Giza Ambush Exposes Security Weakness in Egypt’s Hinterland
During the afternoon hours of October 20, an Egyptian special law enforcement unit stepped into a deadly ambush in an area along the road connecting 6th of October City to the Bahariya Oasis in the Giza Governorate, tentatively named “Kilo 135” after its distance from the two places. This is about as much as we can be sure of currently, as little information was made public in the long time since the event, and whatever was released was often contradictory. Low casualty figures, released by the Ministry of Interior (MoI) more than 24 hours after the incident concluded, speak of 16 dead security personnel and 13 wounded. Higher numbers, released by reputable sources quoting security officials, reached as high as 52 security personnel killed. The one common ground was that most of the casualties were officers, including a Brigadier General who was killed. While the figures vary widely, it is clear that the operation was a major debacle.
Many reports in the immediate aftermath of the event pinned the blame on Hasam, a militant group with inclinations to, and possible connections with the Muslim Brotherhood. Known for its operational capabilities, several quality attacks against governmental targets and security personnel, Hasam rose to prominence recently when it claimed the bombing of the Embassy of Myanmar in Cairo on October 1. Some sources even ventured to say Hasam claimed responsibility for the Kilo 135 incident, however no such claim was published (at least not as of the time of writing). In fact, there are more reasons to suspect the Islamic State (IS) at this point.
The area of Bahariya Oasis, and Egypt’s Western and Eastern Deserts as a whole, witnessed several militant attacks that were never claimed but were linked to IS. This most recently includes a suicide bombing on May 31 in the Bahariya Oasis, a modus operandi that fits the Jihadist group, but was never employed thus far by Hasam. Other incidents, like the May 26 Minya attack in which a convoy of Coptic Christians was ambushed, took an uncharacteristically long time to claim. These, in turn, are indicative of communication issues with IS cells operating in the Western and Eastern Deserts. As the Kilo 135 incident may amount to one of the largest security incidents in terms of casualties in Egypt’s recent history, it is “lucrative” to claim, hance the absence of a claim points towards a potential communication issue, or in other words- IS.
More importantly however, are the on-the-ground implications of the incident. The large number of casualties inflicted on security personnel, even when considering the lower official numbers, brings to light not only tactical mistakes on behalf of law enforcement forces, but the level of entrenchment and preparation militants were able to achieve in what is supposed to be sovereign Egyptian territory. First- on the site itself, establishment of pre-selected fields of fire and IEDs placed at anticipated avenues of approach created effective kill zones, indicating complete freedom of operation without fear of being exposed. But more so- quality intelligence in the form of prior information regarding the raid, which militants obtained at least by local informers and spotters, or at most by sources inside the security establishment, a case which would not be unprecedented.
These expose Egypt’s main security weakness- its inability to effectively police the country and its long borders, and the strong anti-government sentiments still harbored by many of its citizens, making them more willing to facilitate hostile activities. A big part of the former problem is due to the Sinai campaign, which has been ongoing at different capacities since 2011, forcing the security establishment to focus most of its assets and resources on the northern part of the peninsula. The latter is the result of the internal political turmoil that sparked the events of 2011 and 2013, and is still brewing under the surface.
Egypt has been bogged in the Sinai mud for almost 7 years now, and had only recently made positive advances after adapting a more proactive strategic approach to the insurgency- more effectively closing the border with Gaza and working with regional actors to cut off militants’ supply lines, yet still is a long way from resolving the situation. It will now have to look to apply the same measures in its hinterland, closing down its porous western and southern borders, in which cross-border illicit activity is plentiful, including arms trafficking from IS strongholds in Libya into Egypt, as well as IS fighters coming into Egypt from Libya and Sudan. To do so, Egypt have to increase its involvement with and in Sudan and Libya. However, as it will take more than 7 years to effectively secure the relatively small Sinai, it may take exponentially more time to achieve the same in the vast Western and Eastern Deserts.