In stark contrast to its non-participation in the international coalition against ISIS, Egypt is fully engaged in fighting Islamist terror at home – to the point of welcoming neighborly support against the common foe.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources disclose that Israel’s advanced missile-borne Heron drones are now integrated in the ongoing Egyptian war on terror in the Sinai Peninsula, having joined Egyptian warplanes in strikes against the Islamic State’s Sinai arm.
This collaboration was approved at the highest level by President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Aside from the United States, Israel is the only Middle East power engaging in drone warfare against Islamic terrorists. After Sinai, Israel may be amenable to extending its UAV operations to the Islamist threat in other parts of the region, as well.
The Egyptian counter-terror war goes forward on three fronts
1. The Libyan frontier. This broad desert expanse, inhabited sparsely by nomadic Bedouin, is crisscrossed by well-trodden smuggling trails. They are used to secretly transfer to Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Sinai, the weapons the Islamic State purchases at the Libyan arms bazaar.
Egypt has made no headway in shutting down this front, thwarted by the close collaboration between the Islamist smuggling rings and local Bedouin tribes.
These collaborators are turning the Egyptian-Libyan border into another lawless region like Sinai. Egyptian security control over large swathes of land in this part of western Egypt is passing increasingly to bands of terrorists, smugglers and Bedouin.
In the past month, the Egyptian army’s high command decided to cut down on ground operations there and substantially switch over to air strikes. The bulk of the air force was therefore relocated from central Egypt to the west, at the expense of air operations in Sinai.
2. Cairo and the Nile Delta cities: A new terrorist organization has sprung up alongside the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed groups. It calls itself Agnad Misr – Soldiers of Egypt – and made its first appearance on Jan 24 with a message asserting “Retribution is Life.”
A mixture of radical Salafists and former activists of the old Egyptian Islamic Jihad – a co-parent of the original al Qaeda – Agnad Misr, in league with ISIS-Sinai, has made a specialty of terrorist attacks in Cairo and its environs.
Cairo’s security and intelligence services are deeply disturbed by the chain of terrorist organizations running from Sinai through the Egyptian heartland up to its Mediterranean shores, because it presents acute hazards both to Egypt’s northern ports, chiefly Alexandria, and to Suez Canal towns and shipping, including oil tankers.
3. Sinai under Iraqi ISIS command. Under the command of Iraqi ISIS officers, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, renamed the “Sinai Province of the Islamic State,” is escalating its violent assaults on Egyptian military and police targets day by day. (Their arrival from Iraq was first revealed by DEBKA last year).
Tuesday, the Sinai Islamists released a video depicting the beheading of 10 alleged collaborators with the Israeli Mossad and Egyptian intelligence, and the dumping of their bodies on the main road between El Arish and Rafah.
Egypt still lacks central command for counter-terror war
The Egyptian government last week upgraded the force assigned to fight these jihadis by setting up a new Sinai Command under Gen. Osama Rushdie Askar, who was elevated to the rank of Field Marshal.
Even after this extraordinary measure, Egypt’s armed forces have proved unable to concentrate their widely-spaced anti-terror operations across the country under a single roof-command.
Most of the 10 commando battalions of the Egyptian army’s elite Saiqa Forces have been attached to the Sinai Command. To perform their mission, these battalions require extensive air support from advanced air force units, equipped with intelligence technology and instruments capable of prying out and liquidating the bands of terrorists hiding in the craggy rock landscape and lofty cave warrens of the Sinai Peninsula.
Egypt lacks this technology. It is now provided by Israel.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that President El-Sisi and Prime Minister Netanyahu have charted a military strategy which calls on the Israeli air force to step in to liquidate a terrorist threat in situations arising when the Egyptian army is hamstrung by its intelligence and operational shortcomings.
The understanding reached between the two leaders does not specifically refer to Sinai or mention ISIS.
Left open, therefore, are options for armed Israeli drones to take a hand in the Egyptian war on Islamic terror – not just in Sinai but in other parts of Egypt as well, and also against terrorist organizations other than ISIS.