Quick victory unlikely in Egypt assault on IS in the Sinai

Security is boosted ahead of this week’s elections, with Jihadists threatening to target voting activities and tourists

Illustrative: A picture taken on November 28, 2017, from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing following an explosion close to the border on the Egyptian side of the divided city. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
Illustrative: A picture taken on November 28, 2017, from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing following an explosion close to the border on the Egyptian side of the divided city. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

CAIRO — Egypt’s military is conducting a sweeping assault to crush a resilient Islamic State branch in Sinai, but the jihadist group is unlikely to be vanquished quickly, analysts say.

The operation was launched on February 9 after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is expected to sweep to a second term in polls next week, gave the armed forces and police a three-month deadline in November to wipe out the jihadists.

The deadline has since been extended, and the armed forces launched their most comprehensive campaign yet to end the five-year-old jihadist insurgency.

The military gives regular updates on the operation, saying it has killed more than 100 jihadists so far while losing at least 20 troops.

“Egypt is doing a really good job controlling the narrative,” said Zack Gold, an analyst with the US-based CNA research group.

“Even ISIS has been challenged to put out statements. This suggests Egypt is in control,” he said, using an alternative name for IS.

“But (it) makes it hard to assess what’s really going on and whether long-term impact will be different.”

Egypt had already launched several operations against jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula, who have killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, center, attends the inauguration of the East Suez Canal Counter-Terrorism command, in Sinai, Egypt on February 25, 2018. (MENA via AP)

The Egyptian Ansar Beit al-Maqdis group pledged allegiance to IS in 2014, gaining expertise and logistical support from the international group, which controlled a self-declared “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.

The Sinai jihadists soon ramped up their attacks on civilians, planting a bomb on a Russian airliner carrying holidaymakers from a south Sinai resort in 2015, killing all 224 people on board.

Starting in late 2016, they also began targeting Christians, killing more than a hundred in church bombings and shootings across the country.

Sissi’s ultimatum came after suspected IS gunmen massacred more than 300 worshipers in a Sinai mosque associated with Sufi Muslims, seen by IS as heretics.

Discarded shoes of victims remain outside Al-Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abd northern Sinai, Egypt. a day after attackers killed hundreds of worshipers, on November 25, 2017. (AP Photo)

“There appears to be greater emphasis on actively targeting individual militants alongside degrading their logistical supply,” wrote EgyGreenfly, an anonymous blogger for Egypt Defence Review.

“Whereas previous Egyptian offensives focused on a particular area independent of the others at any one time, ‘Sinai 18’ appears to have finally coordinated efforts across the country.”

Election threat

The military has said about 60,000 soldiers are taking part in the campaign, launched after a period of intelligence-gathering in the peninsula, which borders Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

Omar Ashour, an associate professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, said the latest operation was different from previous assaults in several ways.

He cited “intensive media propaganda/coverage, the size of the forces mobilised… the sustained cooperation with ‘militias’ or armed tribal formations fighting alongside regular army, and the increased tactical and operational coordination with Israel.

The operation is likely to weaken IS in Sinai, which consists of no more than around 1,000 hardcore combatants who increasingly rely on hit-and-run attacks, roadside bombings and sniping attacks, analysts say.

Screenshot from a video produced by the Islamic State’s Sinai Peninsula branch in which the terror group declares war on Hamas and executes one of its own members for smuggling weapons to the Palestinian group. The video was released January 3, 2017. (Screenshot)

But it will not bring about a decisive victory and end attacks.

“The military appears to be relying on a combination of air strikes and ground operations to degrade the capabilities of terrorist groups in northern and central Sinai,” said Stephanie Karra, research associate for North Africa with The Risk Advisory Group.

“That said, the latest campaign does not appear to differ significantly from operations in the area in the past few years. And the military seems to be using the same conventional tactics that it has used in the past,” she added.

In response, IS has vowed to attack election-related installations and to redouble its efforts to target tourists across Egypt.

Security will be boosted for the poll, set for March 26-28.

IS in Sinai “continues operations against security forces in the Sinai but it has certainly been disrupted,” said Jantzen Garnett, Middle East analyst with the Navanti Group analytics firm.

“This may frustrate any plans the terrorist group had to disrupt the upcoming presidential elections.”

However, Garnett added, “if the Islamic State’s mainland cells, which have not conducted attacks in several months, operate independently, the Sinai campaign will have little effect on its capabilities.”

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