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Changes in Egypt's counter-terrorism tactics

The current Comprehensive Operation against terrorism in Sinai is significantly different from previous campaigns on some levels

Ziad A Akl , Thursday 22 Feb 2018

Over the past few years, terrorists have taken the lives of many Egyptian people, have severely harmed the economy, and have introduced insecurity and fear into the personal lives of many.

As a result, it is more than understandable that the vast majority of Egyptian people should be fully in support of the Comprehensive Operation Sinai (COS) 2018, the government’s current campaign to deal with terrorism in Sinai.

You do not need to be particularly politicised or even a regular reader of the newspapers in order to emotionally interact with and show your support for counter-terrorism efforts. You simply need to be an Egyptian whose life has been and is being negatively affected by terrorism, and there are millions of such people.

However, emotions of patriotism and satisfaction that the innocent victims of terrorism will be avenged should not lead us to overlook strategic facts about the current Sinai operations.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi asked for the people’s authorisation to launch the war on terrorism in July 2013, and since then several counter-terrorism campaigns and operations have been launched, these proving to be essential preparation phases for the Comprehensive Operation now taking place.

There is more than one point of significance within the current operation, both politically and militarily, but perhaps the most significant of all are the obvious changes of pattern in the execution of the operation and the modifications made to the strategy of countering terrorism as a whole. These modifications reflect how the state has benefited from previous criticisms of its counter-terrorism strategy and has made appropriate alterations.

The Comprehensive Operation now taking place in Sinai has managed to avoid previous mistakes, points of weakness, and logistical challenges. Egypt’s counter-terrorism operations have long been criticised for a lack of sufficient coordination between the country’s different security institutions.

Egypt has a complicated matrix of security institutions, and reaching an efficient level of coordination between those that handle the multi-sectoral dimensions of Egyptian national security is already a challenge on its own.

However, what we are witnessing now in Sinai shows that an efficient level of coordination has been reached. For the first time in the history of Egypt’s counter-terrorism operations, press conferences about the operations have been frequent, statistically informative, and have provided a diverse platform representing the various sectors participating in the operations.

This institutional coordination demonstrates that the state is aware of past shortcomings in previous counter-terrorism operations, and that there is now a leadership formula in place able to direct Egypt’s complicated security structure in the interests of national security and counter-terrorism.

The timing and preparation of the Comprehensive Operation also signal a change of pattern. Previous counter-terrorism campaigns were usually launched in response to terrorist attacks, and as such they have by nature been more oriented towards damage control and crisis management than long-term strategic targeting.

The Comprehensive Operation, on the other hand, was being prepared over more than two months, which means that unlike some previous operations it was able to coordinate the military presence and tactics on the one hand and intelligence information on the other.

This coordination was reflected in the significant results that the operation achieved within its first few days. The change of pattern does not only signal an operational change within counter-terrorism strategies in Egypt, but also a change in the vision with which Egyptian national security policies are designed.

A third change of pattern has been seen in the geographical parameters of the Comprehensive Operation. Previous operations focused mainly on Sinai and the threats emanating from Egypt’s eastern borders.

However, in the Comprehensive Operation the focus is not only directed towards Sinai, but also towards the southern and western borders and the eastern and northern coasts. The change is also in the strategy itself, where the focus is no longer just on dealing with terrorists in Sinai, but is also on all the different networks and potential hubs that could be used by terrorists under siege.

Several security reports have shown that links exist between terrorist networks in Sinai and networks inside Libya or in Egypt’s Western Desert near the Egyptian-Libyan border.

Hence, operating on more than one front means that the strategy can bring about the termination of the terrorist threat and not merely contain it in one region or give it the chance to relocate. This could also be seen as a development within the overall Egyptian national-security and counter-terrorism strategies.

Finally, it must be admitted how grave the threat of terrorism in Egypt is, and while there are many positive signs that the current operation will deliver results, specifically because of the new patterns according to which it has been designed, this threat cannot be ended within a week or two. Modern-day terrorism manages to cope with different environments, and it has been steadily losing its connection to ideology, giving it further flexibility in choosing its targets and in the strategies used.

Therefore, ending terrorism is likely to be a long-term process, and the Comprehensive Operation may be a beginning rather than an end to this process. Even if it manages to terminate the geographical presence of the terrorist groups, Egypt will still need a non-military strategy to counter radicalisation in society. It is a long battle, but one that Egypt will fight with commitment and efficiency.

* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly   

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