Eight soldiers were killed in an attack targeting the Tufaha security checkpoint near the North Sinai town of Bir Al-Abd, 80km west of Arish, on Friday. The incident occurred three months after the last attack in Arish vicinity. Eyewitnesses at the scene contacted by Al-Ahram Weekly reported that the terrorists abducted civilians and slaughtered them Islamic State (IS) style, a clear attempt to spread fear and show the organisation is still active despite the success of counter-terrorist operations in Sinai.
Soon after the attack, the Interior Ministry announced 15 gunmen had been killed in a shootout at a farm in the Al-Hos district of Arish. The clash erupted when the gunmen opened fire on security forces as they were approaching the location.
Egyptian military experts say the counter-terrorist drive has eradicated the environment in which terrorism once thrived. The openness to Islamist extremism, especially during the period from the Islamist rise in the public sphere in Egypt until the military collapse of IS in Syria and Iraq, has ended.
Despite the decline, however, terrorists remain capable of staging intermittent attacks in some areas. It also appears that more experienced fighters are making their way from combat zones where the IS state collapsed to areas neighbouring Egypt, taking advantage of unstable conditions to infiltrate Egypt. The danger was underscored by an Armed Forces’ communiqué released soon after the Bir Al-Abd attack which reported that the military had eliminated a number of four-wheel drive vehicles used by terrorists and smugglers near Egypt’s eastern, southern and western borders.
Many observers believe the greatest danger lurks across the western border where terrorists from Idlib may have infiltrated Libya with the aid of Libyan militias. Islamist militant Abdel-Hakim Belhaj is one conduit for this process.
Belhaj, who currently resides in Turkey, owns Libyan Wings Airline which, according to the Libyan National Army (LNA), operates out of Misrata and offers a readymade facility to transport terrorists and arms to militias in Libya. Egypt is likely to be one of the main destinations for the new wave of incoming terrorists which include IS and Al-Qaeda operatives who have been trained in conflict zones and who are closely connected to the intelligence agencies of countries such as Turkey and Qatar.
It is worth noting that Hisham Ashmawi, the Egyptian militant who formed one of the first terrorist groups in Sinai — recently apprehended in Libya, he was turned over to Egyptian authorities — is reported to have connections with Belhaj.
To the northeast, in spite of all the measures the Egyptian government has taken in recent years to tighten border security, shut the tunnels between Sinai and Gaza and coordinate over security with Hamas, terrorists still find ways to infiltrate Sinai. In his most recent communiqué the Egyptian Armed Forces spokesman noted that the army had destroyed 11 border tunnels. This is a sizeable number compared to previous communiqués. On 2 August, for example, only two tunnels were destroyed.
Despite the precautions Egypt has taken along its borders the instability, anarchy and the proliferation of terrorist militias in Egypt’s immediate vicinity are reason enough to believe that the terrorist phenomenon will continue for a long time to come. In Libya, above all, security agencies lack the resources and personnel capable of securing their extensive border with Egypt, let alone the vast tracts of difficult terrain beyond.
It is noteworthy, in this regard, that the last communiqué by the military spokesman mentioned that in the course of operations in Sinai the Armed Forces confiscated 13 Thuraya phones, which communicate via satellite. The army also found 50 metal detectors. A number of studies on terrorism have suggested groups affiliated with IS and Al-Qaeda select areas rich in minerals as places to establish footholds. In an operation in August the army seized 4,600 kg of stones with traces of gold in them, suggesting escalating efforts on the part of terrorist groups to search for precious metals.
The recent communiqué said the army had eliminated 118 terrorist elements in North and Central Sinai.
The Ministry of Defence launched Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 in February 2018. While weapons seized suggest terrorist operatives now have access to more sophisticated equipment, this is offset by falls in the terrorist groups’ ability to recruit locals as a result of the ongoing counter-terrorist operations and enhanced development programmes in the area.
The involvement of foreign intelligence agencies in supporting cells of trained and experienced operatives is also a phenomenon that Egyptian military sources note. It should also be borne in mind that counter-terrorist operations also target organised crime — drug smuggling and human trafficking — closely connected to terrorist groups, and the Armed Forces has reported increased activity in both areas.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.