Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Death in the desert

Ahmed Morsy reports on the response to this week’s attack on a border patrol close to the Libyan border

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Minutes before iftar, troops at a military checkpoint in Al-Wadi Al-Gedid governorate in southern Egypt were unknowingly at death’s door.

Twenty militants, in four four-wheel-drive vehicles attacked the checkpoint, killing 20 border guards and two officers, announced army spokesman Mohamed Samir on Tuesday. The troops, he said, exchanged fire with the terrorists before the latter launched a RPG.

“The military troops exchanged fire with the unknown terrorists so as not to let them come close and break into the ambush, leading the militants to launch a RPG missile from distance. The RPG attack led to the explosion of a Butane gas cylinder at the checkpoint. The blast of the gas cylinder caused the checkpoint’s weapons store to explode, which accounts for the high number of casualties,” said the army statement. Following the arrival of reinforcements the militants fled the scene, leaving one corpse and two of their vehicles behind which had explosives that were immediately defused.

Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to print, Major-General Osama Askar announced that one of the culprits was arrested and it was a matter of time until the others were caught.

“It’s the most dangerous smuggling area in Egypt,” Major-General Fouad Allam, a security affairs expert and former deputy head of the National Security Apparatus (NSA), told Al-Ahram Weekly, referring to the large governorate of Al-Wadi Al-Gedid that borders both Libya and Sudan.

“Armed smugglers from Libya and Sudan usually use the region to smuggle weapons, drugs and other goods,” Allam said, indirectly justifying the reason for the same military battalion to be targeted twice in forty days.

Five soldiers and one officer were killed in the same area on 31 May when anonymous gunmen attacked a military checkpoint. The six murders, said former military spokesperson Ahmed Mohamed Ali, were staged as revenge for the success of border guards in thwarting earlier attempts to undermine Egypt’s national security. “More than a year ago, this specific military battalion was a police ambush which was less in forces and capabilities. Due to being exposed to an earlier smugglers’ attack it was transformed to a military ambush to reinforce its capabilities,” Allam added.

When such military ambush was attacked last month by gunmen smugglers and killed six of its military troops, he says, it again was decided to be a battalion rather than an ambush.

Major-General Abdel-Moneim Kato, the army’s morale affairs adviser, told London’s daily Al-Arab newspaper that the attacks were staged by terrorists and not smugglers.

“The operation in Al-Wadi Al-Gedid was terrorist in nature, not a clash with smugglers. They left two of their vehicles full of primed explosives and used heavy weapons such as the RPG. Smugglers depend on Bedouin guides to avoid security patrols,” Kato said, adding that this was a planned operation in which international intelligence agencies might be involved.

The attack is the biggest single terrorist operation against army or police since last August when 25 Central Security conscripts were killed near Rafah in Sinai. It resembled the 2012 terrorist attack in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by militants in Sinai, close to the border with Israel, also in Ramadan and just before iftar.

Terrorist attacks targeting police and military have grown since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi. Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has been at the forefront of these attacks. Media reports allege the Al-Qaeda-inspired group was behind Saturday’s operation.

The Middle East News Agency (MENA), Sada Al-Balad, Youm7 and Al-Watan websites all quoted the terrorist group’s Twitter account as claiming responsibility for the attack. When checked, however, the group’s Twitter account makes no mention of the operation.

Ismail Alexandrani, a specialist on Sinai’s militant groups, believes Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has ignored the media accusations, not even disclaiming responsibility, because the group is not interested in improving their image in front of the public opinion but rather in enhancing their image in front of the young jihadists.

“The accusations serve to enhance the group’s reputation,” Alexandrani told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Accusing them of performing a large and quantative operation far from their sphere of influence and deployment is in their interests. The accusations enhance their image,” he said.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called for three days of mourning for the victims of the attack. On Sunday he attended the military funeral for the soldiers at Almaza Military Airport. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, Minister of Defence Sedki Sobhi and Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim were also present.

It was reported that Al-Sisi told the families of the deceased that he wished he was the one who had died, to which the families responded, “We all sacrifice ourselves for you”.  Al-Sisi added that we have one of two choices, either we let people kill each other or we sacrifice men from the military. So, he said, we chose to sacrifice the men of our Armed Forces, who are everyone’s sons. He added that this is the first time Egypt has been targeted with this kind of terrorism.

Late on Saturday Al-Sisi convened an emergency meeting of the National Defence Council at the presidential palace in Heliopolis to review “internal and foreign threats to Egyptian national security” and review “counterterrorism efforts”.

Al-Sisi also revealed a committee had been established to follow up on the incident, adding that the committee’s mandate was to uncover what precisely had happened.  

“I confirm that our borders are more highly secured than ever after Al-Wadi Al-Gedid attack,” Allam said, adding that the region has been studied and security precautions taken so that the incident will not be repeated.

Speaking at a press conference held at the Presidency on Sunday Prime Minister Mehleb stressed that such attacks will only heighten government resolve to fight terrorism.

“Just retribution is coming for Al-Wadi Al-Gedid martyrs,” Mehleb said.

Mehleb wondered “if the perpetrators of this attack know anything about Islam”.

Several political groups mourned the soldiers and slammed terrorist attacks. In a statement the Social Democratic Party requested that Al-Sisi and the army make public all details of the attack and the reason behind the high death toll. The Egypt Freedom Party demanded a transparent investigation into the incident which it noted occurred at the same location as the one that happened in less than two months ago.

Tobias Ellwood, Middle East Minister at the British Foreign Office, condemned the “appalling terrorist attack on a border guard checkpoint near Farafra on Saturday”.

“My thoughts are with the families of those killed and wounded and all those affected,” he said.

“The Egyptian authorities have our support as they investigate this incident and seek to prevent further attacks.”

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