The Western Desert – Egypt's New Theater of Terror

The Western Desert region has witnessed eight major terrorist attacks in the past three years that have left more than 60 security officers and dozens of citizens dead. Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay discusses the new front in Egypt's war on terrorism

A torched car destroyed in the airstrike by the Egyptian air forces (Photo: Egyptian Armed Forces)

Sixteen policemen were killed and 13 others were injured during a shootout between Egyptian security forces and terrorists in al-Wahat al-Bahariya in the Western Desert on October 20, 2017. The Egyptian Interior Ministry said that 11 officers, four recruits and a policeman were killed in the attack. Thirteen officers and soldiers were wounded, while one officer remained unaccounted for. The police announced that 15 gunmen were killed in the ensuing battle.

The shootout occurred after the Egyptian National Security apparatus received information on the presence of a group of militants in the desert off the al-Wahat al-Bahariya road, located between the governorate of Giza and Fayoum. The terror group had taken control over the region due to its close proximity to Cairo, Giza and main provinces in Upper Egypt, to be used as a Launchpad for attacks. There were fears that the terror cell would soon carry out an attack against the Wadi El-Rayan monastery, so security forces decided to direct a preemptive raid to abort any assault.

A week after the Bahariya incident, a posting on the Hurras Al-Shariah (Guardians of Sharia Law) Instagram account, which is closely associated with Al-Qaeda, praised the attack.

A little-known group called Ansar Al-Islam claimed responsibility for the Bahariya Oasis attack on October 20 and the kidnapping of police Captain Mohamed Al-Hayes. "We have started our jihad ... on the borders of Cairo and were victorious against the enemy’s campaign," the group announced. Ansar al-Islam said it captured an officer and that the Egyptian air force struck them 11 days after their attack. The air raids killed several of its members, the group added. They urged Egyptians to join their fight against the government and said they had released all conscripts they captured, implying it was specifically targeting officers.

Commenting on the Wahat al-Bahariya attack, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said that all perpetrators of the attack had been killed, except for one who is under arrest.

The Western Desert & the Border with Libya

The Western Desert represents two-thirds of Egypt’s size. It stretches between the Nile Valley and Delta in the east and Egypt’s border with Libya in the west. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea in the north and Egypt’s border with Sudan in the south. The mostly hilly desert region stretches some 600 kilometers from west to east and 681 kilometers from north to south.

The border between Egypt and Libya stretches some 1,100 kilometers. Except for al-Salloum and Siwa, there are no cities or residential areas along the entire Egyptian-Libyan border. The harsh terrain that makes up the majority of the desert has made it a suitable environment for terrorist groups to carry out their operations.

Since 2011, Libya has been witnessing its own security turmoil – which represents a direct threat to Egypt's national security. The Egyptian armed forces are carrying the burden of securing the border between the countries due to the chaos in Libya and has on many occasions succeeded in thwarting militant infiltration from Libya into Egypt.

The Egyptian Counterterrorism Operation in the Western Desert

Operations to apprehend the attackers and intercept infiltrators were set into motion in the Western Desert and along the western border immediately following the Bahariya attack.

The Egyptian Air Forces – supported by special army commando units (Sae'ka) and police – carried out airstrikes in southern Fayoum, on terrorist hideouts. In a statement carried by the state-run news agency MENA, the military said it had attacked the hideouts located in a mountainous area of Fayoum governorate, located in the Western Desert. The Armed Forces released a video of the airstrike, as well as photos showing the dead bodies of the terrorists and destroyed vehicles including a pickup truck fitted with machine guns. The strikes destroyed three 4X4 vehicles with large amounts of arms and ammunition, as well as explosive materials. The raids have taken place in remote areas of Giza governorate and several governorates of Upper Egypt.

Egypt's army said on November 11, 2017, that it foiled an attempt by terrorists to infiltrate the country through the Western Desert border with Libya. In an official statement, army spokesman Tamer El-Refaie said the army's air force, in coordination with border guards and intelligence, destroyed ten off-road vehicles carrying arms, ammunition and smuggled items. The vehicles' passengers were killed in the airstrike.

The statement said that the strike was part of a "continued combing operation by the air force and border guards in the vicinity of the operation to stop any penetration or infiltration through the border."

The Rescue Operation of Police Officer Mohamed El-Hayes

Police officer Mohamed El-Hayes was kidnapped during the deadly October 20 incident between policemen and terrorists in Egypt’s Western Desert.

On October 31, 2017, El-Hayes was rescued in an operation conducted by security forces near El-Wahat highway, in which a number of terrorists were killed.

Satellite images, especially those furnished by the Russians, helped military forces track the terrorists’ movements. The images revealed the three vehicles, in the middle one of which kidnapped Captain Al-Hayes was being transported.

After the Air Force managed to eliminate a high number of the militants, the Thunderbolt forces started engaging the remaining militants. The terrorists were wearing uniforms similar to those of the Egyptian army in an attempt to camouflage themselves as an army patrol unit.

The rescue operation was successful, and El-Hayes was rushed to a military hospital, where he was later visited by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

Lessons Learned from the Bahariya Incident

Reshuffle in the security forces: Lt. Gen. Mohamed Farid Hegazi was nominated to the post of chief-of-staff in place of Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Hegazi. There has also been a major reshuffle of security personnel in the governorates of Giza and Fayoum.

The new chief-of-staff undertook an inspection tour of the western zone to appraise the readiness of forces responsible for securing the border and identifying terrorist targets.

Military sources stress future counterterrorist operations will involve preemptive strikes.

The army has intensified its surveillance efforts along the border with Libya, where there has been a rise in threats against Egypt from Libyan groups.

Further measures will be taken to tighten security along the western border which remains a source of terrorist threat.

Summary

In the past three years alone, the Western Desert region has witnessed no less than eight major terrorist attacks that have left more than 60 security officers and dozens of citizens dead.

The main danger of the Western Desert is the fact that it lies by the Libyan border that has been witnessing security and political chaos for years. This has facilitated the infiltration of gunmen to Egypt. The Egyptian army has been trying hard to control the border with Libya, but this mission has been complicated because there is no united Libyan army to control its side of the border.

The October 20 attack is a painful reminder that Egypt's Western Desert has become "a new theater for terrorism in Egypt." This front can be added to the traditional hub of northern Sinai where the Egyptian army has been waging a fierce war against armed groups affiliated with the ISIS terrorist organization.

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