Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts received a big boost on March 13 when Egyptian army troops succeeded in killing a senior commander of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Sinai. Abu Fares al-Ansari, the ISIS emir in the North Sinai city of Rafah, was reportedly hiding in the southern part of the city together with five other organization leaders when army troops raided the area. When they saw the troops approaching, al-Ansari and other ISIS militants opened fire, but the battle ended in the killing of al-Ansari along with five of his militants.
Al-Ansari was the mastermind of a large number of the attacks against the Egyptian army and Egyptian police in the past months. He is the latest in a long series of senior ISIS officers killed in Sinai in the past years since Egypt started cracking down on the terrorist organization in Sinai.
His killing will significantly weaken ISIS Sinai, but will not be enough to eradicate it or totally end its presence in the Egyptian territory, security analysts said.
“The problem is that terrorist activities are not usually contingent on one commander or another,” security expert Magdi Bassiouni said. “Terrorist organizations are always able to draw in recruits and compensate losses.”
Like-minded experts say the killing of ISIS caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019 weakened the terrorist organization. Nevertheless, al-Baghdadi’s killing did not cause the collapse or the end of his organization, they add.
The Formidable Threat of ISIS in Egypt
ISIS took root in Sinai in late 2014, when a homegrown terrorist organization known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Guardians of the al-Aqsa Mosque) swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
Since then, the terrorist organization has been growing and attracting recruits in Sinai. Some of the recruits arrived from the Gaza Strip through a network of smuggling tunnels between Sinai and the coastal Palestinian territory. Others arrived from Syria and Iraq at the orders of the ISIS leadership in the two countries to prop up the ISIS command in Sinai. ISIS staged a large number of attacks on Egyptian army and police posts in North Sinai. It also scared Christians out of some of North Sinai cities and made these cities no-go areas for members of various Sinai tribes.
The Egyptian army countered the rise in ISIS attacks by fiercely cracking down on the terrorist organization.
In February of 2018 the army launched an all-out operation against the organization Codenamed “Sinai 2018.” The operation included participation of all of Egypt’s military including the air force and the navy. It also included a comprehensive siege over Sinai to prevent the terrorists from either receiving supplies or escaping the Egyptian territory. The operation should have taken a few months to complete, but the army command had to extend it more than one time.
Success of Operation Sinai 2018
The operation is paying off, despite difficulties. The success of the operation is manifest in the noticeable drop in the number of attacks ISIS is able to carry out against army and police posts. Behind the drop in the number of attacks is the ability of the army and police to kill a large number of the commanders of ISIS, including senior commanders like al-Ansari.
In 2019, army troops killed 353 ISIS terrorists. They also seized 791 vehicles of different types and destroyed 268 four-wheel drives, according to official figures. On March 16, army troops killed six ISIS terrorists during a raid on their hideout in North Sinai.
The success of Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy in Sinai, observers said, boils down to the killing of the senior leaders of the terrorist organization.
“This contributed to the weakening of the terrorist organization to a great deal,” said Nabil Naeem, an expert in militancy. “The army and police are now dealing only with the junior officers of the organization after they killed most of its senior leaders.”