A Daring Assassination Attempt Shows ISIS in Sinai Has the Ultimate Weapon: Intel

An air force helicopter was blown to pieces in a by-the-book military operation that could have seen two senior ministers killed. This was the latest in a string of attacks that could force Egypt – and Israel – to respond

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Screen grab of a video released last week by an ISIS-linked group in the Sinai Peninsula, in which a Kornet anti-tank missile is fired at an Egyptian air force helicopter near Al-Arish.
Screen grab of a video released last week by an ISIS-linked group in the Sinai Peninsula, in which a Kornet anti-tank missile is fired at an Egyptian air force helicopter near Al-Arish.Credit: Wilayat Sinai
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A video released late last week by Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State offshoot in the Sinai Peninsula, got relatively little attention in the Israeli media. It shows a Kornet anti-tank missile being fired at an Egyptian air force helicopter parked at the military airport near Al-Arish. To the calls of “Allahu Akbar,” the missile hits the helicopter and blows it to smithereens.

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The explosion killed three people – one of the pilots, a security guard and the bureau chief of Egyptian Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy. The incident documented was not a terror attack, but an assassination attempt. The precision strike took place during a visit to the base by Sobhy and Egyptian Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar. The date and location of the visit were not announced in advance. It seems that Wilayat Sinai obtained intelligence information that exposed the minister to attack.

It’s not the first time that Wilayat Sinai, now the most lethal and effective branch of ISIS in the Middle East, has succeeded in attacking a well-secured target. Two years ago, in November 2015, a Russian passenger plane blew up in midair, shortly after it took off from the Sharm al-Sheikh airport carrying 224 people. All those on board were killed. It later emerged that Islamic State operatives had managed to put a bomb into the plane’s cargo hold along with the passengers’ luggage. The bombing was enough to destroy much of Sinai’s tourist trade, which was heavily reliant on charter flights from Russia.

>> Why the Arab World's largest army can't beat ISIS | Analysis >>

Wilayat Sinai has recently had a series of murderous successes. In each of the previous three years, some 500 Egyptian security personnel and civilians were killed in terrorist attacks by radical Islamists, led by the ISIS branch, in Sinai. This year, the number could be much higher, after the killing of 311 worshipers in the attack at the Al Rawda Sufi mosque in northern Sinai at the end of November. An analysis of the attack shows it was meticulously planned. A relatively large number of armed terrorists stormed all the windows and doors of the building and shot the worshipers at close range. As in other instances, the Egyptian authorities trumpeted the large number of fatalities among the terrorists, but the true number of ISIS losses is unclear.

But the most impressive attack initiated by Wilayat Sinai this year took place on July 7, at the Al-Najizat military camp some 10 kilometers from Nitzana on the Israeli side of the border. The camp, where a commando battalion is based, is situated near a Bedouin village. The organization distributed detailed videos documenting the attack, some of which were included in a propaganda video ISIS issued recently summing up its terror attacks in various countries during 2017.

Here, too, there are signs of meticulous planning in accordance with a cogent, calculated military doctrine. The terrorists initially placed obstacles on the roads leading to the military camp to prevent Egyptian reinforcements from reaching the area. Then a car bomb exploded at the base gate. The explosion caused many deaths and great confusion. As disorder reigned, dozens of terrorists in SUVs (Toyota 4X4s) equipped with heavy machine guns invaded the base and massacred the remaining soldiers.

Military forces and helicopters secure an area in North Sinai, Egypt, December 1, 2017.Credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS

More than 30 Egyptian soldiers, including the battalion commander, were killed. The Egyptian military released recordings from the military communications network in which the commander is heard declaring that he would not surrender. It seems he continued to fight until he was killed.

This ISIS attack was based on considerable intelligence and showed signs that the commanders were able to keep a tight rein on their forces. The group also worked to rescue and evacuate its wounded, demonstrating that this was not a suicide operation. The battle lasted nearly two hours. When Egyptian air force helicopters and jets arrived, the terrorists fled.

It was a by-the-book raid, differing little from the battle doctrine of any Western army – the isolation of the target, the deployment of holding and invasion forces, the collection of intelligence, orderly combat procedure and complete surprise. The entire incident was documented, as usual, by cameras from afar and by the terrorists’ helmet cameras.

Wilayat Sinai doesn’t have a particularly large number of fighters. Western intelligence sources estimate them as slightly more than a thousand and believe the number has grown by a few hundred over the past year with the migration of refugees from ISIS’ battles in Syria and Iraq, after the caliphates ISIS established in those countries collapsed. Sinai seems to be one of the main destinations for ISIS veterans. Alongside them are hundreds of Bedouin terrorists who are native to Sinai, dozens of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip who moved to Sinai, as well as terror operatives from the Caucasus countries. At the same time, Al-Qaida’s local branch in Sinai, known as Junud al-Islam, is showing signs of reemerging.

The series of deadly ISIS attacks will apparently require Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi to focus his security forces’ retaliation efforts on the organization’s strongholds. Sissi has already made several dismissals among the senior army brass and had already replaced the chief of general staff a few months ago due to previous failures. But the Egyptian regime’s problem is not confined to Sinai. The success of the jihadists in Sinai is inspiring radical operatives in Egypt itself. Egypt’s borders with Sudan and Libya are fairly porous and there are massive amounts of weapons being smuggled to terror groups within Egypt.

There are potential risks here for Israel as well. According to reports in the Arab media, Israel is assisting Egypt by providing intelligence information and with drone attacks against Wilayat Sinai. Israel has also permitted the entry into Sinai of Egyptian battalions with heavy equipment, an agreed-upon violation of the security appendix in the peace agreement between the two countries.

To date, except for the grave assault at Ein Netafim in 2011 and a failed attempt south of Kerem Shalom a year later, Sinai’s extremist groups have demonstrated little interest in Israeli targets. There have been rockets fired at Eilat and the southern Negev from time to time, but there have been no attempts at more sophisticated attacks. The Israeli security establishment, however, is preparing for the possibility of cross-border raids like the attacks on the mosque and the Egyptian military camp, in which there could be an attempt to breach the border fence and reach a nearby settlement, taking advantage of the knowledge and experience accumulated by Wilayat Sinai in recent years.

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