The victims are among the hundreds of thousands of working-class Egyptians who go to Libya seeking jobs. The video posted on Sunday shows the beheadings taking place on the seashore. A scrolling caption says it's a message to the, quote, "people of the cross," and a masked militant claims ISIS will soon conquer Rome. This morning, Egypt responded.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
FADEL: A statement from the Army played on Egyptian state television says airstrikes are retribution for the criminal acts on its citizens. Badr Abdel-Atti is the spokesman for Egypt's Foreign Ministry.
BADR ABDEL-ATTI: The public opinion is very angry. I mean, we are talking about 21 Egyptian innocent people have been slaughtered in a cold blood.
FADEL: Abdel-Atti asked that the U.S.-led international coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq now turn to Libya with the same firmness.
ABDEL-ATTI: What we expect from the member states is, of course, to deal with the matter in Libya with the same way of firmness in Syria and Iraq. The enemy is the same.
FADEL: Robert Springborg, a professor of war studies at King's College, London, says Egypt has the fourth-largest fleet of F-16s in the world. But without U.S. backing, Egypt's air campaign will probably just be a show of force.
ROBERT SPRINGBORG: Egypt would depend very heavily upon logistical training, maintenance and other support from the United States military. And the American government's position is rather different than Egypt's regarding what to do about the problems in Libya.
FADEL: Libya is in the midst of a civil war, as two different factions battle for control of the country, and extremism is thriving in that vacuum. Some worry the Egyptian government might be using the ISIS killings as a pretext for stepping up its aid to a rogue general named Khalifa Hiftar who's fighting against an alliance called Libya Dawn, which Egypt also opposes. Issander al Amrani is the North Africa director for the International Crisis Group.
ISSANDER AL AMRANI: It's one thing to strike against terrorist camps. It's another thing if Egypt is going to try and use the massacre and these airstrikes to argue, as it has argued in the past, that the entire Libya Dawn Tripoli-based camp is the same as ISIS and also deserving of a military attack.
FADEL: Amrani says military action that goes beyond specific attacks on ISIS could torpedo already faltering UN-sponsored peace talks. Libya Dawn condemned the airstrikes. It also issued a warning that all Egyptians should leave within 48 hour hours for their own safety. And by nightfall, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry was looking into reports of more Egyptians kidnapped in Libya. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.