The Egyptian armed forces Monday, Sept. 30, launched an offensive to confront Al Qaeda and its Salafist allies for the first time in their lofty strongholds in the rugged central Sinai range of Jabal al-Halal, debkafile’s exclusive military and counter terror sources disclose.
Until now, the Egyptian military and security forces, fought the terrorists in northern Sinai, but held back from braving them in the citadel they have dubbed the “Tora Bora of Sinai,” after the site of Osama bin Laden’s last stand in Afghanistan in 2011 against the American army.
The topography is similar: rocky peaks riddled with twisting wadis fringed with dense vegetation that conceal hundreds of natural caves, some inter-connected by tunnels. Terrorists familiar with this mazelike terrain pass easily between the caves invisible to attackers from the air.
The Jabal al-Halal mountain range has no proper roads, only narrow precipitous paths and trails, which are watched at all times by Al Qaeda sentinels posted above and are inaccessible to tanks and armored personnel carriers.
The Egyptian army tried once in the past to deploy armored forces against those mountain strongholds, only to be thrown back by a concerted onslaught of anti-tank fire by 3,000 armed men barricaded there.
debkafile’s military sources report that for the new offensive, Egypt is fielding a mechanized brigade, 3 commando battalions, an artillery unit armed with heavy 120mm mortars and a squadron of Apache attack helicopters. They are drawing on US and Israeli intelligence for assistance.
Egypt’s Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi decided there was no time to lose before bearding al Qaeda in its mountain fastnesses, after the jihadists began firing anti-tank rockets at international vessels passing through the Suez Canal.
In the first attack on Sept. 4, their rockets struck containers on a ship’s deck and started a fire. In the second, on which Cairo clamped down a curtain of secrecy, a merchant vessel was hit in the last week of the month. After the Suez Canal attackers were traced to Jabal al-Halal, the defense minister decided on an all-out campaign to finally flush the terrorists out of their caves and wadis in central Sinai.
Like the terrorists who held the Nairobi shopping mall to siege last month, Al Qaeda and its Salafist henchmen in Sinai are affiliated to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-AQAP. There have been concerns in Cairo and Jerusalem that the AQAP may launch a similar attack from its Sinai base against another crowd center in an Egyptian city or a southern Israeli urban location.
As the Egyptian operation got into stride in central Sinai, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an association of small armed militias affiliated with al Qaeda, accused the Egyptian army of collaborating with Israel to “wage war on Allah’s religion.”