Deadly Giza ambush raises questions about Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy

Sunday 29/10/2017
Members of the Egyptian security forces resting on an armoured vehicle parked on a road towards the Bahriya oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, on October 21. (AFP)

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.”