They were young and mostly from impoverished backgrounds. To make a living, they’d migrated from their native Egypt to a mid-coastal city in Libya, an unstable country that in recent years has become extremely attractive to agents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (more commonly known as ISIS or ISIL), a group of murderers masquerading as Muslims.
Agents of the Libyan branch of ISIS seized the 21 men and, according to a video released by the terrorist organization, they were beheaded last weekend – one at a time.
The murdered men all had one thing in common – they were Copts, members of an ancient Egyptian church that may be the world’s oldest Christian denomination. The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church traces its origins to around A.D. 40 when St. Mark, one of Jesus’ 70 disciples, introduced Christianity to Alexandria.
The church’s worldwide members number about 12 million. Like the Catholic Church, it has a pope. The Coptic Church is credited with introducing monasticism – a religious practice in which devotees fully commit their lives to spiritual work – to Christianity.
The savage murder of these men is horrific on so many levels. First, it is just one of several body blows Egyptian Copts have endured in recent years. Copts are Egypt’s largest religious minority and make up more than 10 percent of the population. They also are marginalized, oppressed and sometimes brutalized.
In the last half-century, clashes between Copts and Muslims has resulted in the deaths of many Copts. In 2011, a car bomb went off outside a Coptic church, killing dozens and injuring dozens more. In 2010, a Muslim mob attacked a group of Copts celebrating the birth of Christ.
There also have been reports of Coptic women being abducted by Muslims, forcibly converted to Islam and married off against their will to Muslim men.
Like many Christian groups in several Middle Eastern countries, such as Iraq and Syria, Copts have become more vulnerable in recent years. This has been particularly so since the overthrow of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Second, while the senseless killings of these young men is just another example in the long line of the psychopathic brutality by ISIS, it is also a reminder that the whole world has a stake in the outcome of this fight.
Earlier this week, Egypt commenced airstrikes on parts of Libya believed to be strongholds for this group. Egypt, which has lost hundreds of soldiers and police officers to Islamic militants in recent years, has a vested interest in this fight. So does the rest of the world.
Italy, which is just north of Libya, worries that ISIS may extend its operations to Rome. Italian officials believe they may not be militarily prepared to confront this beast.
On the African continent, there is increasing concern about the possibility of a strong alliance between ISIS and Boko Haram, which has been wreaking havoc in northern Nigeria for the last six years, resulting in the deaths of more than 20,000 people and the displacement of more than 1.5 million more.
To date, the conflict with Boko Haram has drawn in Cameron, Niger and Chad and looks certain to bring in Benin. There are reports that agents of Boko Haram have been getting their weapons from Libya, smuggling them through neighboring Chad and then bringing them south through Niger.
Finally, the real tragedy is we are all paying for the hostile fallout of the Bush’s administration’s ill-advised decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The invasion, coupled with the dismantling of Iraq’s military and security forces, created an unstable region that has increasingly had reverberations around the world.
As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said at a conference in Munich recently, the United States helped create ISIS by its invasion of Iraq. The U.S. further compounded the problem, he said, by not having a sensible post-invasion security plan for Iraq and for the region.
Yes, Saddam Hussein was a despot who was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 250,000 people. But his presence kept Iraq – and the region around it – stable for decades. Besides, in Iraq alone, perhaps one million people have died since the invasion. The instability around the world wrought by the invasion has led to the deaths of countless more around the world.
The recent murder of these young Copts is yet another tragic consequence of a misguided foreign policy decision by the U.S. And the U.S. should work feverishly to reverse the tide – lest the chickens come home to roost.
Wave columnist Lekan Oguntoyinbo is an independent journalist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @oguntoyinbo.