Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

How to rout Sinai terrorists

More coordination is needed on the field amid counter-terrorism operations in Sinai, in particular utilising air support to prevent militants from escaping, writes Hussein Haridy 

According to Wikipedia, the Hindu Kush — also known in ancient Greek as the Caucasus Indicus — is an 800 kilometres-long mountain range that stretches near the Afghan-Pakistan border, from central Afghanistan to northern Pakistan. I was reminded of the Hindu Kush when I heard of the targeting of Al-Rawda Mosque in northern Sinai Friday, 24 November. The Sinai-based terrorists gunned down, in cold blood, 305 worshippers during the weekly Friday prayers. The mosque is known to be a place of worship for Sufis. The attack was a wake-up call for all concerned that it is high time for a thorough rethink of the strategy followed in countering terrorism in northern Sinai. This strategy has always been defensive and static in nature, and reacts to attacks rather than pre-empting them. 

Strangely enough, the strategy employed along the western borders of Egypt with Libya is mostly pre-emptive, judging by the communiques regularly released by the Army High Command on shadowing and destroying all-terrain vehicles that cross the border carrying arms, ammunition and terrorists into Egypt. I believe the Al-Rawda attack is our 11 September regarding its impact on public opinion and the need to change tactics and strategies in dealing with terrorist groups that make inaccessible and forbidding mountainous and desert areas their hiding places from where they plan attacks. This brings us to the relevance of the Hindu Kush to Egypt’s war on terrorism.

Al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban militants had used parts of the Hindu Kush as a natural staging ground for attacks against targets of their choosing inside both Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghan borders. This had assured them the element of surprise and safe and quick retreat to their bases. After 11 September, the United States military went into Kabul, toppled the Taliban regime in October 2001 and began a very effective strategy not only to hunt down the terrorists but also their leaders. In order to succeed, the change of strategy entailed tactics that kept these groups and the Taliban on the run, denying them the time to plan and execute attacks in Afghanistan and abroad. The Americans began to rely heavily on drones in monitoring the movements of terrorists and in targeting them. The command centre for drone operations was in the continental United States. One novelty that the Americans introduced in their fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas was the “militarisation” of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations. That ensured rapid and deadly offensive operations as well as reprisals. I recall that in November 2001 an American drone equipped with Hellfire missiles nearly hit Osama bin Laden. He left the house targeted minutes before the attack. The Americans got him in May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Special Forces carried out the operation based on reliable human intelligence that took years to ascertain.

These tactics call for reliable human intelligence on the ground. As a matter of fact, this is one of the lessons that the United States military and intelligence community gained from the 11 September attacks. Prior to the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City, the United States had depended to a large degree on what is known as Signal Intelligence (SIGINTEL), collecting intelligence through satellites and other electronic means. The attacks on 11 September proved that approach ineffective in the war on terror.

The war on terror is asymmetrical in the sense that classic army formations are arrayed against small groups of terrorists who always master the element of surprise. In these kinds of wars the need is for highly-mobile military units, heavily-armed and well-trained, for carrying out counterinsurgency missions with air cover if need be.

There is no independent and verifiable means to ascertain the success and effectiveness of this strategy. Judging by the savage attack on Al-Rawda Mosque, the terrorists operated the usual way. They choose their targets, make necessary reconnaissance, plan the attack as to the needed men and firepower to deal with the chosen target, move using four-wheel drive vehicles, carry out the attack, cover their retreat, and they are gone. Air reprisals against the attacking force comes minutes later.

I recall the first Rafah attack against an Egyptian military post in August 2012. A group of terrorists surprised the post when the soldiers were breaking their fast (it was Ramadan) and after mowing them down, they got hold of an armoured car and drove it into the Israeli Negev desert to attack an Israeli settlement to the north. Less than 10 minutes after they had crossed into Israeli territory, their armoured carrier was completely destroyed by an Israeli plane. The reason for the rapid response was the fact that company commanders have the authority to request air support.

The asymmetrical war on terror in Sinai needs re-evaluation. Past tactics have provided terrorist groups with the ability to plan, move, attack and retreat without being intercepted. We need to keep them on the run, unable to plan or move across open spaces without interdiction. We must deny them safe havens. Having said so, I have to admit that the fact that they operate most of the time in civilian centres is a highly constraining factor for the Egyptian military in fighting and chasing them.

What happened in the Hindu Kush years back is a good lesson for Egypt.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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