Last year’s successes against terrorism did not end war

Militants have been using the mountainous region in central Sinai to avoid military patrols, while seeking to hide among the residents of northern Sinai.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Egyptian policemen stand guarding a checkpoint on a road leading to the North Sinai provincial capital of El Arish, last July. (AFP)
Major challenge. Egyptian policemen stand guarding a checkpoint on a road leading to the North Sinai provincial capital of El Arish, last July. (AFP)

CAIRO - Cairo’s Operation Sinai 2018 weakened the local branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula but this is far from enough to herald an end to the terrorist threat facing the country, security analysts said.

The operation, which began last February, was to have ended within three months. However, it looks to extend into 2019 with all branches of Egypt’s armed forces fighting terrorism across the country.

“Apart from killing and arresting a huge number of ISIS members and leaders, the operation destroyed most of the infrastructure of the terrorist organisation,” said Mahmoud Khalaf, a lecturer at Nasser Military Academy,  the academic arm of the Egyptian military. “This has had a huge effect on the ability of ISIS to stage attacks against Egyptian army troops and policemen, particularly in Sinai.”

The organisation, originally a homegrown terrorist group that swore allegiance to ISIS at the end of 2014, turned some parts of the Sinai Peninsula into perilous zones for troops, police and citizens, particularly Egypt’s Coptic minority.

ISIS Sinai does not control specific territory, although militants have been using the mountainous region in central Sinai to avoid military patrols, while seeking to hide among the residents of northern Sinai.

Despite the success of the army against the organisation, ISIS is still capable of low-level operations. On December 17, ISIS-planted roadside bombs killed two police conscripts.

The roadside bombs and dependence on lone-wolf attacks, however, reflect desperation on the part of militants who are increasingly being overpowered by Egyptian forces deployed in Sinai.

ISIS has not been able to replicate large-scale attacks it carried out in 2017, such as the Al-Rawda mosque attack in Sinai, in which more than 300 people were killed, that became the impetus behind Operation Sinai 2018.

ISIS is also trying to expand its operations and presence outside Sinai, particularly to the Egyptian Western Desert and Egypt’s southern provinces. This proved to be a huge challenge for Egypt’s security establishment in 2018.

“It will most likely continue to be a major security challenge in 2019,” said security analyst Hamdi Bekheit, a retired Egyptian Army general.

The enormous desert areas west of the Nile Valley and the Delta, the main population concentration centres in Egypt, give terrorists escaping Sinai the opportunity to regroup.

Deteriorating living conditions in central and southern Egyptian provinces and rampant poverty and illiteracy also mean the terrorists can often find additional recruits.

On November 2, militants attacked two buses carrying Christians on their way from visiting the Saint Samuel the Confessor Monastery in the Western Desert. Seven Egyptian Christians were killed and 14 others wounded.

In May 2017, militants killed 28 Christians travelling to the same monastery in the same area.

Bekheit said Egypt’s Coptic Christian community is being singled out because it is vulnerable and because this would sow wider political and social disenchantment in Egypt.

“The terrorists want to give the impression that the government cannot offer them protection,” he said. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has staked a lot of political capital in reassuring Egypt’s Coptic minority, who make up an estimated 10% of Egypt’s population.

A new front in the war against terrorism will likely add pressure for Egypt’s security forces and Cairo will have to deal with terrorists moving their operations outside Sinai, security analysts said.

Equally challenging for Cairo will be the border with Libya, a 1,100km line that Egypt guards alone in the absence of a central state in Libya.

The border has been a major security problem for Cairo since the 2011 uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and has been used by terrorist groups, including ISIS and pro-al-Qaeda groups, to smuggle arms and militants into Egypt.

One major success in 2018 was the capture of most wanted Egyptian terrorist, Hisham al-Ashmawy, in Libya. Ashmawy, a former Egyptian Army special forces officer, was captured in the eastern Libyan city of Derna in October.

“This is the most important terrorist to be arrested in a decade,” Bekheit said. “He amounts to a treasure trove of information about terrorism, the hideouts of terrorist groups, their funding and the sources of that funding.”

Ashmawy’s capture confirmed the military and security cooperation between Cairo and the National Libyan Army led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

“Libya is by far the most serious security threat to Egypt, given the enormity of the unrest it suffers and the toll this unrest has on security in neighbouring states,” said security analyst Gamal Mazloum. “Egypt will have to deal with this threat in the coming years, whether there is a settlement to the conflict in Libya or not.”

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