Egypt Launches a Major Offensive Against Islamic State
Don't expect the terrorists to surrender
On Feb. 9, 2018, Egyptian army spokesman Col. Tamer El Refai announced that the Egyptian armed forces had launched the largest-ever offensive against Islamic terror groups in Sinai, the Nile Delta and the western desert close to the Libyan border.
The Egyptian air force quickly carried out around 30 air strikes south and west of the Rafah and Sheikh Zweid areas, as well as in northern and central Sinai. The day before the beginning of Operation Sinai 2018, Cairo ordered a state of emergency at hospitals in northwest Sinai. Security measures were in place at schools and government buildings.
This is not the first time that Egyptian government has announced a “final” operation against terrorists. The offensives have never yielded the results officials predict. On the contrary, terror attacks have increased in number and intensity.
On Nov. 24, 2017, around 40 gunmen attacked the Al Rawda mosque east of Bir Al Abed in North Sinai. 311 people died and at least 122 were injured. No group claimed responsibility for the massacre, but most analysts believe it was the work of Wilayat Sinai, the Sinai branch of Islamic State.
In response, Marshall Abdel Fata Al Sisi ordered Egyptian forces to restore security in the Sinai Peninsula and gave armed forces chief of staff Mohamed Farid Hegazy and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar a three-month deadline to annihilate all armed groups.
The resulting air strikes did little to stop the militants. Less than a month later, Islamic States attacked El Arish air base in north Sinai and fired a missile that destroyed a UH-60 helicopter that had just landed, killing the pilot. This helicopter was, perhaps not coincidentally, carrying the defense and interior ministers at the time.
At top — Egyptian Caiman vehicles in Sinai in January 2018. Above — Egyptian army troops embarking on a Casa C295 . Photos via the author
Preparations for the current offensive began in January 2018, with an deployment of military equipment and security forces in El Arish and Sheikh Zuid in Rafah. The deployment included paratroopers, counterterrorism forces, Chinese-made CH5 and Wing Loong 2 unmanned aerial vehicles and Beechcraft 1900 spy planes. Security forces also used Chinese-made barriers system to protect checkpoints against attacks.
Video released on the first day of Operation Sinai 2018 appears to be stock footage from previous Egyptian operations and doesn’t represent the units actually engaged. The Egyptian military released a statement claiming that in the first two days of the operation, the air force destroyed 66 targets in north and central Sinai.
Counterterrorism forces combined with Egyptian sailors, border guards and police reportedly killed 16 terrorists, arrested 34 suspects, dismantled 12 IEDs and destroyed 13 SUVs, 31 motorcycles and a communication center in central Sinai. It’s difficult to independently these claims. The government informed journalists that they should source information exclusively from the army and Ministry of Interior.
Ongoing operations in Egypt, particularly in the western desert, could quickly overflow into eastern Libya. Indeed, for several weeks now the Libyan National Army has been preparing for a major offensive aiming to liberate the city of Derna from an Al Qaeda-affiliated coalition of Islamist militias that formed in December 2014.
The LNA is running out of air power and needs the support of Egypt and United Arab Emirates to carry out its operations against armed groups. In the meantime, it’s difficult to assess the real impact of Cairo’s offensive. But if the past is any precedent, air strikes are unlikely to seriously reduce the terror threat.