Egyptian Army begins unprecedented operation in Sinai

Many ISIS militants fleeing Syria and Iraq are believed to have travelled to Sinai.
Sunday 18/02/2018
Egyptian Army armoured vehicles on a highway to North Sinai during a launch of a major assault against militants, on February 9. (Egyptian Ministry of Defence)
Massive effort. Egyptian Army armoured vehicles on a highway to North Sinai, on February 9. (Egyptian Ministry of Defence)

CAIRO - Egypt launched a large-scale operation to root out Islamic State (ISIS) militants entrenched in the Sinai Peninsula, where fighting between the government and various Islamist terrorist groups has been going on for more than five years.

“The army has never launched an operation of this scale before in Sinai,” said retired army General Sameh Abu Hashema. “For the first time, all military branches are participating, including the navy, the air force and ground troops.”

Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018, begun February 8, has the goal of eradicating terrorism and securing control over all Egyptian borders, military spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Refaai said.

Operations have not been limited to central and northern Sinai, where ISIS has an entrenched presence, but also took place in the Nile Delta, the Nile Valley and the Western Desert.

The operation came after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in late November, gave the military three months to “secure and stabilise” the Sinai Peninsula, following an attack on Al-Rawda mosque in Sinai that killed more than 300 people.

In addition to tens of thousands of troops, the military is using F-16 fighter jets, attack helicopters, tanks and armoured vehicles to secure areas in northern and central Sinai. The Egyptian Army said dozens of militants had been killed and hundreds more arrested.

Egypt has been fighting militants in the Sinai Peninsula since the 2011 revolution. However, the insurgency took a major turn in 2013 following the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.

Both al-Qaeda-linked militants and ISIS are known to operate in the Sinai Peninsula, which has suffered decades of neglect from the central government, leading to disenchantment among local tribes. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have even fought each other, with ISIS’s branch — known as Sinai Province — believed to be encouraging foreign fighters to go to the region.

Military analysts said the army in recent months collected intelligence about terrorist hideouts, arms depots and supply routes to plan a massive multipronged operation across the country.

On February 10, military troops took control of ISIS’s local media centre in what many deemed a major blow to the organisation. The centre, media reports said, contained valuable information about militants and their combat plans.

Despite statements from the Egyptian Army announcing successful missions, questions remain as to whether Operation Sinai 2018 will end ISIS’s presence in Egypt. ISIS and other Islamist militant groups have been operating in Sinai for years and previous military operations failed to dislodge them.

“This means that they are totally familiar with the vast deserts of the peninsula and its mountains, which gives them an advantage,” said Sameh Eid, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and an expert on Islamist terrorist movements. “Some of the militants are also highly trained and have very advanced weapons.”

In late December, ISIS destroyed a military helicopter shortly after it touched down at Al-Arish Military Airport. The attack narrowly missed killing Egypt’s defence and interior ministers, who had just disembarked from the helicopter.

The precision of the rocket fired on the helicopter and the intelligence required to carry out the attempted assassination of two ministers — who were secretly visiting Sinai — offered insight into ISIS’s increasingly sophisticated capabilities.

Many ISIS militants fleeing Syria and Iraq are believed to have travelled to Sinai. Hardened by years of fighting, these foreign militants are believed to be behind the recent terrorist attacks in Egypt, including the mosque massacre. Witnesses to the attack said the gunmen spoke Levantine Arabic.

A second objective of the operation, the military said, was to secure Egypt’s borders and the timing of Operation Sinai 2018 was meant to send a message as Cairo faces regional challenges, analysts said.

The operation coincides with increasing tensions between Egypt and Turkey over maritime borders and natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Cairo is also dealing with a crisis with Addis Ababa and Khartoum over Nile water rights and Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam.

“Some regional powers are mistakenly thinking that they can encroach on Egypt’s borders easily and without problems,” said Samir Ghattas, a member of the Egyptian parliament. “To these powers, it must be clear that Egypt has an army that can defend its interests and its borders with all force.”