SHARM EL-SHIEKH: 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 neighboring 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 USD 1.3 billion in annual US aid.
He refused to be drawn into specifics about militants' movements, saying it was only "natural" for them to move to Libya, where mostly Islamist militias wield influence over large swathes of territory, and eventually to Egypt.
"We must have the military capabilities that compensate for that imbalance in the region and to counter terrorism," he said. He refused to be drawn into specifics about the movement of militants leaving the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, saying it was only "natural" for them to move to Libya, where mostly Islamist militias wield influence over large swathes of territory, and eventually into Egypt.
"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.
The latest one was last month, when authorities said 16 police officers were killed in what appeared to be an elaborate ambush. Security officials, however, said the number was as high as more than 50.
El-Sissi said subsequent operations by his security forces have killed the 14 militants he said participated in the attack. A "foreign" militant who participated in the attack was captured alive, he said. He also suggested that the militants were planning to attack a desert Coptic Christian monastery.
He did not elaborate, but added that joint army and police forces were actively combing the entire length of the country's porous borders with Libya to the west and Sudan to the south.
A spate of attacks earlier this year that targeted Egypt's minority Christians were blamed by authorities on militants based and trained in Libya. One attack hit Christians traveling on a quiet side road making their way to a remote desert monastery.