The three months that Egyptian President Sisi allotted to the chief of staff, General Muhammad Hegazy, to eradicate Islamic State terrorism in northern Sinai will soon end. The terror has been going on for four years. Sisi gave the order to destroy the terror group after Islamic State murdered more than 300 worshippers in an attack last November on the Al-Rawdah Mosque in northern Sinai.
In recent days the Egyptian army has launched a large-scale military operation in northern Sinai, aimed at carrying out the final stage of creating a five-kilometer buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza.
Hundreds of soldiers including special forces, as well as tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy engineering equipment, have been brought to the area. Bedouin sources believe this operation is being coordinated with Israel, since it involves much larger forces than what the military annex of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty allows.
The Egyptian army has already begun to operate in several neighborhoods of the city of Rafah, destroying homes and evacuating residents to facilitate widening the buffer zone. Last week there were several shooting incidents. Islamic State fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades at Egyptian military forces in the midst of their work, also firing at them with light weapons.
Northern Sinai residents believe that the Egyptian army plans to uproot all the homes in Rafah and disperse thousands of its residents to various locations in Sinai, thereby ensuring its control of northern Sinai and the defeat of the Islamic State.
In the northern Sinai city of El-Arish as well, the Egyptian army has begun a large-scale endeavor of building a five-kilometer security zone around the city’s airport. About a month ago Islamic State terrorists tried to assassinate the visiting Egyptian defense minister and interior minister by firing an antitank missile from one of the fields adjoining the airport. The missile struck a helicopter not long before the two officials boarded it.
The Egyptian army plans to annex about half the territory of El-Arish to the new security zone, and has already begun destroying homes and fields and evacuating residents.
On February 7, the Shehab News Agency reported that the Egyptian army had put all the hospitals in the city of Ismailia on a state of alert, anticipating an influx of wounded. Ismailia is about 200 kilometers from El-Arish, and the army’s assessment is that El-Arish residents will resist evacuation with acts of extreme violence.
The Egyptian chief of staff’s exact plans still are not clear. Northern Sinai residents, however, in light of the large size of the forces brought to northern Sinai in recent days and the launching of the engineering works, are deeply apprehensive.
Sisi has tried unsuccessfully for four years to eradicate terror in Sinai. In recent months the Islamic State contingent has been reinforced by hundreds of experienced fighters from Syria and Iraq after the group’s defeat in the battles there, and these fighters come with advanced weaponry.
Sisi cannot yet boast significant achievements in this war. As the presidential elections approach, he needs security achievements that he can display to the Egyptian people, even though his victory in the elections is assured since only one candidate is running against him.
Does erasing Rafah from the map and completing the expanded buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza constitute an image of victory that the Egyptian president wants to tout in the run-up to the elections? The answer may be yes. Sisi intends to visit the area when the tasks are finished, and he may declare the defeat of the northern Sinai terror and ask the Egyptian people to restore their trust in the country’s defense establishment.
The Islamic State is believed to have about 1,000 fighters in the area. According to a February 7 report on Egypt’s Aman website, the group’s leader in northern Sinai is Rassem Abu Jazar, who gained extensive combat experience in Syria. Although the group announced that Abu Jazar had been killed in Syria, an interrogation of members of an Islamic State cell captured last week by the Egyptian army revealed that this was an attempt to cover his tracks.
The Islamic State’s fighters are skilled at guerrilla warfare, and Bedouin sources in northern Sinai report that ISIS is well aware of the Egyptian army’s plans and is planning to move its operations to the northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zawid.
It will take another few weeks to know whether the Egyptian chief of staff has fulfilled President Sisi’s goal of wiping out terror in northern Sinai. It appears that bloody fighting is imminent.