A few days before he was elected Egypt’s president in May, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi discreetly visited tribesmen living along the border with Libya.
Tribal leaders there say Sisi, former head of the army, urged them to help Egypt confront what could be a security nightmare for the biggest Arab nation: Islamist militants operating just over the frontier in Libya.
“Sisi came to us and asked us to stand behind the security forces and army to help them to control the border because what is happening in Libya poses a grave danger to Egypt,” said Mohamed al-Raghi, a tribal chief.
Wearing a flowing white robe and a traditional black cap outside a mosque in the border town of Salloum, Raghi said he and other tribal leaders had assured Sisi they would help him.
Chaos in Libya has allowed militants to set up makeshift training camps only a few kilometers from Egypt’s border, according to Egyptian security officials.
The militants, those officials say, harbor ambitions similar to the al-Qaeda breakaway group that has seized large swathes of Iraq; they want to topple Sisi and create a caliphate in Egypt.
A state security officer in Salloum said Egyptian authorities see a threat in Libya because of instability that stretches from the border to the town of Derna, an Islamist and al Qaeda hotspot a few hundred kilometers away.
“We know of three camps in the Libyan desert of Derna which are close to the Egyptian border where hundreds of militants are being trained,” said a state security officer in Salloum.
The official is in charge of a unit that monitors militants through informants, including bedouins and agents who have penetrated the camps.
“Those militants are sympathetic to different organizations including the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Others are Muslim Brotherhood fugitives who are on the run from death sentences they received in Egypt.
They train on a daily basis in how to use weapons,” he said.
The Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago and says it has no links to violent militant groups. Libyan officials denied the existence of camps, and U.S. sources said the Egyptians may be overestimating the scale of the threat.
However, Egyptian security officials believe the militants in Libya - who they say include Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians and Afghans - are a serious threat to Egypt, a strategic U.S. ally that has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the Suez Canal waterway, a vital global shipping route.
While Egypt has put down internal insurgencies in the past, the threat from militants in Libya may prove more problematic.
According to security sources, the men in Libya are trying to join forces with Egypt’s most lethal militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which is based in the Sinai Peninsula on the other side of Egypt, near the border with Israel.