IS Harvests Rommel’s North Africa Legacy in Pursuit of Mayhem

The North Africa Campaign of WWII comprised some of the fiercest fighting ever seen across desert terrain, with momentum swinging violently between the Axis and Allied powers, before the latter’s eventual victory in 1943. The eventual success of the Campaign set up the invasion of Sicily and the subsequent Allied advance through the Italian mainland.

British tanks rumble across the desert during the North Africa Campaign
Allied tanks rumble across the desert during the North Africa Campaign

Almost 100,000 troops lost their lives on both sides, with more than 5,000 tanks and 9,000 aircraft destroyed along with countless thousands of tons of other war materiel. The rusting carcasses of some of these machines are a stark reminder of the intensity of the Saharan battles but even more significant is the legacy of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) left by the conflict.

Mile upon mile of dense minefields were laid by both sides during the fighting, with thousands of artillery shells, mortars, bombs and other munitions failing to detonate and remaining primed and deadly in the ground 75 years on.

This legacy has been a constant menace to the Bedouin tribes that continue to inhabit the region, with only sporadic Explosive Ordnance Clearance (EOC) tasks undertaken by the Egyptian government and international bodies since WWII. What remains a constant menace to the indigenous population has only recently been brought to global attention by the actions of the barbarous Islamic State (IS).

IS has made steady ground in Egypt, with the lawless deserts of the Sinai Peninsula and the Sahara now sheltering hundreds of jihadists intent on waging their terrorist war across international borders. It is has been noted that amongst IS’s wide-ranging and ad hoc armoury are devices with explosives harvested from UXO relating to the North Africa Campaign.

IS fighters in Sinai province
IS fighters in Sinai province

With more than 17 million land mines thought to remain buried across the Sahara, it is little wonder that IS has taken the opportunity to increase its chain of supply. Removing the munitions and reusing them in their crude Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) appears to be a further sign of the group’s adaptation in the face of an international onslaught.

Such a tactic may not be novel, however, with the 2004 truck bombing of the Taba Hilton now believed to have been caused by a bomb using explosives pilfered from WWII UXO.

Whilst the exact origin – i.e. Allied or Axis munitions – of the IS explosives is unclear, most media reports are attributing it to the Nazis and to one general in particular: Erwin Rommel.

Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox’, established a reputation for tactical mastery during the early phases of the North Africa Campaign, with his Panzer Divisions routing the chaotically-managed British Army during the initial exchanges in the desert.

Erwin Rommel: the Desert Fox
Erwin Rommel: the Desert Fox

Renowned and revered both in Germany and across the Allied world, Rommel would eventually be forced to commit suicide by Hitler after his alleged involvement in an assassination attempt against the Fuhrer in 1944. By then his Axis forces had been pushed out of North Africa with an invigorated Allied army led by Bernard Montgomery seizing the upper hand after the decisive Second Battle of El-Alamein in the Autumn of 1942.

Australian troops during the Second Battle of El-Alamein
Australian troops during the Second Battle of El-Alamein

UXO has contaminated huge tracts of land across the world since the 19th century, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians unable to escape the horrors of the past. It is no irony that IS – already one of history’s most hideous formations – should choose to harness this tragic legacy to inflict even more misery on those powerless to defend themselves.

Whilst it might give the Egyptian authorities and their allies a vigorous prod towards addressing this unwanted legacy – and Cairo should by no means be solely responsible for a job whose necessity has primarily been caused by the European powers – it is equally likely to encourage other terrorists to attempt similarly risky feats, harnessing the explosive remnants of war in their quest for ever greater devastation.

The days of ‘gentlemanly warfare’ – if such a thing ever existed – have long since past.

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Chaotic, Disputed, Endangered: enduring trouble in the Sinai Peninsula

Egypt’s military has reportedly killed over 250 Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula during the past ten days. It continues the violent struggle between Cairo and its restive eastern province, which is fast becoming a base for dangerous fundamentalists pledging their allegiance to ISIS.

Sinai-peninsula-map

At the crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, Sinai has always been a geopolitically vital area and its ownership has long been contested. Inhabited since prehistoric times, its northern coastline was a major trade route between Egypt and Palestine and in the first century AD the Roman Empire took control of the Peninsula.

