Egyptian Army requests more time to complete anti-ISIS offensive
CAIRO - The Egyptian Army has asked for additional time to complete its offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula amid fears the militant group could retaliate during the country’s presidential elections.
“The mission of the troops is difficult by all means,” said retired General Sameh Abu Hashima. “They are unearthing the sands and the stones inch by inch to end the terrorist presence altogether.”
The request for additional time was made February 25 by army Chief of Staff Mohamed Farid Hegazy, who told Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that it would not be easy for his troops to complete Operation Sinai 2018 on schedule.
Sisi in November gave the Egyptian armed forces until the end of February to completely eradicate ISIS from Sinai.
ISIS militants, Hegazy said, have maintained a presence in Sinai for years and have prepared against a full-scale military operation. ISIS’s preparations include underground tunnels, hideouts and arms and explosives cashes across the peninsula.
The rugged terrain in Sinai — mostly mountains and desert — makes it easy for ISIS fighters to hide and wait for military operations to pass. The group has also established ties with local tribes.
“This is why rooting them out will take time,” Abu Hashima said.
Although Sisi set the 3-month time frame for completion of the offensive in late November, Operation Sinai 2018 did not begin until February 9. Observers said the first two months had likely involved gathering intelligence and logistical preparation.
The army said it has killed dozens of suspected militants and arrested hundreds of others. It destroyed dozens of vehicles and motorcycles and defused or detonated hundreds of improvised explosive devices.
Hegazy said 42,000 troops were part of the operation. They were using 800 military vehicles and 230 aircraft, making it the largest military operation in Sinai since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel that limited Egypt’s military presence on the peninsula.
Another 18,000 troops, Hegazy said, were handling security operations in other parts of Egypt, especially near the western border with Libya and the southern border with Sudan, to address the presence of militants.
The Egyptian Navy was mandated to secure the coast near the North Sinai city of El Arish to prevent supplies from reaching militants from the sea.
Eradicating the ISIS militants will require more than just military power, analysts warned, particularly given their years-long presence on the Sinai Peninsula.
One of the challenges remains Cairo’s ambiguous ties with the Sinai tribes, which have complained of decades of neglect. The Egyptian government needs to win over the tribes to limit their cooperation with militants.
“The role the Sinai tribes can play in this battle is very important and decisive,” said Samir Ghattas, the head the Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies, an Egyptian think-tank. “They have the information and know who the terrorists are.”
Sinai tribes initially sought not to get involved in the battle, allowing ISIS to increase its presence on the peninsula. The tribes entered the fight last year when ISIS threatened their economic interests and killed and kidnapped tribal members. ISIS killed several tribesmen after accusing them of collaborating with the Egyptian Army.
Tribal militias are cooperating with the military. Sinai tribes post videos on social media that show operations against ISIS positions.
The Tarabin Bedouins, with as many as 40,000 members, make up one of the largest tribes in the area. They are working with the army as guides and militia. Other tribes remain neutral or could be assisting ISIS.
The requested time extension for finishing off ISIS Sinai will have internal political and security consequences, political analysts said.
They said Sisi’s optimistic 3-month time frame was set to end the operations before the March 26-28 presidential election, which Sisi is expected to win easily.
“He would have used the success in eradicating ISIS as a campaigning tool,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “However, the delay in announcing the final defeat of ISIS will deprive him of this moment of victory.”
There are fears that ISIS could threaten the presidential vote to embarrass the government. In a video released February 11, ISIS threatened to target polling stations, labelling elections as a form of polytheism.
“We hereby warn the Muslim public in Egypt and Sinai during these polytheistic days not to come near the polling stations and the courts and to avoid large gatherings, for they are a target for us,” an ISIS fighter going by Abu Muhammad Al-Masri says on the video.
“There are enough reasons to worry about the prospect of attacks,” Ghattas said. “This is a venomous group that will brook no delay in attacking, even innocent civilians if it has the chance to.”