For Egypt, Libya border remains major security challenge
Cairo- The Egyptian Air Force’s destruction of 15 vehicles loaded with arms and explosives that crossed into Egypt from Libya in a recent 48-hour period underscores the challenges Cairo is facing in securing its western border, security experts said.
“Securing the joint border with Libya has turned into a heavy mission for the army,” said Fouad Allam, a former senior official in Egypt’s Homeland Security Agency. “This border is becoming even more dangerous than the Sinai Peninsula, where a branch of the Islamic State is active.”
The vehicles tried to cross into Egypt on May 7-8, said Egyptian Army spokesman Colonel Tamer Rifai, who posted footage on the army’s Facebook page of Egyptian F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters taking off from an airbase in western Egypt and bombing the vehicles.
Rifai did not say who was responsible for the smuggling attempt, although security and military experts speculated the vehicles most likely belonged to Islamic State (ISIS) affiliates in Libya.
Retired Air Force General Hesham al-Halabi said the military’s success in destroying major smuggling tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip had forced ISIS in Sinai to look to its sister branch in Libya for resupply.
Huge arms stockpiles have fallen into the hands of various militias, including groups with ties to al- Qaeda and ISIS, since the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011. Egyptian security experts said a large proportion of the arms that found their way to militants in the Sinai Peninsula came from Libya.
Egypt has been fighting an increasingly heated insurgency against an ISIS-affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula. Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers have been killed. ISIS has also carried out terrorist attacks across the country, particularly targeting Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, killing 45 people in April in attacks at churches in Alexandria and Tanta.
Over the past six years, the 1,150- km Egyptian-Libyan border has seen major smuggling operations despite attempts by Egyptian authorities to stop the activities. Given the length of the border and the unrest in Libya, Egyptian officials said it would be virtually impossible to guarantee border security.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has often complained of the difficulty of policing the vast border and the cost to Egypt’s flagging economy. Sisi has ordered Egypt’s military and security agencies to increase efforts and cooperation to limit border smuggling.
“A lot was done in the past few years to make the western border more secure,” said former Egyptian Deputy Interior Minister Mohamed Nour Eddin. “Militants trying to cross into Egypt from Libya have seen that for themselves.”
Cairo has deployed tens of thousands of troops to the western desert and military helicopters and fighter jets patrol the skies. Egypt has also reportedly deployed landmines in many areas along the border.
Cairo has been backing Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya against the UN-backed Government of National Accord. Haftar’s forces are concentrated in eastern Libya, with Cairo prioritising border security and the fight against Islamist militias in its relations with the Libyan military chief.
“This alliance,” said Hossam Sweillam, a former Egyptian assistant defence minister, “is critical for keeping the militants away from Egypt’s border.”
“Nevertheless, this does not mean that it always works, especially when the militants use smuggling points not fully under the control of Haftar’s troops. Ultimately, Egypt is facing a challenging mission and that makes it necessary for its border guards to be on the alert 24/7, which is both painful and costly.”