One month ahead of the presidential election settled for the victory of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi for a second presidential term, the Egyptian Armed Forces launched a new operation—upon his orders—in face of the defiant presence of extremist groups in the Sinai Peninsula since 2013.
In a video statement published on Friday morning titled Comprehensive Operation for Sinai 2018, military spokesperson Tamer Al-Refaai said [Al-Sisi] assigned to military leadership and the Ministry of Interior the mission of full confrontation of terrorism and other criminal acts.
According to the spokesperson, the operation plan covers central and North Sinai and extends to other Nile Delta areas, as well as desert zones west of the Nile Valley. There should also be “military drills in strategic areas,” Al-Refaai added. He further called on citizens to report suspected terrorist elements.
Two days ago, media reports had pointed out intensified security measures and military presence in Sinai.
Al-Sisi said in a Facebook post: “I am proudly following up the heroic actions of my sons from the armed forces and the police to clear the precious land of Egypt from terrorists, enemies of life…as always, long live Egypt.
In November 2017, Al-Sisi vowed to restore stability by eradicating terrorism, tasking the military and police to do so within a period of three months. This had followed a massive first-of-its-kind terror attack on a mosque in Al-Arish city, killing at least 305 citizens.
In a second statement a few hours later, the military spokesperson said air forces struck locations in Sinai linked with terrorist elements and dens used as positions from which they launch attacks, while maritime forces, border security, and police were in charge of securing other vital areas. Both videos displayed a variety of military equipment and the preparation of human forces.
The operation comes amid continuous manoeuvres, mainly in North Sinai, and is the second largest operation, following that known as Martyr’s Right which unfolded over four phases from 2015 to 2017 and was characterised by a heavy death toll on militants.
The self-proclaimed “Sinai Province”, formerly Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, is the most well-known militant group waging an anti-government insurgency and has pledged alliance to the Islamic State group (IS).
Local security experts say operation very likely to succeed
Mohamed Al-Shahawy, security expert and adviser to the military Command and Staff College, said in press and televised statements that the difference between this operation and previous ones lays in the level of cooperation between several security branches, especially air forces ,which already played a role in locating and targeting “terrorist dens.”
He said maritime forces will also be effective in cutting lines of supplies to these groups and ground forces have been scrutinising, and conducting raids on, suspected areas.
Speaking to Al-Kahera Wal Nas channel on Friday evening, Al-Shahawy claimed that more than “95% of terrorism in Sinai has been defeated” and that the remaining percentage is due to “those hiding among civilians which the military cannot hit.”
He stated that hundreds of locations used to store drugs have recently been found, in addition to more than 2,000 tonnes of explosive material ceased on borders, which have a market value of at least $400,000 per tonne.
From a different perspective, Talaat Moussa, counsellor at Nasser Military Academy, has been repeating for over a year a conspiracy theory that stipulated a plot against Egypt prepared by the intelligence services of several countries, at the forefront of which come the US, the UK, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar.
Asserting his statement once more to Extra News channel on Friday evening, Moussa said this was how “terrorist elements were able to sneak into Egypt form the borders with Libya.”
With regards to the Sinai 2018 operation, he said it comes as a message to the people that state institutions are working at full capacity for their protection and that “terrorists hiding among us should know they are sentenced to death.”
He also focused on the responsibility of citizens to support state efforts through providing information, saying the vale of their contributions should not be underestimated.
“I am not saying we should spy on each other, but odd behaviours should be reported. If a stranger is watching a building, or moves to a closed community, the police should be warned. Landlords must also keep authorities informed of the identities of renters.”
Moussa said security actions against terrorism have been prolonged due to taking into consideration humanitarian circumstances.
Religious institutions support
It is not only through security experts appearing on one channel to the next that public support for the operation is being mobilised on a wider scale than previous operations.
Religious institutions rushed to express alignment with the new state strategy. Al-Azhar issued two statements to emphasise support for security forces in addition to calling on the Egyptian people to take the same stance.
A second statement, signed by Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb, included a prayer for security forces.
Dar Al-Iftaa, the institution concerned with issuing official religious edicts, posted on its Facebook page a picture of a soldier holding the Egyptian flag and a praying line for the people, the country, and Muslims.
The Coptic Orthodox Church, which commemorated on Thursday the 40th day of death of the victims of the December Helwan church attack, issued a statement in the same direction, saying history will remember the sacrifices made by soldiers for the sake of the nation.
Ministry of Interior as part of the operation
The police was announced to be officially part of the confrontation plan. The military and police had been coordinating together and equally sharing losses among their personnel. While attacks on military troops were more concentrated in Sinai, police officers were targeted across different governorates in more isolated attacks.
The ministry had been leading its own war on other groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood or affiliated groups and other scattered cells, militant groups such as Hasm and Lewaa Thawra, or even Al-Qaeda-linked groups, as was revealed in the Al-Wahat shootout in October where more than a dozen police officers were killed in the Western Desert.
Amid continuous operations against Hasm militants, the ministry said on Friday that the National Security Agency tracked orders issued by the group’s leading members to conduct a series of attacks on vital institutions and target police and military personnel during the upcoming election. In a security raid, 14 members were arrested in possession of arms, while three others were killed in armed clashes. The ministry said that investigations revealed their involvement in four shootings on police officers.
The foreign media has been more sceptical about the achievement of security forces in containing terrorism, often reporting higher death tolls than officially announced from the military or security forces.
In 2015, two months into the military operation Martyr’s Right, The Economist said Egypt was losing control of Sinai and that despite the heavy death toll, the ranks of militants seemed to only grow. The report observed the number of attacks conducted by militants and a drop in tourism following the downed Russian plane incident.
The mosque attack of last November sparked further concerns. The Washington Post said the attack only reaffirmed the peninsula’s reputation as a terrorism hotspot. The Guardian wrote: “The campaign against the extremists in Egypt desperately needs another [campaign].”
According to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy’s report following the Radwa Mosque attack, the average rate of attacks reported per month was 11 in 2014, 34 in 2015, 57 in 2016, and 32 in the first nine months of 2017.
In the three years from December 2013 to 2016, four mass-casualty attacks were reported in which civilians were killed, including the Metrojet bombing that killed 224 aboard a Russian passenger plane. Since December 2016, there have been five such attacks. The total number of civilians killed in attacks has also increased: a total of 588 civilians were reported killed in the three years from December 2013 to 2016, and 507 civilians have been reported killed since then.
While mass-casualty civilian attacks are on the rise, other attacks reported in North Sinai have overwhelmingly targeted security forces: 76% of attacks reported in the province this year have targeted security forces. At least 396 civilians and 292 security forces were killed in terror attacks in North Sinai in 2017, surpassing last year’s fatality total, when 446 were killed in the province, the report stated.
The Egyptian state has been refuting foreign reports, often through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Information Service.
Recently, the military spokesperson denied a report by The New York Times which suggested Egypt approved Israeli operations in its territory to secure its borders.