Egyptian Army Beards ISIS in Sinai Mountain Strongholds
This week, the Egyptian military wound up a four-week offensive against remote Islamic State strongholds in central Sinai. The operation’s destination in the lofty, desolate Jabal Halal mountain range and Wadi al-Hamar in the heart of the peninsula enabled Cairo to draw a dense curtain of secrecy over its conduct and results.
Egypt’s army had not dared to enter Jabal Halal, known as Sinai’s Tora Bora, since launching its war against Al Qaeda in the Sinai in 2008. They were daunted by the harsh topography of precipitous, craggy slopes up to 9,000ft high, narrow, winding unpaved trails and networks of interconnected caves used as hideouts by thousands of Islamist fighters. Regular army troops had not so far ventured to approach this natural fortress,
which also defied targeting for strikes by warplanes, helicopters and artillery.
Unlike the Egyptian military, ISIS fighters are being helped by thousands of Bedouin tribesmen living in Sinai who know every stone and cave and use caravans of donkeys and camels to bring supplies, reinforcements and ammunition. The fighters get water from springs and other ground sources in the caves.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and counterterrorism sources report that the Egyptian Second Army was ordered into action after months of intelligence work for collecting data on ISIS targets. The goal of the operation was not defined as liquidating the ISIS force, because the Egyptian command knew it to be impossible. Rather, the force was tasked with dismantling the ISIS logistics network in central Sinai.
Before the troops went in, Egyptian air force and artillery units bombed the area.
Our sources report that many ISIS storage areas for weapons, fuel and food were bombed and destroyed. Several dozen terrorists as well as dozens of Bedouins inside the battle zone were killed. Eighteen Egyptian soldiers lost their lives in the operation.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that the attack did not wipe out ISIS military capabilities in the peninsula, or cut off its mountain strongholds from the northern Sinai coast, which has long been prey to almost daily terror strikes against Egyptian military and police targets.
The Multinational Force and Observers Organization (MFO) was forced to partly evacuate its northern Sinai base at El Gorah near Egypt’s border with Israel, after a heavy ISIS mortar shelling last April. Most of the Fijian troops were either sent home or relocated at the MFO’s southern base near Sharm el-Sheikh.
ISIS then seized all the observers’ positions and hoisted its flag atop them. They have also taken over all of the MFO’s guard towers on the Egypt-Israel border, that were set up to monitor implementation of the 1979 peace agreement between the two countries. Bedouin tribesmen are posted at all those towers to bar access by Egyptian personnel to remove the flags.