CAIRO — Twice in the past seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly teamed to launch airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior U.S. officials said, in a major escalation between the supporters and opponents of political Islam.
The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing Washington or seeking its consent, leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines. Egyptian officials explicitly denied the operation to U.S. diplomats, the officials said.
The strikes are another high-risk and destabilizing salvo unleashed in a struggle for power that has broken out across the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolts, pitting old-line Arab autocrats against Islamists.
Since the military ouster of the Islamist president in Egypt one year ago, the new Egyptian government, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have formed a bloc exerting influence in countries around the region to roll back what they see as a competing threat from Islamists. Arrayed against them are the Islamist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by friendly governments in Turkey and Qatar, that sprang forward amid the Arab Spring revolts.
Libya is the latest, and hottest, battleground. Several officials said that U.S. diplomats were fuming about the airstrikes, believing they could further inflame the Libyan conflict at a time when the United Nations and Western powers are seeking a peaceful resolution.
“We don’t see this as constructive at all,” said one senior U.S. official.
Officials said that the government of Qatar has already provided weapons and support to the Islamist aligned forces inside Libya, so the new strikes represent a shift from proxy wars — where regional powers play out their agendas through local allies —to direct involvement.
The strikes have also proved counterproductive so far: The Islamist militias fighting for control of Tripoli successfully seized its airport the night after they were hit with the second round of strikes.
U.S. officials said Egypt had provided bases for the launch of the strikes. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt and other officials have issued vigorous but carefully worded public statements denying any direct involvement inside Libya by Egyptian forces. In private, officials said, their denials had been more thorough.
The officials said that the UAE — believed to have one of the most effective air forces in the region, thanks to U.S. aid and training — provided the pilots, warplanes and aerial refueling planes necessary for the fighters to bomb Tripoli out of bases in Egypt.
The UAE has not commented directly on the strikes. But Monday an Emirati state newspaper printed a statement from Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs, calling questions about an Emirati role “an escape” from the recent election that he suggested showed a desire for “stability” and a rejection of the Islamists. The allegations about the UAE role, he said, came from a group who “wanted to use the cloak of religion to achieve its political objectives,” and “the people discovered its lies and failures.”
The first strikes occurred before dawn a week ago, hitting positions in Tripoli controlled by Islamist-friendly militias, blowing up a small weapons depot, and killing six people.
A second set of airstrikes took place south of the city early Saturday, hitting rocket launchers, military vehicles and a warehouse all controlled by Islamist-allied militia.
The second strike might have been motivated by a desire to prevent an imminent capture of the Tripoli airport by Islamist aligned militia, many of whom are based in the coastal city of Misurata and more tribal than Islamist in orientation. It had previously been held by militias based in Zintan and aligned against the Islamists. But after besieging the airport for a month, the Islamist aligned forces overtook it that night.
Responsibility for the airstrikes was initially a mystery. After the first set, several U.S. officials initially said that signs pointed to the United Arab Emirates, but some said that the evidence was not conclusive.
Anti-Islamist forces based in eastern Libya under the renegade former general Khalifa Hifter sought to claim responsibility, but their statements were inconsistent and the strikes were beyond their known capabilities.
A former Gadhafi official now consulting with the Emirates, meanwhile, argued on the condition of anonymity that the strikes must be the work of the United States, contending that the Western powers had sought to deter the danger posed by Libya’s Islamists.
On Monday, however, U.S. officials said that the second set of strikes had provided enough evidence to conclude that the Emirates were responsible, even provided the refueling ships necessary for fighters to reach Tripoli from Egypt.
The officials said this was not the first time that the Egyptians and Emirates had teamed up to strike against Islamist targets inside Libya. In recent months, a special forces team operating out of Egypt but possibly composed primarily of Emirates personnel had also successfully destroyed an Islamist camp in eastern Libya without detection.
U.S. officials said the success of that earlier raid may have emboldened Egypt and the UAE to think they could carry off the airstrikes without detection. Or the brazenness of the attack may reflect the vehemence of their determination to hold back or stamp out political Islam.