A joint military-police operation targeting militant hideouts in the Western Desert is underway, the Egyptian army said on Wednesday. The anti-terrorism mission comes after the 20 October attack in Wahat – the Bahariya Oasis – that left 16 security personnel dead and 13 injured, along with 15 militants dead.
An Al-Qaeda affiliated group named Ansar al-Islam claimed the attack in an online statement on Friday.
As part of the ongoing raids and search operations, the Egyptian military launched airstrikes, killing “a large number of terrorists” involved in the Wahat attack, according to a statement issued by the military on Tuesday. The strikes also destroyed three 4×4 vehicles carrying weapons and ammunition.
The shootout in the Western Desert is the latest of four major attacks that have hit the west of Egypt since the start of 2017 amid insurgent violence following the July 2013 military overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
“Based on my analysis from the map of terror attacks, Al Wahat came up as one of the areas that would be used extensively by terrorist groups as a stronghold in the coming period,” noted Eman Ragab, senior researcher at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
The Western Desert, two thirds of Egypt’s size, with its mainly harsh environment and proximity to the border with Libya, is a strategic location for the infiltration of weapons and militants linked to al-Qaeda and Libya’s IS affiliate.
“The vast extension of the desert, uninhabited and undeveloped, make it suitable for terrorist elements to get around and perform attacks,” stressed Hany Soliman, Deputy Director of the Arab Center for Research and Studies.
“This area is posing a growing threat today due to deteriorated security in Libya, with more than 2,600 militias operating across the country, and terrorist camps existing along the Egyptian-Libyan border,” he added. “I believe there will be more attacks in the western part [of Egypt].”
|Libya is increasingly becoming a place for recruiting and training prospective terrorists and a transitional hub for returning fighters from Syria and Iraq|
Since the fall of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been in turmoil – with swathes of the country in the hands of militias, and a presence of groups like IS and Al-Qaeda. A lack of either central government or a united army make it particularly difficult for Libya to secure its side of the border with Egypt.
Ragab said Cairo was carrying a “double burden” of securing the border due to the chaos in Libya.
Libya is increasingly becoming a place for recruiting and training prospective terrorists and a transitional hub for returning fighters from Syria and Iraq.
“The issue for many policy-makers is how to prevent those militants from threatening Egypt’s security,” she said. “Once they reach Libya, it’s impossible to have 100 percent control on their movement.”
The twin church bombings of last April in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria, both claimed by IS, were carried out by suicide bombers who had snuck into Egypt through Libya.
Ludovico Carlino, North Africa security analyst at IHS Markit risk consultancy, said the Western Desert had for years been a highway for criminal networks and smugglers from Libya, Chad and Sudan. Through this western front, smuggled weapons flow into Egypt and Egyptian militants train in eastern Libya.
“Egypt’s western border is very long and complex to patrol,” the analyst said. “This is particularly inviting for smugglers and militants to operate in the border area while the Egyptian army is already engaged in countering an ongoing insurgency in Sinai, and Libya is dealing with its own security chaos.”
Since Morsi’s ousting, Egyptian security forces have tried hard to control the western border by intercepting attempts to smuggle arms and off-road vehicles into the country.
Official announcements of foiled smuggling attempts have been rising noticeably in 2017 with more statements from the military spokesman in the past few months.
In September, Egypt’s military seized 10 vehicles for smuggling arms via the Libyan border. In July, the Egyptian air force launched a reconnaissance mission that resulted in the destruction of 15 vehicles loaded with weapons, explosives and ammunition attempting to cross the border. Similar other attempts along the western border have also been recently thwarted.
Egypt recently increased its security presence and use of surveillance technology in the border region which, the IHS Markit consultant argued, explains why more smuggling activity has been reported this year. Previously, most of the cross-border operations were undetected, he said.
Yet Egypt’s anti-smuggling measures have not prevented militant infiltration and a number attacks from being carried out in the Western Desert.
Last May, IS gunmen attacked a bus carrying Coptic Christians on the way to the St Samuel Monastery in Minya. Twenty-eight people were killed there in the Western Desert. In retaliation, Egyptian fighter jets carried out airstrikes against a number of sites in Libya where militants involved in the planning and execution of the attack were allegedly camped.
Days after the bus attack, four army personnel were killed in clashes with armed men in the Western Desert’s Bahariya Oasis near the border with Libya.
Earlier in August 2015, Tomislav Salopek, a Croatian, was killed while he was going to work at an oil site in the Wahat region. In September the same year, Egyptian armed forces killed 12 mostly Mexican tourists who, the authorities claimed, were mistaken for terrorists as they were driving in a prohibited zone in Wahat while the army was pursuing militants.
Terror attacks have been largely concentrated on the Sinai peninsula, with occasional incidents reported in Cairo and other cities, but attacks have slowly spread nationwide.
After militants in Sinai pledged allegiance to IS in 2014, emerging groups such as Lewaa al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) and Hassm (Determination), alongside cells affiliated with IS extended their operations throughout Sinai and into the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt.
|I don’t think IS can open a front in the Western Desert. The group has tried to get a foothold there but largely failed so far|
Then, the al-Qaeda-linked Mourabiteen emerged after former army officer Hisham al-Ashmawi defected from IS and fled to Libya where he announced the group’s formation. A new phase of attacks kicked off, spreading into the Western Desert.
Although the security problem in the Western Desert represents a rising threat, Carlino believes the area is not a new “battlefield”, despite the attempts of the local IS affiliate to open a second front there, after establishing its presence in Sinai.
“I don’t think IS can open a front in the Western Desert. The group has tried to get a foothold there but largely failed so far,” the security consultant said. “They wouldn’t have the capability to move as many fighters from Libya into Egypt, and they’re also involved in revamping their operations in Libya.”
Egypt’s armed forces and police have raised attention to the situation in the western region and stepped up their capabilities.
“They have increased their security presence, developed early warning alerts to detect the location of terrorists and weapons stockpiles, adopted surveillance technology to monitor movements on the border along with reconnaissance by air forces,” Ragab noted.
Soliman said there was a form of military cooperation between Egypt and the Libyan National Army headed by commander Khalifa Haftar, adding that its scale and specifics are unknown. Yet, the weak governance on the Libyan side hinders patrolling efforts along the border.
There are, however, major shortcomings in Cairo’s overall approach to security.
According to Carlino, the Egyptian army tends to conduct aggressive counter-terrorism operations through military means only while failing to interact with local residents and tribes or giving them economic incentives, leading to the alienation of the local population. There is no strategy in place, he says, to eradicate terrorism and army personnel are not well trained or equipped to confront terrorist groups.
The analyst also referred to Egypt’s ongoing counter-insurgency mission in Sinai, pointing to the indiscriminate modus operandi hitting terrorists as well as local people and civilian infrastructure.
In light of the 20 October attack, Egypt’s Interior Ministry ordered a reshuffle of its top security ranks. This move was designed to supposedly “improve security performance”, state news agency MENA reported, though analysts have expressed doubts.
“This is President Sisi’s typical response to big security incidents, he would fire those who are directly responsible and get a replacement. It’s just a political move,” said Carlino, the IHS Markit consultant.
“This reshuffle,” added the Arab Center’s Soliman, “means changing a few staff in the high ranks for the picture change, not real change.”