Egypt's Sweeping Operation in the "Tora Bora of Sinai"

Under Operation Torrent-5, the Egyptian Army has been targeting terrorist infrastructure in the rugged terrain of Jabal al-Halal in Central Sinai

Egyptian forces in Jabal al-Halal (Source: el-balad.com)

In March 2017, the Egyptian armed forces launched a counter-terrorism operation code named "Torrent 5", in the area of Jabal al-Halal in Central Sinai.

The Jabal al-Halal mountain range has rocky peaks riddled with twisting wadis fringed with dense vegetation that conceal hundreds of natural caves, some interconnected by tunnels. There are no proper roads, only narrow, precipitous paths and trails. The area is called the “Tora Bora of Sinai,” after the site of Osama bin Laden’s last stand in Afghanistan in 2001 against the American forces.

Attacks by the “Sinai Province” most frequently occur in North Sinai, where the Egyptian Second Field Army is based. The group has in the past frequently targeted military targets and checkpoints in the cities of Al-Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuweid.

Enhanced security presence in North Sinai has pushed “Sinai Province” militants to carry out attacks in Central and South Sinai. The “Sinai Province” is believed to be currently adapting a new war strategy that is based on targeting forces across the Sinai Peninsula. Similarly, the Egyptian Army’s strategy has been to intensify sweeping operations in the areas where suspects from “Sinai Province” are believed to be stationed.

The Third Field Army is operating between South Sinai and central Sinai and the Second Army is responsible for North Sinai. The Third Army has been increasingly saying it is taking the fight deeper into the peninsula's sparsely populated desert and mountainous areas, such as Jabal Halal near the town of Hasana, targeting insurgent weapons depots and strongholds.

In March 2017, Special Forces under the command of the Egyptian Third Field Army launched a counterterrorism operation against the Islamic State (IS) affiliate Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in central Sinai.

Military units succeeded in killing 15 terrorists and arresting seven. They have also managed to seize large quantities of arms, explosive devices, TNT and C-4, computers, solar panels, mobile phones, and spare parts for vehicles and motorcycles used by terrorists. They also located and destroyed two arms storehouses containing explosives and IEDs, medical equipment, and other supplies used by the terrorist groups.

The terrorists responded with bomb attacks in central Sinai. As army forces were in pursuit of terrorists, IEDs struck two of the attack forces’ vehicles, killing three officers and seven soldiers. The ISIS Sinai Province claimed responsibility for two IED blasts that destroyed two M113 APCs killing the occupants near Jabal Halal in Central Sinai.

Following the latest operation, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi convened a meeting with members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Higher Police Council. The meeting was attended by Minister of Defense Sidki Sobhi and Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar.

In televised comments, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi praised Egypt’s long-running fight against militants. The Egyptian leader said the country’s security forces were flying the “banner of humanity, mercy, construction and development… We are the true protectors of righteousness, and we sincerely condemn all cowardly terrorist acts anywhere in the world,” he said during a ceremony honoring martyrs from the armed forces.

El-Sisi also ordered the doubling of the budget of the military association that looks after the families of fallen soldiers and provides physical therapy for disabled troops. He suggested that members of the armed forces have a “symbolic” part of their salaries deducted as a donation to the association in solidarity with the wounded.

Summary

Egypt witnesses a significant rise in militancy, particularly in Sinai, since the military-backed ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 following mass protests against his rule.

Egypt’s army and police forces have been waging war over the past three years against an Islamist militant insurgency mainly in North Sinai. Hundreds of security personnel and militants have been killed in the violence.

Over the course of the last two years, the Egyptian Armed Forces launched counterattacks against militant stationing points across the Sinai Peninsula, particularly in the cities of Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah, and Al-Arish.

Egypt's Chief of Military Intelligence Mohammed Farag El-Shahat said that the Egyptian army had killed nearly 500 militants in Sinai in military operations launched under the name "the martyr's right' since 2015.

Sinai Province, the militant group behind the insurgency, pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. It is the most active insurgent group in Egypt. It has been linked to a number of deadly attacks, mostly in North Sinai, but also in the capital, Cairo, and other provinces.

Militant activity in Central and Southern Sinai was less frequent than in its more restive north, where ISIS attacks were common, but since the Second Field Army has reinforced security presence in North Sinai, these measures have increased pressure and restricted militant operations, so they are now seeking to expand their operations in Central and South Sinai.

ISIS has suffered heavy losses in Iraq and Syria in recent months and has difficulties recruiting new members. Therefore, it has been shifting its operation to alternative places like Libya, Yemen, and the Sinai Peninsula.

Military sources in Egypt said that some jihadists, including non-Egyptians, have entered Egypt and assumed leadership positions in local groups affiliated with ISIS. They expect an escalation in terrorist attacks in Sinai in response to the increase in counter-terrorist raids and to developments in Iraq where the liberation of Mosul is well underway and preparations are being made for a similar assault on the terrorists’ stronghold of Raqqa in Syria.

On February 8, 2017, four rockets were launched from Sinai into the area of Eilat, Israel's southernmost city. Three of those missiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defense system. One of the rockets landed in open space. No injuries or damage were caused. The “Sinai Province," terror group claimed responsibility for the four rockets that were fired into Eilat from the Sinai Peninsula. The terror group issued a statement saying: “A number of rockets were launched at Jewish centers in Eilat, known as Umm Rashrash. The Jews and Crusaders should know that the war of the apostles will not save them in any way.” A successful attack on places such as Israel’s southern city of Eilat will bring the organization the press it needs to recruit new members and restore its reputation.

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