ISIS in Sinai could turn its guns on us ‘at any time’

The commander of the 70%-female Caracal Battalion tells the ‘Post’ how his unit is guarding the southern border.

IDF Caracal Battalion  (photo credit: IDF)
IDF Caracal Battalion
(photo credit: IDF)
In Egypt’s jihadist-infested Sinai, Islamic State-affiliated members of the Wilayat Sayna (Sinai Province) terrorist organization battle Egyptian security forces on a daily basis. Right across the border in Israel, the Caracal Battalion watches and prepares for the day that an Islamic State cell turns its guns, bombs and possibly rockets northward.
Over the past three years, hundreds of Egyptian security personnel were killed by Islamic extremists, and the jihadists have sustained many casualties from Egypt’s security operations. At the end of September, Islamic State in Sinai murdered three Egyptian police officers and a taxi driver in an attack on a vehicle in El-Arish, north Sinai.
In the shadow of this violence, the Caracal Battalion, made up of 70% female combat soldiers and 30% male soldiers, conducts patrols, lookouts and training designed to optimize the readiness of its members. This week, Caracal Battalion commander Lt.-Col. Elad Cohen told The Jerusalem Post about how his unit was taking advantage of the quiet period to train for every conceivable scenario.
“Islamic State’s Sinai Province is a well known enemy. We are studying it,” Cohen said. “Accordingly, we are improving our combat ability,” he added. The supreme goal of the battalion is to enable local Israeli residents to live their lives normally, he said, and “not to feel as if something is happening.
“We know the enemy exists and could at any time direct the fighting in our direction.
We are also aware that the Egyptians are conducting ongoing combat against them,” Cohen stated.
The battalion commander said he had no knowledge of any imminent concrete threat in his sector. “We are checking ourselves continuously to make sure we do not miss anything,” he said.
The last time the battalion saw action was two years ago in October 2014, when a unit jeep came under fire from jihadists on a drug-smuggling run. One soldier sustained gunshot wounds, while the wounded female officer returned fire, striking and killing at least one assailant in the gun battle that ensued. The actions of that officer, Capt. Or Ben-Yehuda, caused the remaining assailants to retreat back into the Sinai.
Two years before that, in September 2012, the unit engaged and stopped a terrorist cell armed with rocket-propelled grenades and explosive suicide belts seeking to infiltrate Israel. A female soldier shot dead a suicide bomber in that incident. The battalion lost a soldier, Cpl. Natanel Yahalomi, in the attack.
“We have not had an incident on that scale since, but we have other incidents,” Cohen said. “On a routine basis, we counter criminal smuggling routes. It’s called criminal, but elements are involved that could be potential terrorists, such as weapons traffickers. We do not rush to interpret these events as criminal,” he added.
The fact that travelers from across the country have arrived in the battalion’s area of coverage, in communities around Nitzana, is a testament to the sense of security they feel, Cohen added.
“What interests us is believing in ourselves and thinking about ways to improve,” he said.
Founded in 2000, Caracal was the first territorial unit set up by the IDF with male and female conscripts. The first company was formed 16 years ago, and the battalion went operational in 2004, under Division 80, which guards the border with Egypt.
Today, the battalion guards several southern villages, and like all infantry battalions, it has four companies and a battalion headquarters.
The two-thirds female makeup is unique, though the IDF is increasingly replicating this model to other border region battalions.
Since setting up Caracal, the IDF has set up the Lions of Jordan Battalion (operating in the Jordan Valley) and the Bardales (Cheetah) Battalion (operating in the Arava region), and a fourth coed battalion is due to be set up in the coming months.
“We see Caracal as a model unit that can be emulated. Some of our commanders go to these other battalions and help them in the force buildup process,” Cohen said.
“The sky is the limit in terms of abilities. Those who [initially] set up battalions of male and female soldiers saw the long range potential. Today, the IDF trusts us and gives us a lot of responsibility. That is the best statement to make,” he added.
The unit’s members “understand that if we don’t do this job, no one else will either. We have one country, and we do not seek to evade tough conditions; not the heat of the summer or the cold of the winter,” the commander added. Temperatures in the dry, rugged, desert region can soar into extremes during the hot summer months.
Two weeks ago, the battalion returned from a two-month drill aimed at strengthening its readiness and combat capabilities.
The drill, held near the Tze’elim Ground Forces training base in the Negev, tested everything from the use of personal firearms to the battalion’s ability to respond to large-scale cross-border intrusions.
It ended with a march from the far south to Jerusalem, during which soldiers studied the country’s history and battles from 1948 to today.
“I believe that if you know the past, you can connect to the mission. It is also best to love the land by traveling it on foot. In this way, we prepare better,” Cohen said.