Egypt’s army seeks to decapitate ISIS in Sinai

Although it has taken much longer than initially thought, Operation Sinai 2018 is slowly weakening ISIS’s grip on the territory.
Sunday 14/10/2018
Incremental gains. A member of Egypt’s armed forces prepares before an intervention in North Sinai, last December.           (Reuters)
Incremental gains. A member of Egypt’s armed forces prepares before an intervention in North Sinai, last December. (Reuters)

CAIRO - The Egyptian military strategy of targeting Islamic State (ISIS) leaders in the Sinai Peninsula is significantly weakening the terrorist group and could play a major role in its collapse, security analysts said.

“It is a well-known fact that terrorist organisations fall apart as soon as their leaders are either killed or arrested,” security expert Gamal Eddine Mazloum said. “This is why there is optimism about the results of the military operation in Sinai with the army netting one ISIS commander after another.”

The ISIS-affiliated group known as Sinai Province has confirmed that Abu Hamza al-Maqdisi, a senior commander responsible for planning terrorist attacks, died in an air raid by the Egyptian military on the town of Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai.

Maqdisi, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip was among 16 ISIS fighters killed in the attack. He was not, however, the first Sinai Province commander targeted in this way, with many speculating that the Egyptian military has tasked a special squad to carry out assassinations of senior ISIS commanders.

Egypt’s armed forces launched an all-out operation against ISIS in February, deploying tens of thousands of troops, as well as heavy weaponry, including tanks and attack helicopters, to the Sinai Peninsula.

Although it has taken much longer than initially thought, Operation Sinai 2018 is slowly weakening ISIS’s grip on the territory. Hundreds of ISIS fighters are believed to have been killed.

The operation includes reconnaissance and raids in other parts of Egypt, including the Western Desert near the Libyan border.

A government statement October 8 said Egypt’s military had killed 28 fighters in the North Sinai city of Arish and destroyed 26 vehicles and 52 motorcycles, in addition to seizing weapons and explosives.

“Huge efforts are being made by army troops to track down ISIS remnants in Sinai and bring the ongoing military operation to a successful end,” said Khaled Okasha, a member of Egypt’s Supreme Anti-Terrorism Council, an advisory body of the Egyptian presidency. “Results included in the latest statement of the army show that the operation is moving on the right track.”

Analysts said the special focus on hunting down ISIS commanders, a policy that has not officially been confirmed by Cairo, is leading to major deficiencies in the group’s command-and-control apparatus.

In August 2015, the army killed Selim Suleiman al-Haram, one of Sinai Province’s most senior leaders, in a shoot-out in Sheikh Zuweid.

In February 2017, the army killed Hamad Salem Suleiman, another high-profile ISIS commander, in the Halal Mount area in central Sinai. Suleiman, the army said, was a bomb maker and believed to be responsible for several ISIS ambushes.

In February of this year, the army killed Muhammad al-Dajani, an ISIS commander in North Sinai. Just a few weeks earlier, Dajani, a defector from Hamas, appeared in an ISIS propaganda video in which he executed a fellow Gazan fighter for collaborating with the Egyptian Army.

In April, the army killed Nasser Abu Zakul, the ISIS commander in central Sinai. Abu Zakul was responsible for planting explosives and orchestrating attacks against army posts in the area, the army said.

The targeted attacks, which analysts said required significant intelligence to plan, were degrading ISIS’s capabilities in the Sinai Peninsula. The army has enlisted the help of Sinai tribes, who provide local knowledge that helps determine the whereabouts of ISIS leaders.

Sinai Bedouins have shared videos on social media detailing raids on ISIS hideouts and showing ISIS fighters surrendering to Egyptian authorities.

“The killing or arrest of these leaders is a painful blow to the Sinai Province organisation as a whole because it saps the morale of junior fighters and sometimes leads to the disintegration of the organisation’s cells in different areas,” said Munir Adib, an Egyptian specialist in terrorist groups. “The strategy of the army to net Sinai Province commanders will pay off because these are the brains behind the operations of the organisation.”

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