The Egyptian army has set Friday, July 19, as D-Day for launching a major offensive, dubbed Fattah 2 (Conquest 2), against a coalition of aggressive Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood operatives, Hamas and Jihad Islami groups terrorizing Sinai. The commanders of Egypt’s Second and Third Armies are leading the campaign. debkafile’s military sources report that the Second Army chief, Gen. Ahmed Wasfi, has established his command center at El Arish in northern Sinai, and Gen. Osama Askar, head of the Third Army has set up his headquarters in the central Sinai village of Nakhal. They have sealed off the exit from the Gaza Strip through Rafah, and warned its Hamas rulers that the crossing will remain closed until the campaign ends.
Israeli forces along the Egyptian and Gaza borders are on alert; so too are the 2,600 US Marines aboard two amphibious helicopter carriers anchored opposite the Red Sea shores of Southern Sinai and the Gulf of Suez since the start of the Egyptian crisis.
Thursday, the Egyptian military reported that a security operation carried out by the armed forces in northern Sinai in the past 48 hours had led to the deaths of 10 jihadists. Armed militants killed three Egyptian policemen in earlier separate attacks overnight.
Thursday, debkafile reported that the security situation in Sinai and along the Egypt-Israel frontier is rapidly going from bad to worse. The Islamist coalition’s war on Egyptian police and military positions has gone far beyond the isolated strikes here and there reported by official spokesmen, debkafile’s military sources report.
Hundreds of Salafist Bedouin, Muslim Brotherhood adherents and Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters from the Gaza Strip have joined forces to block northern Sinai’s key road arteries. They have stopped traffic to the Egyptian-Israeli border terminal at Nitzana, to the US-led multinational national observer base at Al Gora near El Arish, and to the big cement factory built by the Egyptian military in El Arish which is the region’s main source of employment.
By blocking those roads, the Islamist fighters have choked off the movement of goods between Egypt and Israel and placed 1,000 MFO troops, including some American officers, under siege. Any vehicle driving in or out of Al Gora comes under anti-tank rocket fire. Flyers have been distributed forbidding locals to take jobs with Egyptian security forces or MFO.
The Islamists are now attacking Egyptian military and security targets at the rate of 30 strikes a day, traveling at speed between targets in minivans on which rocket launchers and heavy machine guns are mounted, or using motorbikes for raiders brandishing rocket-propelled grenades.
Early Thursday July 18, one of these squads shot up a police station near El Arish with anti-tank rockets, killing an Egyptian officer and injuring five soldiers.
The Egyptian army is sending a steady flow of reinforcements to the area, with Israel's consent. An armored force of 13 tanks reached northern Sinai Wednesday July 17, to bolster the Egyptian Second Army force, headed by Gen. Ahmed Wafasi.
However, not only has the Egyptian army abstained so far from directly engaging its Islamist adversaries, it has been pulling back from one isolated observation post and position after another, retreating into clusters of fortified buildings and leaving the militants in full control.
Egyptian officials, asked when their counter-terror offensive in Sinai would start, answer that it will go ahead only after intelligence-gathering and preparations are complete. Meanwhile, all the Egyptian army appears to be doing is sending Apache gun ships out on surveillance missions from El Arish airport which has been converted into an air base.
The images the Egyptian military has released showing bulldozers destroying the smuggling tunnels linking Sinai to the Gaza Strip are also misleading. They are not destroyed, only blocked. Egyptian officers are showing up in the private homes where the tunnels exit and warning their owners they would come to harm if the tunnels were reactivated. Those threats have had the desired effect and the surreptitious tunnel traffic has come to a halt.
Because the Egyptians have so far kept to a war of passive defense against the Islamists rampant in Sinai, debkafile’s military sources expect those terrorist groups to soon start moving out toward the Suez Canal and the main cities of Egypt. They also predict attempts to infiltrate Israel for launching a major attack on a civilian or military target.