Egypt Western Desert attack exposes front outside Sinai

CAIRO: A deadly attack on the police in Egypt’s 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 IS insurgency since 2014.
A little-known group claimed responsibility for the October 21 attack.
Analysts and security sources said the heavy weapons and tactics employed indicated ties to IS or more likely an Al Qaeda brigade led by Hesham al Ashmawy, a former Egyptian special forces officer turned militant.
President Abdel Fattah al Sisi has already suggested fighters from IS will move into Egypt and neighbouring 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 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 IS 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, that’s 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 group’s 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 Ashmawy’s 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 southwest of Cairo.
Three security sources said 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, immobilising the convoy, security sources said.
On October 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. — Reuters