The growing insurgent threat in Egypt’s Western desert

The growing insurgent threat in Egypt’s Western desert

Egypt faces a growing threat of militancy in its Western desert as combat-hardened Sunni extremists have been solidifying their positions along the Libyan border.

Egypt’s no man’s land

On 20 October 2017, militants ambushed and killed a group of Egyptian army officers near al-Wahat in the Western desert. The Egyptian state tried to cover up the scope of the bloodbath and quickly responded with air strikes. In January, three anonymous military officers spoke out and confirmed that the situation in Egypt’s no man’s land is far worse than the state is willing to admit. The group “Ansar al-Islam” have since claimed responsibility for the attack. While the group is small, it is well-organised, moves freely across borders with the help of local tribes and operates clandestine networks in the Egyptian military. If the organisation continues to grow and recruit foreign fighters to its ranks, it will likely evolve into a regional security threat.

Ansar al-Islam

Egypt is currently fighting an Islamic State-affiliated insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. However, while militants are identifying as an ally of the Sunni extremist group, they are often badly trained and physically trapped between the Egyptian army and Israel’s hard border. Ansar al-Islam, by comparison, is comprised of individuals with a skilled military background. The group was originally formed as a clandestine network of army officers who tried to assassinate the country’s interior minister in 2013. In 2015, the organisation succeeded in killing Egypt’s main prosecutor in a car bomb.

With its members consisting of former well-trained security personnel, Ansar al-Islam represents a greater threat than the laymen-warfare that Egypt’s military is facing in the Sinai. The group’s current leader Hisham al-Ashmawy has even served in Egypt’s Special Forces.

In recent months, Ansar al-Islam has launched a successful recruitment campaign through its networks within the army. This has resulted in over 30 officers joining the group. Simultaneously, hundreds of officers and soldiers in lower ranks were released from duty due to their radical Islamist views.

Ansar al-Islam has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). Although this alliance is likely to be a symbolic act, it grants the group access to AQIM networks as well as al-Qaeda operational expertise for large-scale operations and recruitment purposes.

Extremism in Egypt’s Western desert

Egypt never managed to exercise full control over its Western regions and with the fall of Muhammad al-Gaddafi in Libya the no man’s land between Egypt, Libya and Tunisia has become a safe haven for extremist groups.

In July 2014, militants attacked a checkpoint in Farafra and left 21 dead. In January 2017, unknown militants attacked the Naqab checkpoint in the Western Desert between Assiut and the New Valley, killing eight police officers. Four months later, militants slaughtered 29 Copts on their way to a monastery in a desert road west of Minya.

At the same time, from 2014 to 2017, the group Ansar al-Sharia lost ground in Libya. Ansar al-Sharia is a Salafi-jihadi organisation that gained publicity through their attack on the US consulate in Benghazi 2012, after which they surfaced in the Libyan chaos. They pledged allegiance to AQIM and began to conquer territories around Benghazi in Eastern Libya.

However, General Haftar’s operation “Dignity” pushed the militants back until the group officially dissolved on 27th May 2017. Ansar al-Sharia even had an active branch in Tunisia, whose members were responsible for the mass shooting in Sousse on 26 June 2015 that left 38 tourists dead.

The regional threat

It is worth noting that both branches of Ansar al-Sharia were directly associated with AQIM and almost certainly exchanged members and knowledge through established AQIM networks. A militant who was captured by Egyptian security forces during the raids that followed the massacre on 20 October reported that six of the men responsible for massacring the 29 Copts in May 2017 temporarily joined a Libyan jihadi group. This seems to confirm the growing relationship between the Libyan and Egyptian jihadi networks. The timing did not seem surprising, considering that Haftar tightened its grip on Eastern Libyan cities at the same time.

While Ansar al-Islam lacks the capacity to influence the outcome of Egypt’s elections or to pose an existential threat to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime survival, the threat is developing at a potentially high pace. If the group continues to grow, ceteris paribus, it will pose a serious threat to the Egyptian army and surrounding countries.

Foreign fighters and the growing threat

While the Islamic State is losing its last strongholds in the Levantine, some “rat-lines” remain intact. Since November 2017, thousands of jihadi fighters have managed to leave Syria and Iraq. Some of these experienced jihadis are likely to look for new battlefields to fight in, and between the Caucasus, the Philippines, Europe and the Sahara desert’s no man’s land, the latter seems preferable as it offers the opportunity to regroup. These newcomers will either “convert” to al-Qaeda or stay loyal to their old ISIS-masters and challenge AQIM.

In any case, violence is highly likely to soar, either through cooperation between the world’s most deadly terror groups or through competition between the two, as often seen between competing ideologically-charged groups.

Tunisian security is already on high alert. The killing of Bilel Kobi, the right hand of AQIM senior leader Abdul Wadud, confirmed that the terror organisation is regrouping and evolving rapidly in North Africa since the Islamic State’s setbacks in the Levantine. If this is true and Ansar al-Islam furthers its integration into AQIM command structures whilst equally using foreign fighters’ expertise, it will soon become a challenging threat.

A cocktail of war-hardened Libyan extremists, Egyptian military officers and AQIM expertise are now feeding into Ansar al-Islam’s operational abilities. Regardless of the exact behaviour of former IS fighters, security in the no man’s land between Egypt, Libya and Tunisia is almost certain to deteriorate. This means that the Egyptian state will pay an even higher price for its war on terror, both in terms of financial resources and human suffering.

About Author

Hauke Waszkewitz

Hauke Waszkewitz works as a project consultant in the events department of the German chamber of commerce in Tunisia. Prior to coming to North Africa, he worked as a research consultant for Action on Armed Violence where he analysed explosive violence and terrorism. Hauke holds a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Hamburg and an MA in Diplomacy from SOAS, University of London. His analyses focus on economic, political and security developments in North Africa.