The Western Desert: The other front in the Egyptian ‘war on terror’

Since the military, armed with popular support, ousted former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, North Sinai has become the main arena where the so-called war on terror has played out. Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, a militant group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 and renamed itself Province of Sinai, has carried out most of the strikes in the area against the military and police.

After Province of Sinai pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, operations extended throughout Sinai and into the heart of the Nile Valley. The Islamic State, as well as other emerging organizations, such as Lewaa al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade), Hassm (Determination) and the special operations committees affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, started to target civilian and military facilities in Cairo, the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt.

Amid the conflict that played out between militants and Egyptian security forces, the Western Desert has emerged as a third front, one that was solidified after the Friday attack near the Wahat Road 135 km outside of Giza, which left over 50 police officers dead, according to a security source who spoke to Mada Masr. It is a figure that stands in contradiction to the death toll put out by the Interior Ministry in a Saturday statement, which asserted that 16 police officers and 15 militants had been killed in the clashes.

The Western Desert is a strategic location as it is adjacent to the Egyptian-Libyan border, across which arms and militants suspected of being affiliated with local Libyan Islamic State affiliates and Al-Qaeda groups have been smuggled.

Since Morsi was ousted, the Armed Forces have intercepted what it has said are a number of attempts to smuggle arms and four-by-four vehicles across the Egyptian-Libyan border. On July 27, 2013, an Armed Forces spokesperson announced that security forces had foiled an attempt to smuggle 200 shotguns and ammunition loaded onto four four-by-four vehicles in Tabaghbagh, the Hadouna Mountain and Ain Safi, to the east of the city of Siwa in the desert.

Official announcements concerning foiled smuggling attempts have continued to trickle in, with the number rising significantly this year. A notable instance occurred when the Armed Forces announced in May that the Egyptian Air Force conducted an airstrike targeting 15 vehicles carrying arms at the Egyptian-Libyan border in a military operation that stretched over almost 48 hours.

In June, the Armed Forces announced that it  had foiled a similar attempt to smuggle arms across the Egyptian-Libyan border when the Air Force destroyed a 12-car convoy that was loaded with weapons and ammunition.

Egypt’s anti-smuggling measures at the Libyan Egyptian border have not, however, prevented a number of militant operations from targeting them.

A notable example came in July 2014 when armed groups in the Western Desert attacked a military checkpoint 100 km away from Farafra city, killing at least 21 soldiers. The attack was claimed Al-Mourabitoun, an armed group led by Hesham Ashmawy, a former special forces military officer who was discharged from service in 2012. The group is suspected, among other organizations, of being responsible for the Friday assault.

In December of the same year, the Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the execution of William Henderson, an employee of the United States petroleum company Apache Corp, after he was kidnapped from the Western Desert. The operation took place in August, and the organization announced that Henderson had been killed four months later.

In August 2015, the Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the beheading of Croatian national Tomislav Salopek. Salopek, a petroleum engineer, was kidnapped from his house in the desert of 6th of October City in July of the same year, as he was heading to his work in a French-owned company in the Western Desert.

In June 2016, the Armed Forces announced that an unexpected assault launched by elements from armed smuggling groups left two officers and four conscripts dead. Security sources told the privately owned Al-Arabiya television channel that the attack had been launched in Ain Dalla, in the city of Farafra in the New Valley, and that three of the smugglers had been arrested.

Early in 2017, an attack on the Naqab checkpoint, located on the scenic route between the New Valley and Assiut, left eight policemen dead and two injured, after an security forces engaged with armed assailants. While no entity claimed responsibility for the attack, observers speculated it was either carried out by Ashmawy’s Al-Mourabitoun group, Hassm or Lewaa al-Thawra.

The Islamic State claimed a deadly attack on a bus carrying Coptic Christians traveling to the St. Samuel Monastery in Minya and that took place on a small road connected to the Western Desert Road. Twenty-eight people were killed in the attack.

In response, the Egyptian Armed Forces bombed a number of sites in Libya, which the Armed Forces said were “sites where terrorists were camped in Libya, after their involvement in the planning and execution of the despicable terrorist attack that targeted Minya earlier today was confirmed.”

The Egyptian airstrikes mostly targeted Derna, the city where the Qaeda-affiliated Mujahideen Shura Council is based, and Jufrah, where the Libyan National Army, headed by Egypt’s ally Khalifa Haftar was conducting a military campaign at the time.

The Mujahideen Shura Council issued a statement denying its involvement in the Minya attack. “The Mujahideen Shura Council in Derna … took no part in the assault on unarmed civilians in Egypt. The council only operates against armed militias that target the city, be that the [Islamic] State or Haftar-led forces. It is not MSCD policy to target unarmed civilians in Libya, much less in Egypt,” said the statement.

On May 31, four days after the attack on the bus, four Armed Forces personnel were killed in clashes with armed men in the Western Desert. The Armed Forces issued a statement saying that a military unit was sweeping the area when “a terrorist’s explosive belt detonated,” killing three officers and one conscript.

No entity has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Following the attack on the bus, the Interior Ministry said that an Islamic State-affiliated terrorist cell led by militant Amr Saad was responsible for the series of attacks against Copts outside of Sinai. The ministry added that the cell’s training camps were concentrated in the desert extension of a number of Upper Egyptian governorates, which had prompted security forces to undertake extensive operations there.

In August, the Interior Ministry announced that security forces killed three members of Saad’s cell in the New Valley Governorate as part of a campaign targeting the cell’s members that were believed to be camping in the desert extensions of Qena, Luxor, Sohag, Assuit and New Valley governorates.

In addition, the ministry announced that security forces killed eight people on July 23 whom it alleged were affiliated with Hassm. The men were killed during an exchange of fire in the desert extension of the Fayoum Governorate, after police attacked a “suspected training camp for the movement,” according to the Interior Ministry statement.

The Egyptian authorities’ fight against militant groups in the Western Desert has also been marked by a number of failures.

In August 2015, an Air Force aircraft unexpectedly malfunctioned and crashed while pursuing armed individuals in Setra, east of the Siwa Oasis, resulting in the death of four Armed Forces members and injuries to two others. An Armed Forces spokesperson stated that the military managed to destroy four vehicles used by the armed men and seize five more.

In September of the same year, Egyptian security forces mistook a tourist convoy for terrorists, killing 12 people and injuring 10 others, some of whom were Mexican tourists. According to a statement the Interior Ministry released at the time, those killed in the attack were driving four four-wheel drive vehicles in a restricted area. The statement asserted that the airstrike occurred “while a joint police and military force was pursuing terrorists in the Western Desert Oases.”

A month after the Mexican tourists were killed, security forces announced the death of 20 armed men and the arrest of 22 others in violent clashes between the Armed Forces and militants that, according to media reports, are affiliated with the Islamic State in Libya and were smuggled across the border. The clashes that occurred in the Western Desert extension of Assiut stretched on for over 48 hours and involved heavy weapons.

To combat the security threat to the west of the country, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi opened the Mohammed Naguib military base in Hamam city in Marsa Matrouh. Inaugurated on July 25, the base was described in news reports as the largest in Egypt and North Africa.

Translated by Salma Khalifa

Mai Shams El-Din 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism