Earlier military operations in Sinai accomplished their immediate objectives, preventing the spread of takfiri gangs in Sinai and, in July 2015, thwarting an attempt to seize control of territory.
The Nisr (Eagle) and Martyr’s Right operations also added to the counter-terrorist forces’ knowledge of enemy strategy, especially their tactic of using hideouts and lairs as bases for hit-and-run terror attacks.
Though both operations made significant advances in the fight against terrorism it is Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 (COS 2018) which has marked a qualitative shift from a reactive to a proactive approach in battling terrorism, a shift which has made it possible to drive the jihadist gangs into their lairs and tighten the siege around them.
In operations around Arish, various military units work to minimise the manoeuvrability of the terrorists while commandos, rapid intervention forces and paratroopers stage coordinated raids against identified lairs.
We came to a stop at a military staging post on a major military route in the operational zone.
Once a regular target of terrorist road mining operations the Armed Forces now control the highway which has become an important artery for the deployment of security forces in North Sinai.
The immediate topography was ideal for the terrorists. There are extensive olive orchards backed by rugged hills and ravines.
“That they were able to pinpoint a location such as this indicates a degree of expertise in guerrilla warfare, suggesting they were trained abroad with the help of foreign intelligence agencies which spend vast amounts of money on them, as can be seen from the advanced weaponry the terrorists have acquired,” a field commander told us.
“Unlike the operational theatres of Syria and Iraq, where the terrorist organisations occupied ground and worked to defend it, a different approach is needed here.
We have to pound their hideouts to which they flee like rats, and drive them out. They tried to develop more sophisticated tactics, especially when it comes to camouflage and concealment.”
A contingent of soldiers arrived from a raid location. The contingent’s commander told us the group was from a marines’ commando division.
“We had the honour to join the army commandos, paratroopers and rapid intervention forces involved in the current raid operations in the North Sinai zone,” he said. “We are currently controlling a former takfiri stronghold where we have had much success. First, we gained control of two major roads in the area, the old and the new ring roads. We then extended our operations outwards to a depth of four kilometres. Now we control most of the hilly terrain around here.”
Sources at the location said troops now control the hilltops that terrorists once used to stage attacks on the Armed Forces, something the marine contingent’s commander confirmed.
“In principle this is important”, he said. “But we don’t assess progress on geographic coordinates alone. We identified hostile targets in specific locations and laid siege to them. We now hold most of these positions. The terrain around here is rugged and the takfiris took advantage of that, using hilltops they thought they controlled, and olive orchards.”
According to the commander, it is not just the terrorists’ expensive weapons that are imported. So are their techniques. The way in which they fortify themselves against aerial and artillery fire are evidence of the extent on which they are assisted from abroad, he said.
“But they will never be able to hide from the fire of our infantry soldiers. In these places we don’t use vehicles but move on foot. Even so, the enemy is running scared. They don’t confront us directly but try to shoot from afar and run. We’re familiar with such tactics now.”
What were the most difficult situations this officer has faced during the actual raids which can last for several days?
“A few days ago one of our colleagues was killed,” he said. “But not before he took out six takfiris who were trying to vacate the lair we were targeting. Our colleagues in artillery prevented the remainder from fleeing the siege area.”
Another commander said tactics change on a daily basis.
“We have to make on-the-spot assessments in light of experience gained from other raids. We assess the precise nature of the location, what ammunitions and supplies the enemy has and determine what his next step will be in light of this information. Then we move to pre-empt the enemy and cut off his retreat.”
“At first our main focus was to keep them out of civilian areas. Now we are chasing them into their lairs.”
Some tanks arrived. When their commander jumped down from one he explained observations were acted on quickly, and that his unit had acquired expertise from working in different locations, especially when it came to avoiding or discovering mines, though the military engineering corps is generally responsible for scanning a particular area and neutralising explosive devices before other contingents move in.
Afterwards, forces secure the location to keep terrorists from returning and planting more mines.
The tank commander’s account confirmed how dangerous this area was before COS 2018 began.
Another officer expressed a feeling common among the troops: “I was looking forward to the moment they took the decision to send us here to cleanse this place of takfiris and reclaim the right of the nation and to exact our martyrs’ rights,” he said.
He added that one of the most important tasks the army is undertaking is to ensure terrorists never return to the places from which they have been expelled.
“We’ll put an end to terrorism in Sinai. Our plans cover what needs to be done after COS 2018 in order to prevent future terrorist attacks. The cleansing operation will reach all their locations. They know this, which is why they are using suicide bombers more than ever before. They are aware of the magnitude of their losses.”
While he predicted the overall success of the operation, he added that “some remnants of terrorism might remain in a limited way, for three reasons.”
“One is the existence of some collaborators who are difficult to identify. They disguise themselves as civilians, work with the organisations by day and return to their homes at night. Fortunately, we are now skilled at identifying such agents and keeping them under surveillance. A second reason is the prevalence of terrorism in some neighbouring countries. The third is that some envious states are determined to target Egypt. But we are fighting their instruments on the ground here and will defeat them.”
We left the staging post and returned to Arish amid the bustle of military traffic on the road.
The following morning we learned that a booby-trapped vehicle had tried to attack the staging post we visited.
The vehicle was intercepted the moment it was sighted and exploded where it was hit, at a considerable distance from its target.
The incident was further confirmation of the vigilance of the soldiers battling in Sinai.
It is only a question of time until the “rats” are smoked out of their lairs.
But until that moment of victory the battles will make more heroes in North Sinai and elsewhere.
The names of many will remain unknown to the larger public.
But everyone here is prepared to sacrifice their lives for the nation, without expecting anything in return.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly