I have numerous memories that date back to the end of the 1990s in Jabal Al-Halal, located 60 kilometres south of Al-Arish. We visited the mountain a few days ago after the elimination of terrorists who used to take shelter in it until mid-February. It was named “Halal” because of the camels and sheep that used to graze in the pastures surrounding the mountain.
I spent my military service near this mountain in the middle of Sinai, where we heard many stories about it. It was known to everyone that climbing this 1,000-metre-high mountain is very dangerous because of its extremely steep slopes and because of its rugged terrain that makes it difficult for anyone, but the experienced locals, to climb it.
Jabal Al-Halal is mainly inhabited by the Tarabin and Tiyaha tribes, who know all its paths and routes by heart and who live in huts by the mountain or in the mountain’s caves.
The initial terrorist linkage of Jabal Al-Halal
After I completed my military service and started working in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, which I co-founded, I heard again about this mountain, as it was linked to terrorist acts that targeted Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh in 2004 and 2005. Egyptian security forces raided Jabal Al-Halal for several months using helicopters, hundreds of soldiers, and heavy weapons to eliminate the terrorist elements hiding in it—it was then when myths spread about the difficulty of controlling it.
In 2012, the armed forces attacked the mountain again after the Rafah Massacre, which occurred in Ramadan, amid a wide military operation called “Eagle.” It was said that hundreds of militants were hiding there with their weapons and equipment.
The elimination of terrorists at the mountain
A few days ago, I was invited by the Department of Morale Affairs, affiliated to the armed forces, to participate in a visit to the highest point of Jabal Al-Halal, in the presence of a number of law-enforcement forces. I listened to the Egyptian soldiers, who spoke of their experience in confronting terrorists in the paths and caves of the mountain. The mount became a tourist attraction since the military operations ended the presence of terrorists at the beginning of March.
During our ride from Cairo to the Third Field Army headquarters, we talked with the Morale Affairs Department’s members, who spoke to us about the military operations carried out to take control over the mountain, as well as the importance of this step on the security and political level of Sinai. We stressed the importance of community support and solidarity with the army in the face of terrorist elements, as well as drying up the resources of terrorism and confronting the extreme thought with moderate Islamic ones. The officers asked us to deliver the accurate image of the situation in Jabal Al-Halal. They welcomed to answer any question about the military operation in the mountain. We asked them many questions, and they answered and explained the situation clearly.
It was not difficult for us to see the impact of the success of these military operations on the spirit of everyone at the third field army headquarters, where we were received by a number of military leaders who spoke about the importance of what happened in Jabal Al-Halal. They told us all about the huge efforts exerted by our fighters in the face of terrorism.
They added that terrorists could not confront our troops and that they no longer can target the military’s checkpoints in Sinai, pointing out that they used to target isolated checkpoints, but the army managed to avoid such mistakes.
Dealing with captives
The officers told us that arrested terrorists always deny their crimes, noting that they are different than Bedouins in terms of morals and beliefs. The military officers asserted that the military does not target the militant’s women and children. Actually, the army offers in-kind aid for these families, despite the army’s belief that the children who grow up at the hands of terrorists will not turn out to become good people. The officers added that, during the siege of Jabal Al-Halal, they monitored several calls between militants, which showed the decline of the militants’ morals. They added that injured militants are usually left by their colleagues to die.
The army said that more than 90% of the mountains in Sinai were completely cleared of terrorist elements, even though they may return or recruit new elements by brainwashing them or paying them money.
On the other hand, the army regularly contacts the families of martyrs and the wounded to check on their situation and provide them with the needs they require.
Major general Mohamed Raafat El-Dosh spoke about the details of Jabal Al-Halal’s military operation, noting that there is no unified plan for fighting the terrorists in Sinai.
He said that the first stage of the operations included the gathering of information about the militants’ hideouts inside the mountain, adding that Sinai’s Bedouins provided the military with enough information to control the mountain.
El-Dosh further added that the armed forces then deployed troops at several areas 5-8 km from the mountain to close all roads leading to and from the mountain. This siege was not noticed by terrorists—a move that contributed to cutting the supplies sent to the militants, resulting in arresting many of them. This siege lasted for four days.
He added that the army imposed a closer siege that lasted for six days at temperatures close to zero in mid-February. El-Dosh said that the militants were surprised and that they began to flee from the mountain. The army managed to arrest most of these, while the rest were ambushed.
