Egypt steps up anti-ISIS fight in Sinai
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.”