Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Confronting terrorism

Al-Ahram Weekly identifies the lessons that must be learned from Friday’s ambush of police forces on the Oases Road.


Confronting terrorism
Confronting terrorism
Al-Ahram Weekly

On Friday 20 October 16 members of the police were killed when they were ambushed by terrorists in the Western Desert 150km south of Cairo. An additional 13 security personnel were injured and one remains missing.

The death toll surprised many. The area in which the ambush happened had not witnessed anything like a confrontation on this scale before. For the last four years terrorist attacks, with a few exceptions, have been limited to the northern half of the Sinai Peninsula where they have claimed the lives of many security personnel. Last week six soldiers and at least 24 terrorists were killed in attacks on military checkpoints in Sinai which bore all the hallmarks of being conducted by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, now called the Sinai Province.

Lately, though, terrorists have expanded their operations outside the peninsula, targeting Coptic churches in Cairo, Alexandria and Tanta.

According to officials, the ambush involved an estimated 100 militants. The terrorists had occupied the high ground as security forces approached their hideout, enabling them to attack the advancing police units.

“As soon as the advance forces approached they were targeted with heavy weapons from all directions,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

How the operation — to clear the area of terrorist elements after their hideout had been identified — could have gone so badly wrong remains unclear. Even the extent of the casualties was not confirmed until later, leading to widespread speculation. In the absence of any official statement from the Ministry of Interior, conflicting reports emerged on Saturday with some foreign agencies, citing unnamed security sources, placing the death toll at 50 or more.

“I could not find any official information until late Saturday afternoon so depended mostly on Facebook and the foreign media for updates. This led me to believe something terrible had happened and to doubt the official account,” says Nahed Al-Sayed, an engineer in her mid-30s.

Once the initial shock at the death toll passed people began to ask how the ambush could have happened and who was behind it.

According to informed sources, security forces acted quickly after receiving credible information that the area was being used as a base for terrorists. Fearing those in the secret yet centrally located camp were preparing attacks that might target different parts of the country the police felt obliged to take immediate action.

No terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the ambush. Security expert Brigadier General Khaled Okasha and Maher Farghali, a researcher who specialises in terrorist organisations, both incline to the view the operation was carried by Morabitoun, an Al-Qaeda affiliate commanded by former Egyptian army officer Hisham Ashmawi. They discount the possibility that Hasm, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other of the plethora of small groups that have emerged since 2013, could have staged such a well-organised and resourced operation.

But why has no one claimed responsibility?

Morabitoun, says Okasha, is adverse to publicity given its previous experience of the army retaliating by striking its bases in Libya. And there is also a possibility that Ashmawi himself was there and now needs time to arrange his escape across the border, he adds.

Another possibility, says Okasha, is that the operation itself is not over and the responsible group is delaying issuing any statement the better to wage psychological warfare. It could easily post propaganda video footage at some later stage, notes Okasha. There is also the worrying fact that a police officer, Mohamed Al-Hayes, is still missing and may have been captured, to be used later by the group for propaganda purposes.

Whatever group was behind the ambush it appears to have been expecting an attack on its hideout and was well prepared, say experts. It had set up observation points and deployed scouts, giving plenty of warning of the approaching police forces and time to launch a surprise attack.

“Perhaps there was an erroneous assessment on this score,” says Okasha. “Army intervention is called for under such circumstances.”

Fouad Allam, a former head of the National Security apparatus, says lessons must be learned from Friday’s ambush, foremost of which is that the topography of desert areas must be fully studied before any security operation begins.

“An aerial survey of the area should have been undertaken to determine the terrorists’ location and number as well as the nature and extent of their weapons.”

Allam calls for a new police department to be established and trained by the army’s Special Forces to undertake quasi-military operations. They need to be provided with weapons that are superior to those of the terrorists and the conscripts must be highly qualified, he says.

The tactics of terrorist groups are changing and the police must be equipped to out-manoeuvre them, says Okasha.

Most commentators believe the terrorists behind the ambush entered Egypt from Libya. Such infiltration occurs at two points: in the area that stretches south of the Salloum crossing to the latitude of Siwa Oasis, which is northwest of Bahareya Oasis, and in the area stretching from the southwestern corner of Gabal Al-Uweinat to a point parallel with Al-Wadi Al-Gadid.

The rugged, mountainous terrain in these two areas compounds the challenges facing the army as it attempts to secure the border, a task it must undertake with no help from the Libyan side where competition between Libyan tribes for control of the lucrative smuggling routes poses a growing threat to Egypt’s national security.

Egypt has steadily intensified efforts to secure the border. In an interview with France 24 on Monday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said: “In the last two and a half years we have destroyed 1,200 vehicles loaded with arms, ammunition and fighters.”

On Monday the army announced it had foiled yet another attempt to smuggle arms and ammunition into Egypt from Libya, while on Tuesday the Interior Ministry said 12 suspected members of Hasm had been detained in Fayoum, 60km south of Cairo. Security forces confiscated a number of weapons and explosive devices during the raid.

Parliament approved a three-month extension to the emergency law on 12 October and will discuss new legislation that will allow compensation to be paid to the families of security personnel killed in the fight against terrorism.

Reported by Ahmed EleibaAhmed Morsy and Kamel Abdallah

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