The Obama administration has reversed course and will send Egypt new Apache attack helicopters that were urgently requested by Cairo in March to counter the growing threat from al Qaeda terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Egyptian Defense Minister Col. Gen. Sedki Sobhy on Tuesday that President Barack Obama approved lifting a ban on the attack helicopters but will not lift an arms embargo imposed last year after the military’s ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi.
The Washington Free Beacon first reported March 12 that the administration had turned down Egypt’s urgent appeal for Washington to release the 10 Apaches because of the growing al Qaeda terrorist threat.
Release of the helicopters comes less than week after al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri urged jihadists to conduct attacks on Egyptian security forces.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement that Hagel had informed the Egyptian defense minister that the helicopters would be sent to help combat a growing terrorist threat in the Sinai.
“The secretary noted that we believe these new helicopters will help the Egyptian government counter extremists who threaten U.S., Egyptian, and Israeli security," Kirby said. “This is one element of the president's broader efforts to work with partners across the region to build their capacity to counter terrorist threats, and is in the United States' national security interest.”
Hagel also informed the Sobhy that a formal State Department certification to Congress that Egypt is sustaining its strategic ties to the United States would soon be sent to Congress, a condition for funding U.S. assistance to Cairo.
However, Hagel also said that the United States was not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking sufficient steps toward democratic reform. That certification is required by Congress as a condition for lifting a ban imposed in October on most items in a $1.6 billion military aid package for Egypt.
The arms cutoff has undermined military relations with Egypt, one of the United States’ key allies in the Middle East that has been seeking arms from Russia.
Egypt made its urgent request for the helicopters, which were paid for, in March. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo supported the request in cables to the State Department, and urge issuing a waiver of the restrictions.
The Egyptians plan to use the Apaches in a growing war against a new al Qaeda-linked terrorist group in the Sinai called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or Ansar Jerusalem.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was active in pressing the administration to send the Apaches. He noted that Egypt’s referendum in January and a new presidential election law were signs of progress toward more democratic rule.
“Egypt is a cornerstone for stability in a part of the world where terrorist activity is rapidly growing,” Inhofe said last month.
On the al Qaeda threat, Zawahiri, in an audio message posted online April 19, urged his followers to conduct attacks on both military and police forces, while stating that terrorists should avoid harming civilians.
He said attacks should be carried out very carefully against all targets and the aims of each operation should be explained publicly.
A senior Egyptian police official was killed on Wednesday after a bomb went off under his car in a western Cairo suburb, according to news agency reports from the region.
Brig. Gen. Ahmed Zaki was on his way to work when the bomb exploded, critically wounding him. He later died at a hospital.
The bombing was the latest attack against Egyptian authorities by Islamists supporting the ousted Muslim Brotherhood regime.
Al Zawahiri’s call for attacks in Egypt comes as the al Qaeda leader has been seeking to close a widening rift between his group, which carried out the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). The ISIL is an Iraqi and Syrian offshoot that has taken an even more extreme Islamist stance than al Qaeda, and the group is engaged in armed conflict in Syria against the approved al Qaeda affiliate there known as the Al Nusra Front.