FEBRUARY 17, 2015 — Once again, the world is shocked by another mass atrocity committed by jihadis using flames, bullets and swords to force their warped interpretation of Islam on others. Islamic State loyalists in Libya released a video of fighters lining up 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians along a Mediterranean beach and simultaneously beheading them.
Unlike in conventional wars, where each side fights to degrade and demoralize the enemy into negotiating peace terms, the Islamic State fighters offer no room for discussion. It’s their way or death. The execution videos they post online are intended to horrify as many people as possible — Muslims and nonbelievers.
In America, we enjoy an ocean’s breadth of safety and the most powerful military in the world to protect us, yet the horror still prompts gut reactions of outrage. For Muslims in the Arab world and western Asia, the margin of safety is razor thin. Leaders in countries where Islamic State activity is growing — including Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and those in the Arabian Peninsula — can no longer deny the threat at their doorsteps.
The choices have rarely been this stark. Those leaders must summon the courage and muster the popular support required to confront the jihadis militarily, or the Islamic State will bring the battle to them.
Egypt’s military-dominated government, which has harshly stifled free speech and conducted mass arrests to curtail even moderate Islamic sentiment, responded to the Copts’ beheadings with a wave of airstrikes Monday on suspected Islamic State bases in Libya. Jordan responded with airstrikes this month after the Islamic State executed a captured Jordanian air force pilot by burning him alive inside a cage.
Going for the occasional big bang of airstrikes is no substitute for the unrelenting, sustained ground-force confrontation that must occur if the Islamic State’s expansion is to be halted, especially in war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Libya.
In Africa, government responses have hit closer to the mark amid the rise of jihadi groups Boko Haram and al-Shabab. Countries such as Chad, Niger and Cameroon have banded together for joint ground assaults aimed at corralling Boko Haram in western Africa. The African Union nations of Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia are joining Somalia in a largely successful infantry effort to contain al-Shabab in the east.
The nations of Africa recognize that airstrikes are no substitute for a united and coordinated confrontation on the ground. Egypt’s leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, correctly called Monday for an international response to the Islamic State’s expansion. That response, however, must include a joint Arab infantry strike force as its dominant component.
If Arab leaders cannot summon the courage today to confront this enemy directly, their current problems are likely to seem trivial compared to the ones they’ll face in the not-too-distant future.