Egypt's options dwindling in its fight against militants

Yassin Taher (R), Ismailia governor, visits victims of the attack that targeted the Rawda mosque near North Sinai provincial capital of El-Arish. — AFP

CAIRO — The scale of the bloodshed was vastly higher than past militant attacks but the Egyptian government response the same: three days of mourning, reassuring messages in the media that things are under control, and the president promising vengeance.

The identical pattern in the aftermath of Friday's attack on a mosque in Sinai, which killed 305 people, raises the question whether Egypt has any options left in the fight against militants.

The military has thrown tanks, fighting vehicles, fighter-jets, warships and helicopter gunships along with tens of thousands of security forces in three years of conflict with extremists in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula.

The area has been under emergency law for several years and the entire country since April. Security forces have forcibly evacuated areas adjacent to the border with Gaza, razing residents' houses and farmlands. They have blown up underground tunnels that authorities believe militants used to smuggle weapons and fighters in Gaza.

The firepower and troop deployments in Sinai have kept militants from holding territory but have not prevented them from carrying out assassinations that terrorize the population and launching deadly attacks on military and police posts and convoys and recently a daylight robbery in Sinai's largest town.

In a televised address, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi pledged the use of "brute force" in response to Friday's attack. "The armed forces and police will forcefully take revenge for our martyred sons and restore security and stability in the short period ahead," he vowed.

Last month when Sissi removed the armed forces' chief of staff and top police generals after a planned attack on militants in the Western Desert went disastrously wrong. The operation left over a dozen counterterrorism police officers dead.

It also illustrated the problem posed by Egypt's long desert border with Libya — a country mired in chaos and rife with armed militant groups — through which weapons and fighters can be smuggled. That has fueled a second front of militant violence in the west, with signs of arms movements to the Sinai extremists.

Egypt's response has been in line with a longstanding model of fighting a conventional war against an opposing army. Indeed, recent years have seen up to $15 billion in arms deals, largely for big-ticket items such as two helicopter carriers, submarines, assault helicopters and fighter jets.

But critics have called for a counterterrorism strategy in Sinai rather than the reliance on a conventional deployment of overwhelming force. There are some trained counterterrorism soldiers and police deployed.

Warplanes and attack helicopters have limits in a rugged mountain terrain that the militants know far better than the military does. And forces moving with tanks and heavy vehicles are often ambushed by the more agile militants using light arms, machine guns, roadside bombs and suicide bombers.

Sisi recently said security forces are hampered by the presence of civilians in Sinai, requiring extreme caution which benefits the insurgents.

The militants brutally intimidate residents from cooperating with security forces, kidnapping suspected collaborators and dumping their decapitated bodies on the streets of El-Arish, Rafah and other north Sinai towns for all to see.

So the locals provide the military with little actionable intelligence.

One suggestion has been for the military to arm local Sinai tribesmen hostile to the militants.

The military, however, fears armed tribesmen could eventually turn against it.

Some believe the militants are gambling as they turn ever more brutal, risking a revolt by the populace.

Hassan Khalaf, a local tribal elder, said many of those killed were already cooperating with the army and that they were likely targeted as an intimidation tactic. "People are more determined now to stand against that inhuman and heartless bunch," he said. — AP