Despite this year’s troubles, Egypt could face tougher security challenges in 2018
Cairo- The shelling of a military airport in Sinai’s El Arish during a visit by Egypt’s defence and interior ministers signified a new challenge in the country’s war on terrorism.
Viewed with other developments regarding Egypt’s security in the last weeks of 2017, the December 19 attack reaffirms that the country’s security agencies have their work cut out for them next year, security experts said.
“It takes a lot of military sophistication and preparation for such a missile to be fired with such a degree of precision,” said Khaled Okasha, a retired police lieutenant-general who is a member of Egypt’s Supreme National Anti-Terrorism Council, an advisory body to the Egyptian president. “It promulgates a qualitative development in the capabilities of the terrorists in Sinai.”
Ministerial visits to the restive Sinai Peninsula, scene of a more than 5-year war against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), are shrouded in secrecy. The visit by Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar and Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi was less than a month after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave the military three months to restore security and stability to the Sinai.
That declaration was just a few days after the worst terrorist attack in the country’s modern history left more than 300 people dead in a bomb-and-gun attack on a mosque in Bir al-Abed, not far from El Arish.
The ministers were unharmed in the December 19 attack but an Egyptian military officer was killed and two other people injured. Given heavy security in the area, the missile must have been fired from at least 15km away, security experts said.
That militants firing the missile were aware of the timing of the officials’ visit indicates they had advanced intelligence-gathering capabilities, experts warned. “This shows that we are on the threshold of a totally new phase in the fight against terrorism,” Okasha said.
With Egypt reeling from the attack on al-Rawdah mosque in Bir al-Abed, Egypt’s security agencies braced for more attacks from Sinai-based terrorist groups. Several militant groups have been operating in the Sinai Peninsula in recent years, from older home-grown groups to newer ones with ties to al-Qaeda or ISIS.
ISIS is in retreat in Iraq and Syria but experts warned of the return of battle-hardened veteran jihadists to Egypt. A local newspaper quoted unidentified Syrian sources as saying that ISIS terrorists leaving Syria infiltrated Sinai via Jordan.
In early December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that ISIS leaders had left Syria after the collapse of their self-styled caliphate in Raqqa to Sinai. That supported accounts of survivors of the attack near El Arish on November 24 who said the attackers wore army uniforms and masks, waved the black flag of ISIS and spoke a Syrian dialect of Arabic.
“Put side by side, this information and these developments attest to one thing: Egypt has become an important destination for ISIS terrorists,” said Samir Ghattas, head of the local think-tank, Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies. “This shows that the battle against terrorism in 2018 will be far from easy.”
There are no official estimates of the number of Egyptians fighting within the ranks of ISIS in Iraq and Syria but independent estimates put them in the hundreds.
Hardened by years of fighting in Iraq and Syria, experts warned that those militants would likely operate on a much more advanced level and represent a greater challenge to the Egyptian army and police if they return to the country.
Jordan is not the only route through which ISIS fighters sneak into Egypt, the experts said. Militants also enter Egypt through Libya, which has been engulfed in violence since the downfall of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in 2011.
Egypt shares a 1,200km border with Libya and mountainous areas in that region provide hard-to-police routes into western Egypt where the vast expanse of desert has been used by the groups for training and hiding.
“This evolving situation makes it necessary for us to move quickly before things get out of control,” said retired army General Sameh Abu Hashima. “We can eradicate terrorism in Sinai altogether during the first quarter of 2018, as the president ordered the army, but we need to acknowledge that the terrorists are continually developing their capabilities.”