Egypt Western Desert attack exposes front outside Sinai

From Reuters - November 7, 2017

CAIRO (Reuters) - A deadly attack on the police in Egypts Western Desert claimed by a new militant group risks opening up another front for security forces far beyond the remote northern Sinai, where they have battled a stubborn Islamic State insurgency since 2014.

A little-known group called Ansar al-Islam claimed responsibility for the Oct. 21 attack. Analysts and security sources said the heavy weapons and tactics employed indicated ties to Islamic State or more likely an al Qaeda brigade led by Hesham al-Ashmawy, a former Egyptian special forces officer turned jihadist.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has already suggested fighters from Islamic State will move into Egypt and neighboring Libya now that the group in on the retreat in Iraq and Syria after a string of losses.

Security is key for Sisi, a former military commander who presents himself as a bulwark against Islamist militants, as he looks set to seek re-election next year.

Claims of a new front with possible ties to Ashmawy and al Qaeda would increase risks the security forces face in the Western Desert, where militants can already take advantage of the terrain and the porous Libyan border, security sources, analysts and residents say.

Two security sources and a medical source said evidence showed one militant killed in a follow-up raid was a former military officer and second-in-command to Ashmawy, whose allegiance switched from Islamic State in the Sinai to al Qaeda, and who has been based in Libya since 2014.

If he has been involved with what appears to have been a heavily armed and wholly unexpected operation on the Egyptian side of the Egypt-Libya border, thats of great concern, said H.A. Hellyer, an Egypt expert and senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

An interior ministry official said he could neither confirm nor deny the validity of the Ansar al-Islam claim as it was being investigated. Prosecutors are also investigating the attack.

Two Homeland Security officers said militants in the Western Desert appeared more professional than in Sinai. The officers, who work on gathering intelligence, said militants tied to Ashmawy could draw on experience of members who once were in the Thunderbolt elite army unit, or former police.

Ashmawy and four other former officers have experience in fighting, surveillance, and planning so the group they have with them is dangerous, one officer said, referring to Ashmawys brigade commanders.


It remains unclear exactly what happened when an Egyptian police convoy ran into an apparently well-planned ambush by a heavily armed militant group in a remote, desert area 135 km (85 miles) southwest of Cairo.

Three security sources told Reuters at the time that dozens of police officers and conscripts were killed. But the interior ministry refuted that figure the next day and said 16 police and conscripts died, including some high-ranking officers.

One part of the operation was hit by rockets and heavy weapons, officials and sources said. The lead and rear vehicles were hit first, immobilizing the convoy, security sources said.

On Oct. 28, the interior ministry replaced several senior security officials in charge of the area where the attack happened, including a homeland security chief and a Giza province security chief, though no reason was given.

On Oct. 31, the army launched air strikes against the militants it said were responsible, killing dozens and rescuing a kidnapped and wounded policeman.

The new group gave no evidence of its Oct. 21 claim, and it said the oasis attack was the start of a campaign against Sisis government. It gave a list of grievances but no evidence on the size of its operations or its abilities.

Ansar al-Islams statement was carried by another group with al Qaeda links, Guardians of Sharia, whose social media feeds also carry statements from al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri.

Three security sources in the Giza area said they believe the attack may have been the work of Ashmawys militants.



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