Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Shift in terror tactics

Ahmed Eleiba assesses the implications of Friday’s Rafah attack


#Hundreds took part in two funerals of soldiers in 10 Ramadan city and Mansourah, on Saturday (photos: AFP) # Hundreds took part in two funerals of soldiers in 10 Ramadan city and Mansourah, on Saturday (photos: AFP)
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Friday’s terrorist attack on a checkpoint south of Rafah left 26 officers and soldiers from Battalion 103 dead and more injured. Among the attackers, 40 terrorists were killed, suggesting that though losses in military ranks were high at the beginning of the attack the speedy response of forces after the initial surprise prevented further casualties.

The Armed Forces issued a statement saying it had succeeded in holding off a large and concerted attack by terrorists. According to military sources, an estimated 150 terrorists in 12 camouflaged armoured vehicles and on dozens of motorcycles were involved in the assault. Two vehicles were carrying 1.5 tonnes of C-4 explosives between them, and the attackers included a number of suicide bombers.

Military analysts say that despite the attack being well-coordinated – explosive rigged vehicles were driven into the building destroying its façade – the soldiers’ displayed consummate professionalism, killing many of the attackers and forcing others to flee when they found they could not hold their ground.

Ahmed Al-Beheiri, an expert on terrorism at Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies, says there were three clear motivations for the attack. The security outpost was located on a hill with a commanding view of routes connecting villages in the area, limiting the terrorists’ ability to move around. Second, the terrorists were keen to show they remain capable of staging attacks despite serious losses since the start of the army’s Operation Martyr’s Right. Third, the attack followed the army’s killing of several Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis terrorist leaders, leaving the group vulnerable and determined to prove it retains operational capabilities.

“This is the second attack against the army in 18 months and recorded the highest number of fatalities among the army since an attack on 1 July 2015,” noted Al-Beheiri.

In the last year and a half the army has enjoyed major success in preventing terrorist attacks in the area east of Arish, west of Rafah and south of Al-Hosna. Since the start of Operation Martyr’s Right 18 months ago there has been a steep decline in the occurrence of attacks — six in the first half of 2017 in Sinai and 25 elsewhere, compared to 532 terrorist attacks around the country and 120 in Sinai for the same period in 2015.

This is a massive fall, in Sinai in particular, and reflects the weakened infrastructure of the terrorists since the beginning of Martyr’s Right. The army has regained control of villages that were terrorist strongholds before 1 July, 2015 and has redeployed to reduce the number of fixed outposts while taking control of strategic areas controlling the road networks between different areas of the peninsula.

The terrorists’ aim is no longer to seize control of territory, however limited. A statement issued by the group’s spokesman Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani shortly before he was killed by the army makes this clear. And the involvement in the latest attack of five suicide bombers, as claimed by the terrorists, makes it abundantly clear that the goal was to cause as much damage as possible. 

Terrorism expert Khaled Okasha says the attackers wanted to raise a flag and film it to show that they had overpowered a security outpost and demonstrate that Sinai had become a new hotbed of Islamic State activity following the group’s defeat in Mosul and Raqqa.

The main concern from a security perspective is to determine where the combatants came from given the army’s extensive pre-emptive strikes in northern and central Sinai.

Post attack investigations have shown that four of the assailants were from Gaza, and three of them — Moaz Al-Qadi, Khalil Al-Hamayda and Mohamed Saad Abu Azra — were former members of the Ezzeddin Qassem Brigades. The discovery points to the continuing role Palestinian elements play in Sinai.

In the first statement President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made on the attack he appeared to link it with the boycott of Qatar saying: “The forces of extremism are trying to undermine the stability and security of the country at a time when Egypt is intensifying its efforts to combat terrorism on all fronts and progress with development.”

Chants raised at the funerals of the victims of the attack denounced terrorism, terrorist groups and state sponsors of terrorism, singling out Qatar and Turkey. Major General Mahmoud Khalaf, military adviser at Nasser Military Academy, has revealed investigations are underway following evidence that funds from an Arab country reached Gaza just before the Rafah attack. Another source has confirmed that in the week before the attack funds were smuggled through cross-border tunnels to Gaza.

Other sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that a number of the dead attackers had previously been based in Syria, meaning that Sinai has become a key destination for terrorists fleeing the collapse of key Islamic State strongholds.

Security sources interviewed by the Weekly also say the modus operandi of the attack betrays the help of foreign intelligence services who are likely to have provided training, weapons and other logistical support.

The attack took place an area inhabited by the Tarabin tribe which had earlier played a role in fighting the Islamic State and in May killed several of the group’s members. Yet Okasha believes the area still furnishes an environment in which Islamic State can operate. He justifies the official refusal to accede to Tarabin demands the tribe be armed by warning “weapons in the hands of the tribes represent a possible future danger”, noting that “a large number of terrorists were able to cross between the olive farms in Rafah which raises questions.”

North Sinai MP Hossam Rifaai told the Weekly he doubted extra measures will be taken in Sinai in the wake of the attack.

“A state of emergency, curfew and other security measures are already in place,” he said.

On the day following the Sinai attack the Ministry of Interior announced that 14 terrorists had been killed in the governorate of Ismailia while undergoing training in the use of firearms, bomb making and staging suicide missions. Two days later the ministry announced that six terrorists had been killed in Assiut. Pre-emptive strikes by the army and aerial surveillance of suspect areas are clearly forcing the Islamic State to seek alternative startegies.

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