The recent Wahat terrorist incident in Egypt’s Western Desert is the latest chapter in the series of attacks that have plagued the country and which had taken place through its western front.
The attack left 16 policemen dead and observers associated with security authorities told Asharq Al-Awsat that this region has become “a new theater for terrorism in Egypt.”
This front can be added to the traditional hub of northern Sinai where the Egyptian army has been waging a fierce war against armed groups that are affiliated with the ISIS terrorist organization.
In the past three years alone, the uninhabited Western Desert, which represents two thirds of Egypt’s size, has witnessed no less than eight major terrorist attacks that have left more than 60 soldiers and officers and dozens of citizens dead.
The harsh terrain that makes up the majority of the desert has made it a suitable environment for terrorist groups to carry out their operations. In addition, it lies on the border with Libya, which is witnessing its own security turmoil. This has facilitated the infiltration of gunmen to Egypt despite the daily successes the army is achieving curbing their numbers.
Former members of the higher council of the armed forces Tarek al-Mehdi told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Of course, the terrorists have no permanent camps or gatherings, but the terrain there occasionally makes it an appropriate location to plan terror attacks.”
“The main danger of the Western Desert is the fact that it lies by the Libyan border that has for years been witnessing security and political chaos,” he explained.
The Egyptian army has been trying hard to control the border with Libya, but this mission has been complicated because there is no united Libyan army to control its side of the border.
Attention was first directed to the Western Desert with the emergence of the “Southern Giza” terrorist cell that was affiliated with the “Ansar Beit al-Maqdis” group in Sinai. Led by sacked army officer Hisham Ali Amshawi, the cell carried out a major attack on July 19, 2014 that killed 14 soldiers and members of the armed forces.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged its allegiance to ISIS in November 2014 and changed its name to the Sinai State group. Amshawi promptly announced his defection from the group and fled to Libya, where he announced the formation of the pro-al-Qaeda “Mourabiteen” group, kicking off a new phase of attacks in the Western Desert.
In December 2014, the Sinai State claimed responsibility for the murder of William Henderson, an American oil worker at the Apache company, after it had held him captive since August.
In August 2015, an Egyptian jet crashed due to a sudden malfunction while chasing gunmen in the Sitra region in the westernmost point in Egypt. Four members of the air force were killed and two others injured in the incident. That day, the army announced that it had destroyed four militant vehicles.
That same month, the Sinai State killed Croatian hostage Tomislav Salopek, whom they had kidnapped from the 6th of October city while he was headed to his job at one of the oil sites in the Wahat region.
The most infamous incident in that region however took place in September 2015 when Egyptian armed forces killed 12 mostly Mexican tourists it had mistaken for terrorists. The authorities explained their mistake by saying that the tourists were riding in four SUVs and that they were driving in a prohibited zone in Wahat while the army was pursuing terrorists.
While matters may have significantly calmed down in the Western Desert in 2016, 2017 marked the year in which the terrorist groups claimed major successes.
The year was kicked off by an ambush in Asyut that left eight policemen dead and two wounded. In late May, a bloodier assault took place in the Minya governorate when ISIS gunmen targeted a bus that was transporting Coptic Christian citizens, who were headed to the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor. Twenty-eight Christians were killed when the terrorists opened fire at the bus as it was crossing a road in the Western Desert.
In retaliation, the Egyptian army carried out air strikes against “terrorist gatherings in Libyan territories.” It said that the targets had taken part in the planning and execution of the Minya attack.
Official investigations revealed that the attack was executed by a group that called itself the “soldiers of the caliphate.” The group, led by fugitive Izzat Ahmed, had received training on how to carry out its attack in the Western Desert. Ahmed had communicated with his close associate, another fugitive, Amro Saad, in order to establish a new terror group to go ahead with operations in Egyptian provinces, said the investigations.
Saad was responsible for recruiting dozens of youths from the Minya region. Among them were suicide-bombers Mamdouh Amin and Mahmoud Hassan Mubarak, who had carried out the April 2017 church bombings in Alexandria and Tanta.
The latest of the Western Desert attacks took place in Wahat on October 20.
Member of the higher counter-terrorism and extremism council Khaled Akasha said that the investigations revealed that a dangerous terrorist cell is present in Wahat. It is responsible for planning and preparing a number of attacks in Egypt. It had taken up the region as a launchpad for attacks because of its close proximity to Cairo, Giza and main provinces in Upper Egypt.
Akasha told Asharq Al-Awsat that there were fears that the terror cell would soon carry out attacks, so security forces decided to direct a preemptive raid to abort any assault. The Interior Ministry said that 11 officers, four recruits and a policeman were killed in the attack. Thirteen officers and soldiers were wounded, while one officer remains unaccounted for. The police announced that 15 gunmen were killed in the ensuing battle.
The Western Desert stretches between the Nile Valley and Delta in the east and Egypt’s border with Libya in the west. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea in the north and Egypt’s border with Sudan in the south. The mostly hilly desert region stretches some 600 kilometers from west to east and 681 kilometers from north to south.
Security and strategic expert in international terrorism Hatem Saber told Asharq Al-Awsat that the terrorists have shifted their area of operations from northern Sinai to the Wahat desert after their supplies were cut in Sinai.
He blamed regional powers, starting with Qatar, of backing these groups.
Saber explained: “The successes of the Egyptian army in Sinai and its cornering of these armed groups to an area of no more than 1.5 percent of the province, were among the factors that forced these organizations to search for new regions to exploit and execute their terrorist attacks.”
For his part, Mehdi said that the majority of the terrorists that perform attacks against the military or police force in the Western Desert usually come from abroad. They take advantage of the vast expanse of the desert to execute these plans.
“There are no permanent terrorist camps or gatherings and they can be easily be detected by Egyptian jets that regularly patrol the borders,” he continued.
The border between Egypt and Libya stretches some 1,100 kilometers and Cairo is carrying the burden of securing it due to the chaos in Libya.
Former head of Morale Affairs at the Egyptian armed forces Samir Faraj said: “Libya represents a direct danger to Egyptian national security.”
“The majority of terrorists from all over the world are currently fighting in Libya. Some are trying to enter Egyptian territories through the porous borders,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Except for al-Salloum and Siwa, there are no cities or residential areas along the whole Egyptian-Libyan border.
The Egyptian military has on many occasions throughout the year succeeded in thwarting militant infiltration from Libya into Egypt.
On October 23, the army announced that the air force had stopped such an infiltration, destroying eight SUVs and the weapons and explosives they were carrying, as well as killing a number of terrorists onboard.
Saber believed that the security forces will be able to eliminate the terrorists from the border areas after they managed to seize control of mountainous regions. They are now left exposed in open desert instead of lying hiding in residential areas, he explained.