Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mission accomplished

Joint army and police forces continue to clear the Western Desert of terrorist elements, writes Ahmed Eleiba


Parliament Speaker  Ali Abdel-Aal visiting Al-Hayes at Al-Galaa Military Hospital
Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal visiting Al-Hayes at Al-Galaa Military Hospital

Ansar Al-Islam, the group which claimed responsibility for the Bahareya Oasis attack on 20 October and the kidnapping of police Captain Mohamed Al-Hayes, has been all but eliminated from Egypt’s Western Desert following a week of intensive security operations.

Brigadier General Khaled Okasha, a member of the National Council to Combat Terrorism, described the operation as a battle of honour after 16 police officers and recruits were killed in the Bahareya incident.

Operations to apprehend the attackers and intercept infiltrators were set into motion along the western border immediately following the Bahareya attack, say military sources. The operations escalated after a high-level security meeting and the appointment of Lieutenant General Mohamed Farid Hegazi to the post of chief-of-staff in place of Lieutenant General Mahmoud Hegazi, and major reshuffle of security personnel in the governorates of Giza and Fayoum.

Confrontations with Ansar Al-Islam began on 30 October with an offensive operation against a convoy of six four-wheel vehicles carrying arms and explosives close to the Egyptian-Libyan border. The following day a three-vehicle convoy was destroyed and Captain Al-Hayes was freed. Searches then began for members of the group who had fled to west Fayoum.

Satellite images, especially those furnished by the Russians, helped military forces track the terrorists’ movements. The images revealed the three vehicles, in the middle one of which kidnapped Captain Al-Hayes was being transported. Special Forces landed nearby and quickly took out the terrorists in a joint ground and aerial operation. The terrorists were wearing uniforms similar to the Egyptian army in an attempt to camouflage themselves as an army patrol unit. As Special Forces landed to free Al-Hayes he attempted to break away from his captors and was shot in the foot.

The army has intensified surveillance of the border with Libya where there has been a rise in threats against Egypt from Libyan groups. Mohamed Al-Kanidi, a commander of the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous militia affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and working for the Government of National Accord (GNA), has launched a vehement campaign against Egypt which he accuses of interfering in Libyan affairs.

Military experts in Cairo say some Libyan political groups support militias hostile to Egypt, including the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous and Misrata Brigades. In a statement to the press Libyan army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Al-Mesmari accused Qatar of directing the actions of individuals such as Al-Kanidi who is now the subject of an investigation launched by the GNA headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj.

Morabitoun, an organisation formed in 2013 by Hisham Ashmawi, a former officer in the Egyptian commandos, represents another source of threat. Ashmawi was soon joined by a number of other ex-officers discharged from the army because of their takfiri beliefs, including Abu Hatem, the commander of the Bahareya Oasis attack. Ashmawi eventually moved his organisation to Derna in eastern Libya where it merged with a larger organisation formed from reorganised North African terrorist groups under the leadership of the former Algerian military commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

The branch led by Ashmawi focused on Egypt’s western zone. The organisation’s Bahareya Oasis extension, led by Abu Hatem and known as Ansar Al-Islam, had been attempting to base itself in the area where the 20 October attack took place.

Nageh Ibrahim, a former leader and ideologue of the Egyptian Al-Gamaa Al-Islameya organisation, told Al-Ahram Weekly Ansar Al-Islam was probably affiliated to Al-Qaeda. “Ansar is a name commonly used by Al-Qaeda whereas the Islamic State [IS] uses the term ‘province’. IS also selects its targets — churches, civilians, military personnel — indiscriminately while Ashmawi’s group focuses on security personnel — officers in particular,” said Ibrahim.

“We’ve only had one statement attributed to Ansar Al-Islam so far,” points out Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist movements at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“It is impossible to say for certain whether it belongs to the Morabitoun in Africa and, by extension, is affiliated with Al-Qaeda though this does not discount the possibility it receives support. There are organisations that go by the same name in Mali and Burkina Faso and they are not offshoots of Morabitoun though they receive support from it. And there is a possibility that some IS cells have rejoined Al-Qaeda after IS lost control of its territory in Iraq and Syria.”

A week after the Bahareya incident, before any claim of responsibility was made, a posting on the Hurras Al-Shariah (Guardians of Shariah Law) Instagram account, which is closely associated with Al-Qaeda, praised the attack. Ansar Al-Islam claimed responsibility soon afterwards.

Several of the group’s members were arrested in the aftermath of the Bahareya incident and are now a primary source of information about the organisation. Abu Hatem was killed in the operation.

The recent military operations have ended the group’s plans to take root in the western zone. According to military sources, the group, which was to form the kernel of a larger organisation in the area, consisted of more than 100 terrorists. The central organisation in Libya attempted to support them with ammunitions but Egyptian forces destroyed their convoys.

Military sources now stress future counter-terrorist operations will involve pre-emptive strikes. Further measures will be taken to tighten security along the western border which remains a source of terrorist threat, to which end the new chief-of-staff undertook an inspection tour of the western zone to appraise the readiness of forces responsible for securing the border and identifying terrorist targets.

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