In his speech to the Egyptian Armed Forces’ 24th intellectual seminar last Thursday General Mohamed Al-Shahat, the head of Military Intelligence, addressed three strategy issues related to the fight against terrorism and the situation in Sinai: counterterrorist strategies Egypt has adopted, in general; communications and coordination between terrorist and extremist groups and their national security implications and counterterrorist strategy in north-eastern Sinai and the progress that has been achieved in the fight against terrorism. Al-Shahat’s speech provided the most extensive and detailed discussion on the security situation in Sinai by a senior military official to date. The seminar, entitled “Counterterrorism: a Nation’s Will”, was attended by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, senior army commanders, security officials and political leaders.
The counterterrorist strategy followed by Egypt comprises three general areas of activity, said Al-Shahat. One is the monitoring and surveillance of terrorist networks, dismantling their support bases and infrastructure, drying up sources of funding and securing full control over ports and borders in collaboration with the relevant ministries and agencies. The second encompasses military and security actions, including raids and combing operations, carried out in collaboration with civil police and community members within the framework of the “Martyr’s Right Operation” in Sinai. The third involves putting comprehensive development projects in place in Sinai in order to raise standards of living and eliminate an environment and climate that has fed extremism.
The Military Intelligence chief used the term “colonisation” to describe the Islamic State’s (IS) regional project. “Some terrorist organisations, such as IS in Iraq, Syria and Libya, espouse the notion of colonisation to promote the creation of a theocratic state and to establish the caliphate system, to gain control over extensive tracts of territory in one country and then expand into others, and to topple governments and impose their ideology by means of acquiring modern weapons systems,” he said.
Nabil Abdel-Fattah, editor of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies’ annual “State of Religion in Egypt” report, says use of the term colonisation was a clear reference to the strategy of international terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and IS. Al-Qaeda, for example, colonised portions of Afghanistan and Pakistan while IS carved out a huge chunk of territory spanning about a third of Iraq and large parts of Syria. Such movements, he added, were inspired by the Israeli settler and expansion drive in Palestinian territories.
In the course of his discussion of relations between terrorist and extremist groups in Egypt, Al-Shahat was explicit about the connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sinai-based Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) which has now declared its allegiance to IS. Referring to the period following the 30 June 2013 Revolution, he said that the levels of coordination and collaboration between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ABM “increased as their outlooks merged towards the realisation of a single aim, which was to raise the ceiling of pressure on the Egyptian government in order to further the designs of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood group to return to power”. As proof of how close this connection was he referred to remarks made by senior Brotherhood official Mohamed Al-Beltagui.
Al-Shahat offered concrete evidence of the connection between the Brotherhood and ABM during his discussion of the progress achieved in counterterrorist operations. Some LE115 million were confiscated in the course of these operations, he said. Interrogations of terrorist operatives revealed that some foreign countries had offered to support the terrorists through “the provision of explosives and dual-use materials that had been sent to Brotherhood leaders residing in Egypt so that they could be stored, transported and manufactured into weapons to be supplied to terrorist elements”. Al-Shahat also explained that the smuggling of explosives was via coastal areas that had previously not been the focus of attention because of their lack of port facilities and other infrastructure. The coastal areas of the Kafr Al-Sheikh governorate were sometimes used for this purpose with deliveries being made by frogmen.
Recalling ABM’s failed attempt to occupy a swathe of northern Sinai through simultaneous multi-pronged attacks in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid in July 2015 the Military Intelligence chief remarked that this was one of the longest and gruelling battles so far in Sinai. “The terrorists’ plan to establish an extremist Islamist emirate in Sheikh Zuweid began with multi-pronged attacks against military checkpoints in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid. However, police and military forces repelled the attacks definitively with the support of the Air Forces which targeted all terrorist elements. This was instrumental in throwing ABM into disarray. Fifty per cent of its extremely dangerous combat operatives were eliminated,” he said.
Commenting on this point Al-Sisi noted that the aim of the terrorist offensive was to proclaim an emirate in the Sinai, and that it involved coordinated attacks against security checkpoints.
