Egypt maintains Sinai offensive v ISIS
CAIRO - The Egyptian Army continues to crack down on militants in the Sinai peninsula, in north-eastern Egypt on the border with Israel and the Gaza Strip, in the largest and most comprehensive offensive in the area in years.
The army has killed hundreds of militants and arrested hundreds of others, according to military spokesman Mohamed Samir, who publishes details of the operation on Facebook.
The operation, which began September 7th, aims to put an end to militancy in Sinai, military experts say.
“This is the largest operation of its kind against the terrorists in Sinai in a long time,” said Nabil Fouad, a former defence minister. “The army is launching it after it had already determined the locations and hiding places of the terrorists.”
Code-named Martyrs’ Right, the operation marks a serious change in the tactics of the Egyptian Army in Sinai. This is one of the first times the army has taken the initiative in attacking Sinai’s militants after long being on the defensive.
The army during the past two years focused on defending checkpoints and security facilities against militant attacks. Militancy emerged as a threat in Sinai almost three years ago when 17 Egyptian troops were killed by unidentified militants. The militants hijacked two armoured vehicles and rammed the border fence with Israel before they were stopped by the Israeli Air Force.
A short time later, militants kidnapped seven Egyptian soldiers, who were later released unharmed following negotiations.
Repeated attacks, however, have claimed scores of Egyptian military and police lives in Sinai. The attacks were claimed by a shadowy group that called itself Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. In November 2014, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS).
Apart from Sinai, ISIS also launched attacks in Cairo and in other provinces, proving itself to be a difficult group to defeat for the military, considered one of the strongest in the Middle East in terms of equipment, manpower and training.
A recent ISIS assault included an attempt to overrun parts of the northern Sinai cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid with coordinated attacks against several Egyptian army posts. The offensive was repulsed and the army killed scores of militants. About 20 Egyptian troops died in the attacks, according to the army spokesman.
Security expert Khaled Okasha says the Egyptian operation in Sinai will not come to an end before the army eradicates ISIS from Sinai. He cited Egyptian plans for development in the Suez Canal region — only a few kilometres from Sinai — as a main reason for the offensive.
“The government has big plans for this region,” Okasha said. “What ISIS wants to do is to prove that this region in particular and Egypt in general are not stable or safe for investment.”
In August, Egypt opened a parallel channel to the Suez Canal, allowing two-way transit in the canal for the first time since it was opened in 1869. The government plans to turn the banks of the canal into a major industrial and service hub, attracting hundreds of billions of dollars in investments.
The project is expected to economically transform Egypt and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Other security and military experts, however, say the timing of the Sinai offensive is more linked to the army’s hope to defeat ISIS in Sinai so it can focus on the growing ISIS presence in neighbouring Libya.
ISIS recently overran three Libyan cities close to the Egyptian border. The militant group staged four deadly attacks on Egyptian security forces in Egypt’s western desert in recent months.
On September 14th, ISIS militants kidnapped a resident of the western region and cut off his head after accusing him of being an army informant. On the same day, Egyptian planes killed 12 people, including eight Mexican tourists, after mistaking them for ISIS terrorists. The event led to diplomatic tensions between Egypt and Mexico.
On September 15th, the Egyptian Army was reported to have discovered a major arms stockpile near the site of the attack on the tourists.
The operation in Sinai includes attacks on the mountainous hideouts of the ISIS militants and destruction of tunnels used by the militants to smuggle and warehouse arms and explosives. Ground troops, the air force and special combat police troops have been utilised in the offensive.
“The army seeks to besiege the terrorists, cut communication lines between them and disrupt their supplies,” Fouad said. “These measures will surely undermine their power and lead to their inevitable end.”