Afterwards, the intrusion operations started, where nine battalions surrounded the mountain. Each group was responsible for a certain area, where they scanned it and arrested anyone who surrendered without resistance. The orders were clear: whoever points a weapon at our forces gets killed immediately.
The commander of the third field army said that the “Takfiri” elements soon realised that there is no way to escape, so they booby-trapped motorcycles and four-wheel-drive vehicles. However, the military was able to discover the booby traps and prevent them from exploding.
“We discovered places in which modern Toyota cars and motorcycles were stored, in addition to 24 caves in the mountain so that militants could hide during aerial attacks. Eight more caverns and two shooting fields, in addition to models to simulate the ambushes on the military, were discovered—in addition to a great stock of spare car parts, weapons, ammo, and materials used to prepare explosives,” the commander explained.
He added that cars mounted with guns were found, but those were seized by the forces. Uniforms with badges that read “Sinai Province” were found.
The commander explained that the criminal elements thought that the higher they went up the mountain, the harder it would be for our forces to follow them; however, the military has scanned each inch. The operation resulted in the killing of 18 terrorists and the arrest of 31 others. The forces have also eliminated large acres where narcotic plants were cultivated.
The commander told stories of fighters from the military who refused to return to the headquarters despite sustaining injuries. In fact, some of them did not even feel their injuries amid the clashes. Cooperation between field army forces will continue until Sinai is cleared of terrorists, according to the commander.
Our trip from the headquarters of the third field army to Jabal Al-Halal took several hours. We were in the company of several combat officers who explained how operations are done and how high the fighting spirits of the soldiers were. What caught my attention the most was the great technological ability that Egypt has to detect illegal positions and the identities of anyone who crossed the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel from the west to the east of the Suez Canal.
Checkpoints were numerous and very strict, but that did not affect the flow of traffic. The forces, whether from the police or army, were always alert.
Training is continuously carried out to prepare all soldiers to use all types of weapons and to improve their fighting skills, which has resulted in the great damage to terrorists.
The commander said that soldiers are now trained to use other weapons in case they lost their machine gun, such as the pistol or a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).
He revealed that all the vehicles that cross from the west to the east of the Suez Canal pass through an X-ray device.
Soon, the talk with the commander took a humane side. He revealed that he has a son and daughter who are both less than nine years old; however, he said that he does not get to see them often because of the irregular dates of holidays. He stressed that soldiers take longer holidays today than they did before. Because he lives on the ground of the confrontations with terrorism, he took us back to the talk about clearing Jabal Al-Halal. He said it took 16 days that involved several sieges, followed by attacks, scans, and clearing the mountain.
Our cars stopped at a point near the mountain. There, we boarded armoured cars and headed to the mountain, which we were curious about the whole time during out trip.
We were received by several fighters, whose features we could not recognized but whose spirits we were able to feel after they had eliminated the remnants of terror from the mountain. The groups’ leader started talking to us, saying “the good in the mountain was brought back again. The citizens of Sinai can now return with their sheep to the mountain all they want.”
The leader of the fight groups explained the siege and attack operations, saying all paths leading up to the mountain were closed, where no one and nothing could come in or out. After the terror elements were drained, physically and mentally, they were eliminated. Large amounts of explosives were found afterwards.
He concluded by saying that fighters receive constant calls from the commander-in-chief, the staff chief, and leaders of weapons and armies to check on them and improve their spirits, which helps them accomplish the mission.
The trip was filled with stories about fighters who were injured and others who died. They told us about a fighter who was injured and refused to leave his position unless he killed the group he was attacking. Another refused to let go of his weapon and continued to fight until he returned. The mother of another fighter passed away while he was in the operation, and he refused to receive condolences until after the end of the operations.
They told us a story about a soldier whose right hand was injured, so he decided to train using his left hand to continue carrying a weapon. Another one had lost the fingers of his right hand and refused to leave the army services until after the completion of the operations in Sinai.
They have stressed that the fame of Jabal Al-Halal has exaggerated things even though there are many other mountains that are far more dangerous and that were cleared from terror elements but were unheard of. Through the help of our escorts, we were able to obtain more information about the operations carried out in Jabal Al-Halal and the nature of the mountain, as well as the upcoming steps to completely clear Sinai from all terrorism.
We returned by night, but we had no fear, thanks to the safety of Sinai that has been maintained with the efforts of the fighters, making Sinai return to being a safe homeland that can result in a huge economic transition for Egypt in the near future.
Photos Army Handout