Tuesday,24 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Tuesday,24 April, 2018
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Wiping out terrorism strongholds

Al-Ahram Weekly visits Gabal Al-Halal with the Third Army

#Gabal Al-Halal # Sinai
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The journey to Gabal Al-Halal began in central Sinai, at the headquarters of the Third Army Field Command. It took 40 minutes on one of five main roads in central Sinai. We took special armoured vehicles which were driven with skill and agility despite the rough terrain. Our driver moved with determination and accuracy. Troops were deployed along the road.

Our guide, a retired Military Intelligence officer, explained the history of the Sinai Peninsula which comprises one sixth of Egypt’s land area, telling us of historic facts and old tales of heroism as well as of today’s reality. We also saw Bedouin camps scattered here and there. The valleys of the mountain are ideal territory for the Bedouins to herd their flocks of sheep and goats.

Two clans live in the area, the Shatyat clan of the Tayaha tribe and the Nadyat clan of the much larger Tarabeen tribe. The topography of the mountain has long made it a safe haven for criminal outlaws as well as terrorist elements. It covers a roughly rectangular area of 20km by 60km in central Sinai and its base borders south of Arish.

Terrorists, who cannot seek refuge among other tribes, hide among their own clans. Levels of radicalism are highest in the north, decreasing towards the centre and the south of Sinai. It is a phenomenon that is partly explained by cross-border ties between some tribes and clans in the Gaza Strip.

“We carried out raids in the past on other mountains, including Al-Kharm, Al-Erekat, Abu Hasira and Al-Sharaf,” said the chief-of-staff of the Third Army following our arrival in the operation zone deep in the mountains. “Currently, troops are engaged in skirmishes around Al-Agama Mountain in preparation for storming it. It has a different topography than Gabal Al-Halal.”

The commander said 90 per cent of the mountainous region has now been cleansed but warned the cleansing operation needs to continue as long as funding and weapons continue to flow in.  

“It is easy to eliminate locations using air strikes and artillery. It would barely take an hour,” he said. “But where would that leave innocent people? We cannot blame them for the actions of others. You have to distinguish between a child and his terrorist father, and protect the child.”

Deep in the mountain is a rock formation in the shape of an arch. Its base is flat and leads to canyons that open onto a larger valley. There we met the combat unit commanders leading the cleansing operations. The commander of the Third Army said troops had been divided into nine units and allocated an area in which each would operate. The operation, which began on 12 February, was preceded by reconnaissance and monitoring operations ahead of the siege of terrorist bases.

One of the commanders of the nine units — a colonel in the anti-terrorism forces — explained to us the operation and battle plans, beginning his speech by saying it was an honour to serve Egypt alongside such brave soldiers.

“We were given orders to cleanse central Sinai. The operation began with the gathering of information and reconnaissance, especially at Gabal Al-Halal, which is topographically very diverse. The entrance to the area off the road from Al-Hassana has large sand dunes. From the south there are sharp turns and to the east it connects with a small mountain via Al-Halal Strait. We began with the valleys and then based on information from Military Intelligence and Sinai Bedouins, who were by our side, we began exploring hideouts and bunkers and surveying the terrain in which they were located. We found booby-trapped motorcycles and vehicles, bomb-making workshops, stocks of explosive material such as ammonium nitrate and C-4, explosive equipment such as transistor circuits and mine detection equipment. These were all hidden in caves in the mountain.”

We climbed to one of the caves used as a hideout by the terrorists. Well concealed — it would have been difficult to detect from the air — the cave offered a clear view of the road. Many abandoned binoculars were found there.

 “This was a logistical support location,” explained a soldier standing at the mouth of the cave. “Terrorists took advantage of the rugged terrain. They planted several mines around the area which were defused by a team of experts. The cave formed an outpost for terrorists based further north, providing them with supplies. We faced a number of challenges here, not least the rugged terrain over which we had to walk long distances to get to forward positions. Yet within four days we managed to lay siege to the entire area. We were able to gather more information and engaged with terrorists who used weapons against us. Those who did not open fire or put down their weapons were arrested.”

 “The siege,” explained the commander of the unit, “included a blockade of all roads leading to the area to prevent the transport of supplies and any logistical support. Later, we extended the siege to include the mountain itself. All tracks were blocked and no one was allowed to enter or exit. Then we divided the mountain into nine sections and began combing operations.”

Weather also posed a problem, with temperatures regularly falling to below zero during the course of the siege. Yet the troops managed to uncover stores of vehicles — those that could not be removed were destroyed in situ — and many weapons and ammunition dumps. A variety of captured weapons — RPGs, Kalashnikovs, ammunition for light and medium weapons and anti-armour, C-4, TNT, and landmines — were shown to us.

The high morale of the soldiers was a key factor in the success of the operation.  

As one soldier said: “During operations our commanders would check in and encourage us. I cannot tell you how these messages affected us. They raised our morale.”  

“There were direct messages from the top brass, including the political leadership, the general commander, chief-of-staff and army commander to check on everyone. These messages encouraged everyone to keep going and not stop,” said the unit commander.

Many stories of heroism emerged from the operation.  

“We are proud of the courageous and heroic performance of our soldiers,” says their commander. “History will recount these tales for generations. Before one soldier was martyred he was shouting to us to leave him behind and stay on track, urging his unit commander to keep going till the end. Another brave soldier was shot twice in his arm and did not ask to leave for medical attention. He wanted to continue fighting even if he was on his knees. Belief in our mission is our secret. Our morale is cemented by our commanders and families. We swore we would not leave a single terrorist in Sinai.”

The terrorists have no creed. As another soldier said: “They fled as we pursued them like rats. They were too scared for confrontation. I wished they would confront us so we could annihilate them all. Their creed is betrayal.”

But will thorough deployment around the mountain result in control, I asked one general.  

“There is not a single piece of land in Egypt that we do not have control over. We are uprooting terrorism here. It is an irregular war, but we are winning,” he replied.

The soldier I met outside the cave echoed the same sentiment. “These terrorists were behaving as if they were on their own land and in their own homes until the true natives came. We confronted them. I don’t want to comment on them. They have no creed or principles. They are criminals. We came to cleanse our country from their scourge.”

At the end of the trip it was clear the operation to cleanse the area was complete. Now development must take place. Already construction has begun on roads. Al-Melez Airport is being prepared for civilian and military use. At Al-Jafjafa 12 factories have already been built and plans are underway to exploit the more than 400,000 feddans of fertile land in the Al-Sir and Al-Qawareer valleys.  

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