Sinai under Total Egyptian Blockade for Massive Military Purge of ISIS

The Egyptian army is under new orders to implement a comprehensive plan to “push all armed groups out of the Sinai Peninsula, the Nile Delta and the Western Desert.” The “comprehensive security operation against terrorists and criminal elements” was announced on Feb. 9, in an urgent televised statement by Col. Tamer Rifai, an Egyptian military spokesman. He said the operation is going forward “in all strategic directions” in order to “tighten control of Egyptian ports.”

But Sinai, where the ISIS affiliate enjoys almost unbridled mastery, was clearly the main focus of the new Egyptian campaign against terror. Indeed, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources disclose, President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi has taken personal command of “Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018.” He has deployed to the desert peninsula an extra three mechanized brigades of the Second and Third Armies to Sinai, raising the total deployment to two full Egyptian divisions.

An all-out campaign against the terrorists who are spreading death and mayhem in Sinai could no longer be avoided. After 235 people were murdered in a savage attack on their mosque in Bir al-Abed in northern Sinai in November 2017, the president proclaimed a state of emergency and gave Egyptian army chiefs three months to rid Sinai of the ISIS destroyers. This deadline came and went without results. The terror attacks continued regardless, the most brazen occurring on Dec. 19 when an attack was mounted on the El Arish military airport when defense and interior ministers landed there for an inspection of security arrangements in northern Sinai. The ministers escaped harm, but several security guards died and their helicopter was burnt to a crisp.

The campaign gained additional urgency with the approach of the March 26-28 presidential election. El-Sisi is hard-pressed to cut down the surging violence of ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed underground before it places a large question mark over his re-election. He is realistic about his army’s capabilities and knows it is not up to accomplishing this mission in just over a month. He therefore revised his strategy, our sources report, and ordered the generals to quite simply reconquer the Sinai Peninsula. Therefore, while on the face of it the Egyptian army is waging a campaign against ISIS, which won the praise from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his visit to Cairo on Monday, Feb. 12, the strategy going forward on the ground is quite different.

On his orders, the army has placed the entire desert peninsula under a total ground, sea and air blockade. All roads are blocked, electronic communications media blacked out and schools shut down. Sisi aimed to isolate the sparsely populated desert territory of about 61,100 from the outside world. so that his soldiers could comb through every town, village or Bedouin encampment, house by house and tent by tent, to weed out Islamist State terrorists. Local military personnel were used, for their ability to identity ordinary citizens. When faces are unfamiliar, the relevant buildings are being summarily destroyed by Egyptian air strikes or artillery.

On Thursday, Feb. 15, a week after the operation began, Col. Rifai announced: 53 “takfiri elements” had been killed and 675 detained. In addition, 57 vehicles and 88 motorcycles were destroyed, as well as 378 terrorist centers and weapons stores, including a media center. Furthermore, 177 explosive devices and up to 1,500 kilos of explosives, including C4, were demolished. Rifai did not mention civilian casualties, although there were almost certain to be collateral victims of an operation on this scale.

Yet, despite the communications blackout and hot pursuit, ISIS-Sinai managed on Feb. 12 to smuggle out a 23-minute video clip on the internet, urging the 60 million eligible Egyptian voters to boycott the voting stations in March, or risk coming to harm.

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