Deadly Giza ambush raises questions about Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy
Cairo- International media reports said more than 50 Egyptian policemen were killed in a raid on a terrorist hideout but Egypt’s Interior Ministry, in line with a general policy of playing down security disasters, asserted that only 16 policemen were slain in the operation.
Regardless of the death toll, the October 20 raid on a terrorist camp in the al-Wahat al-Bahriya area of Giza province, 135km south-west of Cairo, in which Egyptian police were ambushed by a large group of terrorists armed with heavy weapons, represents a turning point in Egypt’s fight against terrorism.
Questions have been raised as to what intelligence failures led to the ambush, how the terrorists obtained heavy weapons and why Egypt’s police did not coordinate more effectively with the military.
“This points to the dangerous nature the terrorist threat is starting to assume,” said retired police General Fouad Allam, a member of Egypt’s National Council for Combating Terrorism. “We are badly in need of updating our information about the places where terrorist groups are concentrated, which requires different security measures and preparations.”
Accounts from soldiers state that the terrorists set a trap for the police. “The terrorists occupied an elevated position from the security forces, which made it easy for them to strike against them with their heavy weapons,” said retired General Reda Yacoub. The attack lasted hours, with the terrorists retreating after police called in air support.
Al-Wahat Al-Bahriya is a small oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, where Cairo has been seeking to confront arms smuggling and tighten security along the border with Libya. It is believed that the Islamic State (ISIS) — present in force in Egypt’s eastern Sinai Peninsula — and the Muslim- Brotherhood-affiliated Hasm militant groups obtain arms, including heavy weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and replenish ranks from Libya.
No terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack, although, given the scale and sophistication of the ambush, security analysts said it was likely a carefully planned operation.
Speculation focused on the likelihood that the attackers could have invited the raid to carry out the ambush or had sources within the police that warned them about the raid.
“This is very possible, given the intensity of the attack and the apparent preparedness of the terrorists,” Allam said. “The terrorists might have known beforehand of the raid and the number of policemen staging it.”
Regardless of who was responsible for the attack, its scale and sophistication led to fears that terrorist groups have cracked Egypt’s modus operandi for responding to attacks.
“A change of security arrangements is needed as a result,” former Deputy Interior Minister Hosam Lasheen concurred. “The attack opens a new phase in the battle against terrorism, one that sees the presence of terrorists metastasising to areas long considered far away from their influence.”
There were reports that al-Murabitoun, a militant group formed by former army officer Hisham al-Ashmawi, could have been behind the attack.
Ashmawi was kicked out of the army in 2011 for extremist views. He joined Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a shadowy home-grown militant group active in North Sinai. He split from the group in November 2014 after Ansar Beit al-Maqdis swore allegiance to ISIS.
In June 2015, Ashmawi allegedly participated in the assassination of Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat. A few months ago, he appeared in a video announcing the formation of al-Murabitoun.
Local reports said a suspect in the bombing of a number of churches had confirmed that ISIS-linked militants were hiding in the Western Desert. The cell was supposedly planning attacks across Egypt to reduce pressure on ISIS in Sinai.
Cairo increased air sorties along the Libyan-Egyptian border, including destroying eight trucks reportedly carrying arms and militants from Libya on October 23.
In an interview with the French news channel, France 24, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Cairo would face greater terrorist threats in the coming period, particularly from ISIS. “We do acknowledge that the success in combating terrorism elements in Syria and Iraq will lead to some of them moving to Libya, Egypt and Sinai.”
Terrorist groups’ ability to operate out of Egypt’s Western Desert and across the border with Libya indicates that the real battle has just begun.
“This shows us that the border with Libya will be the next front in the battle against terrorism,” said Mohamed Sadek, a former assistant interior minister. “This makes it necessary for police and the army to take special measures to make the border impenetrable.”