Egypt’s terror fight not over after killing ISIS emir

Ansari’s killing is the latest operation targeting senior ISIS leaders that could significantly weaken the group.

The killing of Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai Abu Fares al-Ansari was a significant blow to the militant group but by no means represents the end of its presence in Egypt, security analysts said.

“The killing of this man will negatively affect the terrorist group for a long time to come,” said Khaled Okasha, a member of the Supreme Counterterrorism Council, an advisory body of the Egyptian presidency. “Terrorist organisations depend on their leaders to a great deal in securing financing and logistical support and contacts with regional or international sponsors.”

Ansari, the Islamic State emir in the North Sinai city of Rafah, was hiding in the southern part of the city with five other senior ISIS fighters when he was killed in an Egyptian Army raid.

In his late 30s, Ansari was said to have masterminded numerous ISIS attacks against the Egyptian Army and police in Rafah and nearby areas.

His killing is part of a campaign by Egypt’s security establishment to push ISIS’s remaining presence into a small area in the northern part of the territory, which shares borders with Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

Egypt massed tens of thousands of troops in Sinai with the aim of eradicating ISIS in 2018. The drive to vanquish ISIS Sinai, a home-grown militant group made up mostly of Sinai Bedouins and jihadist Salafists from Gaza, continues.

ISIS Sinai swore allegiance to late ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014, helping it secure logistical and financial support as well as a continual supply of militants, including from abroad.

That enabled ISIS Sinai to carry out lethal attacks, killing and wounding dozens of army troops, officers and police.

The security establishment’s efforts to root out the group include an all-out siege of some parts of the territory.

The Egyptian Navy conducts round-the-clock patrols of Sinai’s coast to prevent ISIS from receiving supplies via the sea. The Egyptian Air Force also continually patrols the skies above North Sinai, sometimes launching drone attacks on ISIS strongholds in the mountains.

“These efforts are noticeably succeeding,” said Muneer Adeeb, an expert on Islamist movements. “ISIS is now less capable of staging attacks, which shows that the terrorist group has already lost most of its power.”

Since early January, ISIS has been blamed for only three attacks in North Sinai, including sabotage against a pipeline that carries Israeli gas to Egypt. In 2019, ISIS Sinai staged 45 attacks, down from 169 attacks in 2018.

Ansari’s killing is the latest operation targeting senior ISIS leaders that was said to significantly weaken the group. However, it is unclear how much damage his death will do to the group.

Okasha said the loss of senior leaders often causes organisational and hierarchical confusion.

“They (the leaders) are the point of contact between the group on one hand and financial and logistical sponsors on the other,” Okasha said. “They know all the secrets and scarcely share these secrets with junior militants.”

Other branches of ISIS have proven resilient even after suffering major blows. After Baghdadi was killed by US troops in Syria in October 2019, the organisation was able to regroup and restructure.

There are indications that ISIS Sinai will maintain a presence even after the killing of Ansari.

One reason is that many members of the group are local militants, including former members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sinai Bedouins who are familiar with the landscape of the territory.

Many members live in remote, mountainous regions of North Sinai, sometimes among ordinary residents. Security analysts said this makes it more difficult for army troops to trace and target militants.

“The presence of the militants among ordinary Sinai residents also makes it hard for army troops to carry out its job freely,” said security expert Gamal Mazloum. “In most cases, the army fails to stage attacks on the terrorists, simply because the hiding places of the terrorists are close to population concentrations.”