On 9 February the General Command of the Egyptian Armed Forces launched Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 (COS), a massive military campaign against terrorist groups in the Sinai.
The operation comes two and a half months after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi appointed Lieutenant General Mohamed Farid Hegazi as army chief-of-staff and issued instructions to eliminate terrorist organisations in Sinai within three months.
Hegazi’s appointment was made three days after an attack on Al-Rawda Mosque in the Bir Al-Abd district west of Arish which claimed the lives of more than 300 civilians. COS also coincides with Libyan National Army strikes against terrorist strongholds around Derna which have driven the terrorists based there closer to Egypt’s western border.
Although North and Central Sinai have been the focus of the first days of the counterterrorist operation, military security has been tightened along all of Egypt’s borders and military strikes and major security operations are expected in Western Desert areas.
COS 2018 differs in form and substance from its predecessors Eagle 1 and 2 and Martyr’s Right 1, 2, 3 and 4. Not only does it cover a far wider area but very different military hardware is being deployed. Analysis of the videos of the operation released by the military spokesman shows assault Apache helicopters, Chinook transport helicopters, EADS CASA C-295 tactical military transport aircraft and the E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning and command and control aircraft being used.
Cammando units are using inflatable watercraft, and TJL military jeeps are being brought into service alongside more conventional hardware such as F-16 fighters and Rafale multipurpose jets. All branches of the Armed Forces, as well as police, are involved in the operation, with elite commandos, paratroopers and rapid deployment units taking the lead.
So how will those targeted by COS react?
Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which declared its allegiance to (Islamic State) IS several years ago, is the largest terrorist organisation operating in Sinai. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis’ terrorist operatives, highly trained and with combat expertise, have claimed the largest number of terrorist attacks against security forces and civilians in the last four years.
While the organisation was structurally weakened in 2017 it remains one of the most active terrorist organisations in Egypt, which explains why COS opened in North and Central Sinai, its crosshairs firmly set on Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.
The group’s response to current military operations is perforce limited to paramilitary-style attacks against security and police installations in North and Central Sinai and to attacks against targets outside the zone of operations.
There are other organisations and groups which emerged following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013. Mostly active in Greater Cairo and the major cities of the Delta and Nile Valley, they have motivational and structural factors in common.
These smaller groups include Iqab Al-Thawri, which proclaimed its existence on 24 January 2015. The organisation staged its first terrorist attack on the same day, targeting a police checkpoint, wounding a policeman.
According to investigations by the prosecutor-general’s office, Iqab Al-Thawri comprises younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It employs primitive equipment – improvised explosive devices (IEDs), firearms and grenades – in its attacks and seeks primarily to target government officials and employees, including police officers, conscripts and judges. Iqab Al-Thawri’s membership is fluid, and the group relies on anger and a thirst for revenge to recruit cadres.It can best be described as a loose umbrella for individuals bent on violence.
Hasm and Lewaa Al-Thawra are more professional and systematic than Iqab Al-Thawri.
Hasm announced its existence in June 2016 via a website and staged its first attack on 16 July 2016, targeting the intelligence chief of Fayoum governorate. Hasm operatives opened fire on his convoy, leading to the death of Major Mahmoud Abdel-Hamid, a police officer and a police conscript.
Lewaa Al-Thawra surfaced soon after Hasm. Its first operation was staged on 21 August 2016 when two policemen were killed and three others injured alongside two civilians in Sadat City.
The weapons used by Hasm and Lewaa Al-Thawra, ranked in order of frequency, are firearms (used in four attacks), explosive devices (three attacks) and booby-trapped vehicles (two attacks). The two organisations target government officials – most notably police and judges – and some public figures.
The ability of these organisations to launch attacks has declined in the last six months. The last operation staged by Hasm, which is more effective than Lewaa Al-Thawra, targeted police vehicles on the Autostrade in Maadi in the last quarter of 2017.
The decline is due to security strikes against the headquarters and members of these organisations. Most recently their activities have been limited to statements posted on social media, which makes the chances of a violent response to COS from these organisations in the Nile Valley and the Delta very weak though the possibility of a lone wolf attack against security personnel cannot be discounted.
Several Al-Qaeda affiliates have increased their presence in Egypt in 2017. They include Murabitoun, Ansar Al-Islam and Jund Al-Islam, the first two based in the Western Desert and the third in North Sinai.
Murabitoun is led by a former army officer, Hisham Ashmawi, a one time member of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis who left after the group declared its allegiance to IS in 2014.
In creating Murabitoun Ashmawi reasserted his and his followers’ organisational affiliation with Al-Qaeda and their allegiance to Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The group relocated abroad, eventually ending up in Libya, close to Derna, some 200km from Egypt’s western border. They refocused their activities from Sinai to the Western Desert, making use of Ashmawi’s knowledge of the area. (Before his discharge from the army Ashmawi served as a commando officer in Farafra Oasis).
In October 2017 the Western Desert was the scene of violent clashes between security forces and extremists. Sixteen members of the security forces were killed and 13 wounded in Bahareya Oasis. A new organisation, Ansar Al-Islam, claimed responsibility for the attack. In its declaration the group announced the death of Emad Abdel-Hamid, a Murabitoun commander, suggesting some link between the two and leading to speculation Ansar Al-Islam was the result of a merger between some members of IS and Murabitoun.
Although COS has not yet targeted Al-Qaeda affiliates in the Western Desert this does not rule out the possibility of a retaliatory attack by one or another of these organisations. Both Murabitoun and Ansar Al-Islam are well-trained and possess weapons. The groups’ familiarity with the areas in which they operate makes any reaction on the part of these terrorist organisations potentially dangerous.
Jund Al-Islam is an Al-Qaeda affiliate that first surfaced in northern Sinai in 2012. It has staged a single terrorist attack, against the military intelligence building in Rafah in 2013, killing and wounding several soldiers. In 2015 the organisation released a video showing its fighters undertaking training exercises. It then disappeared, only to resurface on 11 November 2017 when it issued an audio recording with the title “Al-Baghdadi’s kharijites target Muslims and besiege Gaza”.
“Kharijites” is a synonym for heretics. The recording contained explicit threats against Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and Jund Al-Islam may well be eyeing a role for itself in Sinai in the post-IS period. For the moment, however, the likelihood of any retaliatory response from Jund Al-Islam is low.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly