The US Mediterranean fleet is moving into position ready for a decision to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles for a crushing assault on the Islamic State’s mountain strongholds in central Sinai, DEBKAfile’s military and counterterrorism sources report.
This would be the second American strike in a month against a Middle East target, after 59 cruise missiles destroyed one-fifth of the Syrian air force at the Shayrat air base on April 7 in response for Assad’s chemical attack on Syrian civilians.
The prospective American missile attack in Sinai would raise the war on ISIS in the Middle East to a new plane. It would have been discussed during the Egyptian President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi’s visit to the White House on April 3. He explained to his host, President Donald Trump, the immense difficulty of overcoming the Islamic State’s affiliate when its headquarters were dug into an interconnected web of tunnels and caves in the central Jabal (Mount) Halal of the peninsula. Nicknamed the “Tora Bora of Sinai,” approach roads to this mountain fastness are few and far between, in common with the Afghan cave network near the Pakistan border destroyed on April 13 by the biggest non-nuclear bomb, the GBU-43/B, in the American arsenal.
The last Egyptian assault on ISIS’ towering mountain stronghold took place on April 2, shortly before El-Sisi travelled to Washington. The Egyptian military announced that 31 terrorists had been killed and a number of caves holding arms and ammunition destroyed.
But the damage was not devastating enough to disrupt the Islamist terrorists’ operations, DEBKAfile’s military sources report. Most of the terrorists escaped with the help of allied Bedouin tribesmen who, familiar with every nook and cranny in the desert peninsula, guided them to safety in new caves in Jabal Halal that were even more inaccessible to Egyptian troops.
Their new headquarters can only be destroyed by cruise missiles capable of exploding underground.
The Egyptians and Americans believe that if the Jabal Halal cave system sheltering the ISIS-Sinai core command center is destroyed, its long campaign of terror will be curtailed. The flow of terrorist manpower, arms and explosives from the mountain to the networks which terrorize the population and Egyptian forces of northern Sinai will dry up.
Jabal Halal is also the hub of the ISIS smuggling networks, through which fighters and arms are moved from southern Libya into Sinai and Egypt. Knocking it out will also deliver a resounding blow to that traffic.
A final decision to go ahead with a US missile assault on central Sinai rests with Defense Secretary James Mattis. He is due to arrive in Cairo on Wednesday, April 19.