Security

Year in review: Egypt pushed back terror threat in 2016

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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The Egyptian army displays a cache of weapons, ammunition and other equipment it seized from militants in Sinai. [Photo courtesy of Egyptian Armed Forces]

Egyptian security forces have charted significant progress this year in their battle against extremist fighters and groups, including "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) affiliate Wilayat Sinai, officials tell Al-Mashareq.

During an extended military operation in Sinai, Egyptian forces killed numerous militants and destroyed their arms caches, almost completely expelling them from population centres and forcing them to flee into the desert, they said.

The military operations in Sinai are being conducted under the emergency law, which was extended for three months in November .

The year 2016 also saw reprisal attacks carried out by extremist groups, with assassinations targeting civilians as well as Muslim and Christian clerics and the bombing of a Coptic church in Cairo.

Experts told Al-Mashareq these attacks were a response to losses in North Sinai and an attempt to take the fight outside the peninsula to thwart security efforts.

"Terror groups have suffered heavy losses during confrontations with the Egyptian army and security forces in northern Sinai in 2016, with the Egyptian side raiding most of the terrorist hideouts that are located close to residential areas, in addition to air raids targeting terrorist vehicles," said terror group expert Maj. Gen. Yahya Mohammed Ali, a retired Egyptian military officer.

During one of the army’s largest operations, launched November 18th near the North Sinai provincial capital of al-Arish, 18 militants were killed in one strike, he told Al-Mashareq.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, "investigations and raids resulted in the detention of a large number of terrorists", Ali said, noting that more than 300 individuals are now standing trial in Cairo for belonging to Wilayat Sinai.

Sinai tribes stand with army

The year 2016 was a good one in terms of capturing extremists and stamping out terrorism, particularly in the north of the peninsula, said Brig. Gen. Jawdat Ashraf of the Egyptian police, who is stationed in Sinai.

"Right now, clashes are only occurring close to the cities of al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid," he told Al-Mashareq.

"Terrorist groups have sustained heavy losses in numbers and ammunition," he said. "Terrorists also were trapped in desert areas far from residential locations in which they used to take refuge."

Over the course of the year, he added, there has been "strong collaboration between the army and Arab tribes in the region, which declared on more than one occasion that they stand against terrorism".

Some tribes, such as al-Tarabin, have been clashing with extremist fighters, particularly in remote enclaves far from populated areas, he said.

"The Sinai Tribes Union was created to work together with the armed forces to confront the terrorists," Ashraf said, adding that the army, as part of the third phase of Operation Martyr's Right, captured dozens of extremists and collaborators and killed several militant leaders.

Among them was Wilayat Sinai commander Abu Duaa al-Ansari, who was killed on August 4th , he said.

Violent reprisals harm civilians

As they came under increasing pressure in Sinai, extremists carried out a number of deadly attacks in the peninsula and elsewhere, particularly Cairo and Giza, said military expert Maj. Gen. Talat Mousa, a retired military officer.

The deadliest of these targeted Saint Peter and Saint Paul Coptic Church near Saint Mark's Cathedral in Cairo on December 11th, killing 26 people , including many women, and wounding around 80 others.

Extremist groups have targeted civilians, clerics, churches and mosques, Mousa said, which indicates that "most of these operations are reprisals in retaliation for the losses that they have been suffering in Sinai".

Through these acts of terror, he said, extremists are attempting to take the battle from northern Sinai to other provinces in order to divert the attention of the security forces from Sinai and ease the pressure on extremists there.

Other attacks include a January 8th incident at Bella Vista Hotel in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada where three tourists were stabbed and Egyptian forces killed one of the assailants; the June 30th assassination in al-Arish of the Rev. Raphael Moussa, which was claimed by ISIL; as well as a failed assassination attempt targeting Egypt's former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa on August 5th .

On November 20th, ISIL claimed it had executed two Sufi clerics, Sheikh Sulaiman Abou Harraz and Sheikh Qutaifan al-Mansouri.

Ongoing efforts to combat terrorism

Outreach efforts to instill moderation undertaken by Al-Azhar Institute and the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments in 2016 reached "all the mosques in Sinai", said Sheikh Rajeh Sabri of the Ministry of Religious Endowments.

Al-Azhar has dispatched religious advocacy caravans in Egypt and around the world to correct misconceptions about Islam. Within Egypt, the efforts of Al-Azhar are focused mainly in North and South Sinai.

These efforts were successful in curbing the spread of religious lessons that incite violence, which extremists use to spread deviant ideology.

"Efforts to fight terrorism and prevent it from becoming mainstream from an ideological and religious perspective complement military efforts," he told Al-Mashareq.

The Rev. Sameh Iskandar of Mar Mina church in Giza told Al-Mashareq that "2016 was a difficult year in the fight on terrorism".

Extremists have been trying to divide Muslims and Christians by targeting Christian clerics and the members of Egypt's Christian congregations, he said.

"In spite of such efforts, Christians know the truth behind plans to destabilise the country and spread division, which is why [terrorist] efforts have failed, as Egyptians stand side by side, regardless of religious affiliation," he said.

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