For weeks, their families had hoped and prayed. On Sunday, their worst fears were realized.
A grisly video surfaced Sunday night on YouTube and militant social media that appeared to show the beheadings of a group of Egyptian Christians seized by Islamic extremists in Libya in the last two months. The episode may signal a determination to expand Islamic State’s footprint beyond Iraq and Syria, the two countries where it has made its greatest military gains.
Egypt's state news agency quoted a spokesman for the Coptic Church as confirming the deaths of the 21 Christians. They had been captured in two incidents in the central coastal city of Surt, according to their families and the government, and militants declaring allegiance to Islamic State had threatened to kill them.
Fears about the men’s fate had intensified in recent days after the latest edition of a glossy magazine put out by Islamic State had shown the Egyptian Christians — described as “Crusaders” — being paraded in orange jumpsuits similar to those previous prisoners have been forced to don before being executed.
In the video, shot on a wintry beach, the prisoners are marched into place by a line of black-clad, knife-wielding captors. At first, they kneel, the lips of some of the doomed men moving in apparent prayer. Then they are forced to lie facedown in the sand, and the executioners reach down and begin sawing away at their necks.
A narration of sorts is delivered by a man wearing camouflage and a light-brown mask, who is seen taking part in the killings — reminiscent of a figure known in the West as “Jihadi John,” who has carried out similar executions in Syria after delivering declarations in British-accented English. In the latest video, the apparent ringleader, speaking colloquial and nearly unaccented English, says, “This filthy blood is just some of what awaits you.”
And in an explicit bid to emphasize the growing reach of the group and its proximity to European shores, the mass execution is described as taking place on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, ”south of Rome.”
Unlike some Islamic State videos that have cut away before the victims’ heads are sawed off, this one presents the beheadings in graphic, jagged jump-cuts, culminating with the severed heads being placed on the backs of the corpses.
The U.S. was quick to condemn the beheadings as “despicable and cowardly” and offered condolences to the families of the 21 victims, as well as support to the Egyptian government.
“This wanton killing of innocents is just the most recent of the many vicious acts perpetrated by ISIL-affiliated terrorists against the people of the region, including the murders of dozens of Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai, which only further galvanizes the international community to unite against ISIL,” the White House said in a statement Sunday night, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Despite growing dangers over the last year as Libya has fallen into deepening chaos, impoverished Egyptian laborers have continued to flock to the neighboring, energy-rich state, where wages are far higher than at home. Many are Christians, and when the two groups of Copts were seized, statements from their Islamist captors made it clear they were targeted primarily for their religion.
Although the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi has made overtures to the Coptic Christian community, thought to make up 10% to 15% of Egypt’s population of about 90 million, many Copts consider themselves a disenfranchised minority. They face discrimination in jobs and housing, and followers of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi singled them out for retribution when he was toppled in a popularly supported coup in 2013.
On Friday, relatives of the kidnapped men, mostly from poor areas in southern Egypt, had staged rallies and prayers in an attempt to galvanize a stronger response from the Egyptian government. Officials assured them that all possible steps were being taken to save their loved ones.
On Sunday, Sisi convened an emergency meeting of top security officials, and the government declared seven days of official mourning.
The Egyptian Christians had been seized in Surt amid fierce fighting. Libya has been riven for months by armed militias, but with the relatively recent addition of a deadly and dreaded element: fighters declaring their loyalty to the fanatics of Islamic State, who have gloried in barbaric and well-documented acts in the wide bands of territory they control in Syria and Iraq.
Most recently, those included the death of a young American from Arizona, Kayla Mueller, who had been held hostage. Before that, the group caused worldwide revulsion when it burned a captured Jordanian pilot to death in a cage. Victims in recent months have included a string of Americans and Britons, including journalists and aid workers who were beheaded, and more recently two Japanese nationals beheaded a week apart.
Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.
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