By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Egyptian security forces suffered significant losses last week when they attempted to raid an alleged hideout belonging to the Islamic State. Official sources have placed the death toll at between 16 and 55 police officers killed in the operation.
The Independent, a British news service, reports that at least 54 police officers were killed in the raid, which took place just south of Cairo and was led by senior counterterrorism officials after intelligence indicated an IS presence there.
Beyond that there is little verifiable information regarding the raid. That suggests the government is keeping a tight lid on details of the raid.
Some Sources Say Poor Planning Doomed the Operation
There are plenty of recriminations in the Egyptian government and press regarding the raid, but some sources say poor planning doomed the operation. Additionally, other unconfirmed reports suggest that the police ran out of ammunition and the Interior Ministry failed to procure support from the military. Although we don’t know the full scope of what went wrong in this particular operation, the results are actually somewhat anomalous.
The Egyptian military and police have been far from perfect in battling al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Yet, the last two years have shown a demonstrable improvement in their efforts. Mass casualty attacks have decreased somewhat; at the very least their numbers are an improvement over the 2013-2015 timeframe.
That isn’t to say that Egypt will eradicate the terrorist presence within its borders anytime soon; however, Cairo has managed to enlist support from internal and external sources that will certainly help in its counter-terrorism efforts.
Perhaps most notably, the Tarabin tribe of the northern Sinai issued a call to assist the government in its fight against the foreign terrorist organizations operating in the area. Tarabin representative Musa al-Dalah offered a balanced interview regarding the call to arms, although his claim that foreigners conduct nearly 80% of the terrorist activity is difficult to verify.
Islamic State Hasn’t Been Able to Control Any Territory in Egypt
It is important to note that the Islamic State hasn’t been able to politically or militarily control any territory within Egypt even though the group has been operating there for more than five years. IS has managed to recruit some local youth, but its message has largely been rejected by the indigenous tribes.
Egypt has also been successful in stemming cross border activity originating from Libya. Granted, their shared border is the inhospitable Libyan Desert. But that has not prevented everything from terrorist activity to smuggling from taking advantage of the sparsely populated region.
UN-Backed Libyan Government Has Struggled to extend its Mandate beyond Tripoli
Libya has been politically unstable since the fall of long-time strongman Muammar Gadhafi. At the same time, the UN-backed government has struggled to extend its mandate beyond Tripoli.
Another actor, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, has led his personal military known as the Libyan National Army to some success in disrupting the Islamic State’s presence in eastern Libya. Haftar labels nearly all of his opponents as terrorists, and his human rights record is atrocious. But his presence around Benghazi has affected cross-border activities into Egypt.
This shouldn’t be construed as suggesting that the two parties are colluding, yet Egypt has had success in disrupting movements of militants and arms coming in from Libya. Disrupting these movements over a vast area is certainly difficult and good intelligence from Libya can be helpful.
Egypt will ultimately have to reconcile its own human rights abuses during this counterinsurgency campaign. In fact, these abuses have undermined the distribution of U.S. aid and can roll back the gains made by the Cairo government with tribes in the Sinai or the people in the south around Luxor and Aswan.
Internationally, Egypt can make positive strides by severing its relationship with North Korea and softening its approach to foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Domestically, Egypt must continue to improve its approach to counterterrorism, as the botched raid clearly shows, and also generally improve its human rights record.
Egypt has made some strides in its counterterrorism fight. The situation remains difficult but not impossible.