Egypt trains Sahel, Sahara militaries on fighting terror

The first phase of the training involved troops from Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Useful expertise. Egyptian and African forces at the start of the  military exercises at Mohamed Naguib Military Base in Matrouh  governorate, December 9.  (Egyptian armed forces spokesman’s Facebook account)
Useful expertise. Egyptian and African forces at the start of the military exercises at Mohamed Naguib Military Base in Matrouh governorate, December 9. (Egyptian armed forces spokesman’s Facebook account)

CAIRO - Egypt brought troops from several Sahel and Sahara countries together for the first joint counterterrorism training at a Western Desert military base.

The 6-day training exercises, which wrapped up December 14, aimed to harmonise the capabilities, tactics and response of the countries’ special combat units to help establish a unified counterterrorism force.

The first phase of the training, which took place at the Mohamed Naguib Military Base in Matrouh governorate, involved troops from Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria and Burkina Faso. They trained in countering terrorist threats and freeing hostages, Egyptian Army spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifae said.

The troops also worked on swift response to security emergencies, he added.

Egypt, military analysts said, wanted to pass on the expertise acquired while fighting a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) based in the Sinai Peninsula.

“The Egyptian Army has expertise fighting dangerous terrorist organisations,” said security analyst Gamal Eddine Mazloum. “This expertise can be very useful to Sahel and Sahara states, given that they fight the same terrorist groups.”

The training exercise went beyond that aspect because of concerns that terrorist groups in the Sahel and Sahara region could ally with those in North Africa, including Libya.

There are many radical organisations that threaten the security in the region. The nature of the militaries of the region mean they might be more effective if they coordinate to deal with larger threats.

Following the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, battle-hardened jihadists fleeing that arena remain a major global threat and there is increasing evidence that some of them have taken refuge in the Sahel and Sahara region. Analysts point to porous borders between Sahel and Sahara countries, the lack of experience of its security apparatus and the presence of ideological offshoots of ISIS as reasons why the region could become the terror group’s haven.

“These are conditions that turn the countries of the region into fertile soil for the presence of radical Islamist organisations,” said Khaled Okasha, a member of the Supreme Anti-Terrorism Council, an advisory security body of the Egyptian presidency. “This is why Sahel and Sahara states are badly in need of help.”

Egypt sent a high-level delegation to the G5 Sahel conference in Mauritania on December 7 and pledged support to the countries of the region. This was part of an international drive to stamp out the terrorist threat and prevent it from seeping into the Mediterranean region.

Sahel and Sahara states were promised billions of dollars in support from European and Arab nations.

Egypt has been trying to boost the militaries of the region and bring them together since 2016 when it invited Sahel and Sahara army chiefs to meetings in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Soon after the meeting, Egypt began building a major counterterrorism centre in what is to become the country’s new administrative capital. The centre, whose construction was completed in November, could become the command centre of the Sahel and Sahara joint military force.

Egypt also pledged 1,000 scholarships for army officers from the countries of the region.

The training at the Mohamed Naguib Military Base, analysts said, was the first practical move on the road to establishing

the force.

“The belief in Cairo is that the countries of the region cannot eradicate the terrorist groups’ active in them without the presence of a viable military force,” Mazloum said. “This is why the formation of the joint counterterrorism force will be the key to putting the Egyptian vision into practice.”

The training exercises were two weeks after Chadian President Idriss Deby visited Tel Aviv, the first such visit to Israel in 46 years. Deby called for support to stamp out terrorist threats. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was to visit N’Djamena but developments on Gaza and Lebanon fronts and an inquiry into his financial integrity delayed the trip.

Egypt does not view Israeli involvement in the Sahel and Sahara region with comfort, analysts said. Egyptian support to the countries of the region, they said, may induce them to slow their cooperation with Israel.

“Nevertheless, Egypt will face a challenge as it tries to do this,” said Samir Ghattas, the head of Egyptian think-tank Middle East Centre for Strategic Studies. “Egypt suffers tough economic conditions at home and this can hold it back from offering enough support to these countries.”

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