An immense stretch of Sinai desert populated by half a million people is under siege, as the Egyptian army fights off a major offensive by the Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate, the Sinai Province, against its positions in northern Sinai. The battle, which Monday, July 6, went into its sixth day, is being fought in an area bounded by the northern town of Sheikh Zuwaid, Rafah on the Gaza border, and up to Kerem Shalom and Nitzana on the Israeli border to the south. debkafile’s military sources report a news blackout on the ongoing warfare except for Egyptian army handouts.
Egyptian security sources reported Monday that helicopter strikes and ground operations had since July1 killed 241 Islamists in villages between Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah, where four of their hideouts had been located. Our sources add that these air strikes are directed against civilian dwellings, especially in farming districts, where ISIS fighters are suspected of hiding out. No figures have been released by Cairo on civilian or Egyptian army casualties.
debkafile describes the contest as an asymmetrical one between an army that depends heavily on aerial operations and ISIS terrorists, who have resorted mainly to guerilla warfare. By night, they flit swiftly on foot between the dunes to strike Egyptian army positions. By day, their foot soldiers trap Egyptian soldiers by setting up ambushes around those positions and on the roads of Sinai to keep Egyptian troops pinned down. Terrorist operations are a constant on their agenda.
The Egyptians respond with blanket air strikes which swoop on any moving object in the embattled area
– whether by car or on foot
The hide-and-seek tactics employed by ISIS are sustainable in the long term, especially when the Islamists can rely on a constant influx of reinforcements, weapons and ordnance, the sources of which debkafile disclosed in an exclusive report Sunday, July 5.
The Islamic State is rushing reinforcements to Egypt from Libya and Iraq for its battle with Egyptian forces in northern Sinai, which went into its fifth day Sunday, July 5, and other offensives, debkafile’s intelligence and counter-terror sources report. After sustaining hundreds of casualties, both sides claim to have won the upper hand but the tenacious struggle is not over.
An Islamist manpower pool is provided by Egyptian extremists who crossed into Libya in the past and settled in bases around Benghazi. Last week, ISIS summoned them to take up positions in Cairo and the Suez Canal and wait for orders to go into action. They crossed back with the help of smugglers. Those rings, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood underground, with branches controlled by Hamas and Hizballah, bring illicit weapons and ammunition supplies to Sinai from Libya via Egypt.
President Abdel Fatteh El-Sisi is therefore obliged to earmark substantial military and intelligence resources for defending the Suez Canal and Cairo – more even than the Sinai front.
The other source of jihadi reinforcements is Iraq, They use another branch of the smuggling network which carries them through southern Jordan to the Gulf of Aqaba where they are picked up by smugglers’ boats and ferried across to the eastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula.
The IDF had more than one reason for its decision last Wednesday to close to traffic Rte 12, Israel’s main southern highway, which runs parallel to the Egyptian border up to Eilat: It was a necessary precaution lest ISIS turned its terrorists and guns against Israel from next-door northern Sinai. The other reason was to deter the Islamists coming from Iraq from trying to transit Israel and reach Sinai with the help of Bedouin smugglers operating on both sides of the Israeli-Egyptian border.
Our military sources estimate that some 1,000 jihadists are directly engaged in the North Sinai battle with the Egyptian army, but add that they could quickly recruit supplementary fighting manpower from Bedouin tribes near the warfront who already play ball with the terrorists.
Egyptian tacticians have strictly limited the army action on this front to air and helicopter strikes and local ground and armored forces. They are focusing on defending three Sinai enclaves, the northern district around Sheikh Zuweid, El Arish port and Rafah, and Sharm el-Sheikh in the south, to pin ISIS forces down in those places and prevent them from fanning out into areas controlled by the big Bedouin tribes.
When President El-Sisi visited the troops in northern Sinai Saturday, July 5, he disclosed that only one percent of the Egyptian army of 300,000 men was assigned to Sinai. He indicated that his army was perfectly capable of wiping out the Sinai terrorist threat in no time if all its might were to be thrown into the fray.
This strategy leaves ISIS with free rein in central Sinai. However, El-Sisis, like his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, is not prepared to go all out against ISIS in its “dens” any time in the near future, because he needs all his military resources and assets he can muster to defend the capital Cairo and the Suez Canal.
Neither the Islamic Army nor the Muslim Brotherhood or any other radical Islamists make any secrets of their next plans. ISIS has announced that it is setting its sights on Egypt’s pyramids, the Sphinx of Giza, and the country's unique historic monuments in general, after its savage vandalism and looting of other precious world heritage sites.
In a new message released Friday, July 3, a number of radical Islamist leaders, including the ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, told their followers that the destruction of Egypt’s national monuments, such as the pyramids and the sphinx, was a “religious duty” that must be carried out by those who worship Islam, as “idolatry is strictly banned in the religion.”
This message has sharply ratcheted up the jihadist element of ISIS military confrontation with Egypt to a higher, more inflammatory level.