Egyptian forces descended on the Sinai Peninsula Sunday, Aug. 14, for their first post-Mubarak operation to retake control of the territory from lawless and terrorist elements rampant there since the Egyptian revolution and responsible for sabotaging the Egyptian gas pipeline to Israel, Jordan and Syria.
Monday, three Egyptian army brigades of 1,700 men backed by tanks, an equal number of special policemen and 3,400 security personnel drove into the northern towns of El Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, which is divided between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. In their first clashes with Islamic Liberation Army gunmen, they killed one and detained 11, four of them Palestinians, he Egyptian military communiqué reported.
debkafile's military sources add that three Egyptian officers were kidnapped in the clash – whether they were killed or held as hostages is unknown.
For two years, debkafile's counter-terror sources have been reporting on the burgeoning concentration of al Qaeda cells and affiliates in Sinai and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The 2,200 Egyptian troops maintained there after Feb. 14 to maintain order and guard the Egyptian natural gas pipeline to Israel, Jordan and Syria were easily overpowered The facility was sabotaged five times and supplies remain cut off.
Restoring a semblance of law and order to northern Sinai will be the easy part of the Egyptian military mission – for which Cairo obtained prior Israeli permission as mandated under their peace accord
The hard part is ahead when in the coming weeks the units head south to flush out the Islamist invaders holed up in the central Sinai mountains to which they withdrew last week after being tipped off that large-scale Egyptian forces were coming.
On the narrow mountain trails, the soldiers will have their work cut out to contend with 2,000 well-organized and heavily armed Islamist gunmen.
The forbidding central Sinai range of precipitous peaks, from 1,000 to 2,642 meters tall, covers 21,000 square kilometers. The terrain has deep wadis, dense shrubbery, abundant natural water and plenty of animals for food.
Judged in terms of the war in Afghanistan, a Taliban force this size in control of a region twice the area of the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan would pose a prohibitive challenge even to a full-scale NATO army.
Egyptian forces have fought for control of these mountains several times but failed, ending up with accommodations of sorts with the 350,000 Bedouin tribes sheltering the Islamists and sharing in their smuggling trade. The tribes always came out of these deals in control of the region.
Our military sources therefore expect this first wave of Egyptian armored forces into Sinai to be followed by more – if Cairo's rulers seriously intend to recapture the strategic peninsula and expunge the al Qaeda presence.
There is no way this can be accomplished, according to our military experts, without air might. The terrorists' hideouts will have to be bombed from the air and combat helicopters provide cover for armored units moving along the isolated Sinai trails; drones will be needed to gather intelligence on enemy movements.
Cairo will have to apply to Jerusalem for permission to deploy air might in Sinai for the first time since the territory was demilitarized under their peace accord.
debkafile's military sources report that the Islamic Liberation Army – which has declared its objective as the seizure of all of Sinai and its transformation into a Muslim Caliphate – is a conglomerate of five terrorist groups:
1. Indigenous Bedouin tribes who have a score to settle with the Egyptian army;
2. Palestinians from the Gaza Strip drawn into extremist Salafi sects which are integral parts of al Qaeda.
3. Hundreds of adherents of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the murderous Jamaa al-Islamiya who escaped Egyptian prisons on January 29 at the peak of the popular revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak. The former jailbirds made a beeline for Sinai and today constitute the hard operational core of the movement.
4. Al Qaeda adherents, who made their way to Sinai after violent careers in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
5. Followers of various Egyptian Sufi and dervish orders.