The territory was wrestled back and forth between various Muslim successor states to the Romans before coming under Ottoman control in the 16th century. As Ottoman power declined in the 19th century, so did its grip on Sinai. A nascent Egyptian state was established by Muhammad Ali in 1805 which, whilst nominally a tributary of the Ottomans, was all but independent until the arrival of the British in 1882.

The entirety of Egypt (including Sinai) was effectively a British colony until 1936 when the Kingdom of Egypt was recognised as an independent state by London. Even then, the British maintained a military presence until 1952 before withdrawing as part of a general colonial retrenchment across the globe.

This is when the history of the Sinai Peninsula becomes even more contested and problematic. In 1948, the Arab-Israeli War saw Egypt send troops through Sinai in support of Arab forces in the former British Mandate of Palestine, which was being threatened by the new Israeli state. A reversal in fortunes saw the Israelis occupy part of Sinai for the first time before an armistice was signed in early 1949.

The 1956 Suez Crisis – when an attempted invasion of the Sinai Peninsula by British, French and Israeli forces in a bid to take control of the nationalised Suez Canal ended in a humiliating withdrawal – solidified the Egyptian-Israeli enmity that would continually boil over into war.

British troops prepare to depart Port Said after being forced into an embarrassing withdrawal Source: IWM
British troops prepare to depart Port Said after being forced into an embarrassing withdrawal
Source: IWM

In 1967 the Israelis finally captured Sinai during the Six-Day War, which was followed by a three-year War of Attrition orchestrated by the Egyptians in a failed attempt to recapture their lost territory. Further conflict broke out in 1973 after Cairo launched Operation Badr, initiating the Yom Kippur War. Again, the Egyptians could not recapture the Peninsula.

It would take the US-brokered Camp David Accords of 1978 and the subsequent Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty for the Israelis to concede the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt.

Whilst the Israeli-Egyptian peace has largely held, Sinai has remained unstable. Impoverished Bedouin Arabs – resentful of Cairo’s apparent disregard for their needs – and hardline Islamists have frequently staged attacks on foreign tourist resorts and government checkpoints.

Additionally, Sinai has become the main route through which Hamas has smuggled weapons into the Gaza Strip as part of its ongoing struggle against Israeli supremacy. A sophisticated network of tunnels – partially created and monitored by Hamas sympathisers on the Egyptian side of the border – have invited assaults from both the Israelis and the government in Cairo. It is now thought that Hamas and the Sinai insurgents are working together.

ISIS supporters certainly appear to be taking advantage of the inherent chaos in Sinai to establish a base close to Egypt and the other troubled states of North Africa, whilst also being within striking distance of the hated Israel.

Battle rages in Sheikh Zuweid, Sinai. Fighters loyal to ISIS have joined an existing Islamist insurgency by attacking checkpoints and killing civilians Source: Daily Telegraph

Complicating matters is the religious significance of the region. Mount Sinai, in the southern-central part of the Peninsula, is where Moses received the Ten Commandments during the Jewish exodus. It is therefore a revered place for all followers of the Abrahamic religions.

St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. It is the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. Sinai is sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims Source: Berthold Werner
St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. It is the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. Sinai is sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims
Source: Berthold Werner

Attempts to counter the violence in Sinai have tended to be military in nature, which has only perpetuated the various troubles. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has increased military action in Sinai to flush out militants and destroy their support networks, in addition to Hamas’ intricate tunnel system. Whilst this is necessarily part of any solution, more diplomatic, multilateral efforts should be made.

An agreement between Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians – in addition to their regional and international partners – on a coordinated approach to securitising Sinai is the preferable course. Such an outcome, however, is unlikely. Whilst Hamas remains in charge of the Gaza Strip, Sinai will be destabilised by attempts to smuggle in weapons, supplies and fighters. The Egyptians, too, appear reluctant to allow other states to interfere in their sovereign territory, particularly given how troublesome it has been to hold on to.

Without an agreed approach, though, there is no prospect for peace. An area with economic and multicultural potential is more likely to become a land bridge and sanctuary for terror, connecting the theatres of war between the Middle East and Africa. This may ultimately lead to a scenario that has always seemed inevitable: that the Sinai Peninsula will be beyond the control of every sovereign state, destined for perpetual conflict, the repercussions of which could spread far and wide.