This past Friday, a number of armed militants and 52 police officers and conscripts were killed during a raid on a suspected militant hideout in Egypt’s western desert. According to Egypt’s interior ministry, security forces had been following a lead to the hideout, which is believed to have housed eight suspected members of the militant group Hasm—one of two Islamic insurgent groups, which have carried out targeted attacks against both judges and security forces since last year. The shootout, which took place in the al-Wahat al-Bahriya district in the Giza governorate near Cairo, began when a convoy consisting of four SUVS and an Egyptian interior ministry vehicle was ambushed from higher ground by militants firing rocket-propelled grenades and detonating explosive devices. The militants then tried to flee after the exchange of fire and continued to shoot at a second security unit called in for back-up from atop neighbouring buildings. The number of deaths is expected to rise, according to security sources, who also revealed that eight security personal were injured during the shootout. The interior ministry’s statement added that security forces were continuing to comb the area. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The response to the shootout has been swift, with the US State Department issuing a statement on Saturday in which it said that the US “strongly condemns the terrorist attack against Egyptian security forces near the Bahariya Oasis” which “killed dozens of Egyptian personnel and wounded many others.” The statement also read that “the United States stands with Egypt at this difficult time, as we continue to work together to fight the scourge of terrorism.” Official statements and accounts by the Egyptian government regarding Friday’s events have been few so far, although unofficial accounts do exist of what may have happened at the time of the attack. For example, two officials speaking on condition of anonymity have said that, since the attack, police likely ran out of ammunition and the militants captured several policeman and later killed them. They also said the police force appeared to have fallen into a carefully planned ambush. The death toll could increase, they added. If so, this would make Fridays shootout the deadliest in recent years. It is likely that over the next coming days a clearer picture will emerge regarding the exact number of deaths.
In the meantime, it is clear that the shootout is the latest chapter in an ongoing Islamist insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Egypt has faced numerous terrorist attacks by insurgents, including Islamic State affiliate Wilayat Sinai, ever since the 2013 overthrow of the former Egyptian President Morsi by the country’s military. Hasm Movement, another one of the groups behind the attacks and possibly this most recent one, has been accused by the military of being the militant wing of Morsi’s outlawed group, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood denies this, though some Hasm members are said to be members of the Brotherhood who now favour violent means to oppose the government. Nevertheless, a fact that cannot be denied is that the insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula has claimed hundreds of lives ever since. The attacks, which appear to be specific in nature, have focused mainly on Coptic Christian churches, policemen, soldiers and tourists. Just last month, another terror attack claimed the lives of 18 policemen when a suicide bomber targeted their convoy near Arish, the provincial capital of northern Sinai. The attack was claimed by Wilayat Sinai, which speaks to the scale of the task ahead for security forces since there are multiple militant groups operating in the region at the moment.
Egypt has been under a state of emergency since April of this year, and remains so as a result of the increased number of terror attacks it has experienced in recent times. Due to its importance as a military power—it is considered the strongest in the African continent—along with the distinction of being a beneficiary of significant US military and economic aid. Such a position of strength comes with expectations of course, and could be justified is asking if the current strategy/effort is adequate enough. Are the local forces, who have been dealt serious blows over the past few years, ready or capable to deal with this particular situation? Have they underestimated the militants’ appeal (the insurgent groups include former members of the Egyptian military who are angry over the 2013 coup) and staying power in the Sinai Peninsula. The need to eliminate such doubts is now heightened, in light of ISIS’ recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria, especially since there is a danger that splinter groups and affiliates may become more determined to increase their activities in other parts of the Middle East. In that sense, the Sinai peninsula is at risk of becoming a hotbed of insurgent activity since it is lightly populated and provides pre-existing social, economic and cultural conditions waiting to be exploited by groups like Hasm and Wilayat Sinai (the IS affiliate in the peninsula).
Also, what makes the Sinai so special is the fact that it shares a 240 km border with Israel (another key US ally in the region). That fact speaks to the wider significance of the instability this insurgency could provoke in a region in need of the opposite. And not so long ago, a former Canadian commander of the multinational peacekeeping force in the region, Maj-General Denis Thompson, in an interview with the CBC, described the situation in the Sinai peninsula as a mirror-image of the situation in Afghanistan, where pre-existing grievances and conditions on the ground have helped fuel the Taliban insurgency in that country. The lessons and experiences from that insurgency in particular, is something the Egyptian security forces can take lesson from as they bid to stop their local militants from having the same sort of impact.
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