Egypt steps up anti-ISIS fight in Sinai

Sunday 12/03/2017
Radical shift. Troops on their way to Mount Halal. (Facebook page of Egyptian army spokesman)

Cairo - The Egyptian Army’s push into the Mount Halal re­gion aims to destroy the Islamic State (ISIS) com­mand centre in the area. However, such a move could cause friction with Israel, military experts said.
“By far, this is the most impor­tant military operation in the whole of Sinai since the beginning of the war on terror there,” said Hesham Halabi, an adviser at Nasser Military Academy, the military science insti­tute of the Egyptian Army. “Apart from containing huge weapons caches, the mount is an important training centre for the terrorists.”
The army is increasing pressure on ISIS, which in recent weeks has tried to destabilise the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fat­tah al-Sisi by targeting the coun­try’s Christians, who are among his staunchest supporters.
This is the first time the army has ventured towards suspected mili­tant hideouts in the area, having previously been unable to attack the area because of the terrain and the absence of sufficient informa­tion about ISIS strongholds.
Military experts say Mount Halal is Egypt’s Tora Bora as it resembles the mountain riddled with caves in Afghanistan where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden took refuge after 9/11 before he escaped across the Pakistani border. The difficulty of the terrain explains why the Egyp­tian military has deployed nearly 40,000 troops to the area, along with its most sophisticated weap­onry, including Apache helicopters, Chinese-made drones and missiles capable of destroying caves.
The army is reticent to discuss the operation, which has been on­going since mid-February but local media report that vast caches of weapons, large amounts of money and the identification papers of non-Egyptian militants have been found.
“If anything, the amount of arms found in the mountain testify to the fact that it is the nerve centre of all ISIS activities in Sinai,” said security expert Khaled Okasha. “If eliminated, this centre will mean a lot for the war on ISIS.”
The Mount Halal operations, mil­itary experts said, mark a radical shift in Egypt’s war on terror in Si­nai, a change that will significantly speed up the pace of the war. Since Egypt began operations against ISIS in Sinai almost three years ago, Egyptian troops and police at North Sinai checkpoints have been on the defensive, a strategy blamed for the high number of casualties se­curity forces have sustained in ISIS attacks.
When it turned to an offensive strategy, the army forced the mili­tants to change their tactics, going further underground and depend­ing on improvised explosive de­vices against troops raiding their hideouts. The Mount Halal opera­tions, military experts said, take the offensive strategy a step further by targeting the centre of militant ac­tivity in Sinai.
Most of the weapons found in the caves were said to have entered Egypt from neighbouring Libya and other places during the one year rule of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi, authorities said. Morsi, they added, allowed radical Islamists released from Egyptian jails after the downfall of the Hosni Mubarak regime in 2011 and those who had returned to Egypt from Afghanistan while Morsi was president to estab­lish a base in North Sinai.
The operations in Mount Halal could cause concern in Israel, which has a border only about 50km away.
Mount Halal is in a demilitarised zone established by the 1978 Camp David accords, the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country.
Alaa Bazied, a retired army gen­eral and the head of local think-tank Security and Strategic Studies Research Centre, said Egypt can prevent this friction with proper po­litical marketing for its Mount Halal operations.
“We need to convince the inter­national community that these op­erations are indispensable for the security of Sinai and consequently the security of countries near it,” Bazied said. “I think the Egyptian administration is doing this very well now.”
Since Egypt started the anti-ISIS operations, Israel has allowed Egypt to deploy heavy equipment, includ­ing tanks, fighter jets and thousands of troops into demilitarised areas for the first time since the signing of the accords.
“Israel does this because it knows well that a secure Sinai is important for its own security,” Bazied said. “This is why there is understanding in Tel Aviv for the importance of the Mount Halal operations.”