While the stress on coordination was undoubtedly important the “50 per cent” figure cited was more striking. It suggests that military analysts and experts had used inflated figures of the numbers of combat operatives killed in operations at the time, with estimates ranging as high as 80 to 90 per cent of ABM forces. It is worth asking whether Al-Shahat’s figure referred to all ABM combat operatives or just those engaged in the direct confrontations with Egyptian security forces.
Counterterrorist affairs specialist Brigadier General Khaled Okasha says Al-Shahat’s information is more realistic and credible than previous estimates. But Okasha points out that when Al-Shahat “says that 500 operatives from the organisation were eliminated this does not mean that the organisation has a total of 1,000 members but refers to the numbers who fell in the course of the clashes in relation to those regarded as extremely dangerous”.
“The logical conclusion,” added Okasha, “is that it will take some time to win the battle.”
It is a point on which Al-Shahat was frank: “In spite of the inroads achieved against terrorism that battle is not over. The effort must be sustained for a long period given the continued movement of a faction at home and foreign designs to undermine the security and stability of Egypt.”
Al-Shahat proposed three courses of action for eliminating terrorism along the strategic north-eastern axis and in the interior. One is to build on the precision monitoring of terrorist groups and their leadership and so as to more accurately identify targets. He stressed that the government and the army must operate on the principle of safeguarding the lives of innocent populations in Sinai.
It is on the basis of intelligence acquired in monitoring operations that the Armed Forces take action. In the course of the “Martyr’s Right Operation” military units have delivered numerous debilitating strikes against terrorist commanders and leaders and succeeded in destroying 205 hideouts and weapon depots as well as 130 vehicles and 500 extremely dangerous terrorist operatives.
In the course of the campaign a new challenge arose. Al-Shahat explained that terrorist organisations have recently begun to build networks of prefabricated reinforced cement tunnels underground which now play a major role in the terrorists’ logistics. Accordingly, “the Armed Forces are implementing effective engineering procedures to destroy these tunnels yet despite their success tunnels still exist that the terrorists have managed to insulate by means of reinforced cement walls to prevent them from being flooded.”
Al-Shahat revealed the army now utilises sophisticated equipment capable of destroying tunnels at considerable depths. Studies of the evolution in the construction of border tunnels, whether beneath the Sinai-Gaza border or those Hamas has constructed on Gaza’s border with Israel, have revealed numerous developments in construction methods. A senior military source told Al-Ahram Weekly that the number of tunnel openings on the Sinai side of the border with Gaza exceeded 3,000 and construction improvements meant tunnels could be built at ever greater depths.
Al-Shahat also addressed ways to eliminate the terrorists’ sources of funding and logistical support. He underlined that security forces have seized 1,025 tons of explosive material or dual-use substances either on their arrival at ports or in areas that include Imbaba, Kafr Al-Sheikh, Port Said, Khanka and Ain Al-Sira. Terrorists also obtain dual-use substances, such as fertilisers and sulphuric acid concentrate, on the local market and use them to manufacture IEDs. He stressed that measures have been taken to tighten control over the circulation of such potentially dangerous substances. Security forces recently arrested members of a network that smuggled electric circuits and other technical equipment and devices that terrorists use. Police have also arrested some gangs involved in furnishing material and logistical support to terrorist groups in collusion with a number of currency exchange, jewellery and tourist shops or companies. So far 10 such companies have been identified and closed and the operatives who managed them arrested.
Concluding his speech, the chief of Military Intelligence listed several recent advances in counterterrorist operations. They included the fostering of greater collaboration between security agencies in order to restrict the ability of terrorist cells to spread; securing control over areas where terrorists are located such as Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Arish, and over the routes they use to move around the country; upgrading protection systems at seaports, airports and other portals and the acquisition and installation of modern border security systems to tighten control over borders.
Considerable success has also been achieved in the elimination of terrorist elements classified as “extremely dangerous”, meaning those with high combat capacities; in the destruction of terrorist infrastructure and in the identification and elimination of funding, material support and smuggling networks that supply terrorist groups with weapons. In addition, security forces have succeeded in clearing terrorist lairs, securing control over these locations and installing the fortifications necessary to ensure the safety of inhabitants and prevent re-infiltration. At the same time, work is continuing to sever the terrorists’ material supply lines and support structures, to eradicate border tunnels and strengthen the bonds with community leaders and the people of Sinai