The Egyptian army launched a large-scale counter-terrorism operation on Feb. 9 code-named “Sinai 2018” against the self-styled Sinai province of the Islamic State. Previously known as “Ansar Beit al-Maqdis,” the organization has wreaked havoc on the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, the most populated and best developed of the area, and which borders Israel. It is unclear what has been achieved so far, though the jihadis are still putting up a fight.
Nearly three weeks later, on Feb. 27, Egyptian media reported that Mohamed Farid, the commander-in-chief of the army, had asked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to extend the operation for another three months. The president, in full military uniform to show his determination, was inaugurating the new anti-terror base established in an undisclosed location east of the Suez Canal. Farid said the army was operating under difficult conditions in populated areas where terrorists planted improvised explosive devices.
In other words, the jihadis are weakened but still constitute a serious threat—not only to the people of the region, but to the prestige of the president, who is seeking a second mandate in the upcoming presidential elections to be held March 26-28. Two potentially damaging scenarios could erupt at that time: a mega-terror attack during the campaign and/or concerted attacks on polling stations to disrupt the electoral process.
There are no embedded journalists with the army, so information is doled out sparingly by army spokesmen or unnamed military sources. There is no way to check their accuracy.
According to what has already transpired, ground, air and naval forces—seconded by security forces—are operating mainly in the northern Sinai. However, a second front has been opened west of Cairo, where groups of terrorists were discovered, as well as in the western desert along the Libyan border, through which sizeable quantities of arms, ammunition, missiles and explosives are being smuggled. The navy patrols along the Mediterranean coasts and the Red Sea to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the country or trying to flee.
Quoting an unnamed military source, the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm put at 35,000 the number of soldiers taking part in the operation, not counting police and other security forces.
Official army spokesman Tamer al-Rifai revealed on Feb. 22 that 71 terrorists have been killed so far; and 1,852 individuals wanted or suspected of crime or of belonging to the Islamic State have been arrested, many released after interrogation. Some 158 terror targets had been destroyed by the air force and 413 by artillery fire. Also destroyed were 1,282 caches used by terrorists to stock weapons and ammunition, and to prepare explosives, as well as to hide equipment and supplies necessary for the functioning of their activities, such as tents, medical supplies and medicine. These caches also served as administrative centers. The opening of three tunnels leading probably to the Gaza Strip were discovered. The army seized 31 motorcycles with no licensing plates; 53 hashish farms were destroyed; and 39 tons of a variety of drugs were seized.
These figures demonstrate the scope of the operation, which has no doubt dealt a heavy blow to the terror organization. Yet it has not yet been “totally eradicated,” which was President el-Sisi’s objective in launching the attack.
The figures also show the way the so-called Islamic State was making money and entrenching itself in northern Sinai—in desert and mountainous areas, as well as among civilian populations. It is unclear how many terrorists there are; estimates range from a few hundred to a thousand or more. If these numbers are reliable, the killing of a mere 71 jihadis has not significantly depleted their ranks.
On Feb. 27, during the inauguration of the new base, an army spokesman issued the 12th communiqué since the beginning of the operation. A spectacular terror attack had been averted when the army confronted and eliminated a group of terrorists with belts of explosives intending to blow themselves up among troop concentrations. Seven armed terrorists were taken after an exchange of fire. On March 1, according to communiqué 13, another 13 terrorists were killed and several targets destroyed. Still, the jihadis manage to evade army attacks and mount new operations, though they end in capture or death. According to figures released by the army, to date, fewer than 10 soldiers and officers have been killed in exchanges of fire.
El-Sisi has been at pains in meetings with officers and civilians to stress that launching a large-scale military operation had been an absolute necessity and the only way to restore stability, not only in the Sinai Peninsula but in the whole of Egypt. The army would not relent until the Islamic State had been entirely eliminated.
Meanwhile, civilian populations who had suffered heavily in the past from terrorist exactions are still suffering because of the fighting. Last year, the jihadis had targeted civilians, murdering 300 people in prayer in the Rode mosque of Bir el-Abd. In a matter of days, they had previously murdered seven members of the Christian Copt community—threatening to murder them all. The entire community—160 Copt families living in El Arish and northern Sinai—saw the writing on the wall. With no one to protect them, they fled, finding temporary refuge in Port Said and hoping to come back one day.
Unfortunately, army operations so far have only added to the misery of the civilian population. Schools are closed, many roads have been blocked to civilian traffic, and in several places, people were forbidden to leave their houses for days. Foods and medicine supplies have been severely disrupted. Authorities have offered to bus or relocate children so they can attend schools in the south of Sinai and even in mainland Egypt, but so far with no success and there is no solution in sight.
With the jihadis weakened but still very much a force to be reckoned with, the Egyptian army will have to prolong the operation for a lengthy period. Withdrawing now would negate the effect of its achievements so far. That’s why the army’s commander-in-chief requested another three months.
Israel is closely following the developments on its border, and is reportedly supplying Egypt with quality intelligence. It also agreed to let its neighbor move troops into the Sinai far exceeding in number what had been set down in the peace agreement between the two countries. Obviously, eliminating the threat of terror and ensuring the stability of the regime are of paramount importance for the security of Israel.