Sinai Insurgency Exploits Political Crisis in Egypt

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 14
July 12, 2013 08:41 AM Age: 1 year
Category: Global Terrorism Analysis, Home Page, Featured, Terrorism Monitor, Egypt

Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula (Source AFP)

The growing confidence of Islamist militants operating in the volatile Sinai region of Egypt was displayed on July 10, when gunmen made an audacious attempt to assassinate General Ahmad Wasfy, the commander of Egypt’s Second Field Army, which is responsible for the Sinai (Ahram Online [Cairo], July 10). Militants have taken advantage of the newfound operational space created by the collapse of Egypt’s security infrastructure that accompanied the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak two years ago. The Egyptian Army’s latest takeover of the country and arrest of Muslim Brotherhood political leader Muhammad al-Mursi has provided even more opportunities for Salafist-Jihadist groups in the Sinai to exploit Egypt’s internal political crises in their own interests. 

Dr. Muhammad Beltagy, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told reporters on July 8 that the Brotherhood “doesn’t control what is happening on the ground [in Sinai]… These attacks will stop the second [Defense Minister General Abd al-Fatah] al-Sisi retracts this coup, corrects the situation and when President Mursi returns to his authorities and duties” (Daily News Egypt, July 8). When opposition media used the statement to portray the Brotherhood as the engineers of the violence in Sinai, Beltagy issued a statement complaining that the media had been taken over by intelligence agencies who “cut-and-pasted” his words to make it appear he was the mastermind of the incidents in the Sinai (IkhwanWeb, July 10). In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood has never been able to establish a firm political base in the Sinai despite efforts to provide social services to the local population. Despite this, a  prominent North Sinai activist, Mosa’ad Abu Fajr, has accused individuals associated with Hamas and its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, of supporting the violence in Sinai with funds provided by the now detained deputy leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Khayrat al-Shater (Ahram Online, July 5). 

Hamas and the Collapse of the Islamist Government in Egypt 

Israeli sources claim that dozens of Hamas militants crossed into the Sinai and participated in a Muslim Brotherhood attack on the Egyptian Army post in al-Arish (Arutz Sheva [Tel Aviv], July 8). An earlier report that 30 militants had crossed into the Sinai in June was denied by the Gaza Interior Ministry, which described the report as “fabricated” and designed to add to “the chain of instigation against Gaza and its elected [Hamas] government” (Ikhwan Online [Cairo], June 17). However, a Palestinian-based news agency reported receiving confirmation of the infiltration from Egyptian security sources, who said the militants had set up fortified positions in the desert region around Jabal al-Halal in central Sinai (Ma’an News Agency, June 17). Egyptian border guards encountered a group of ten militants emerging from a tunnel from Gaza into the Sinai on July 7. The group, described as suspected Hamas fighters, managed to escape back into the tunnel but left behind seven boxes of bombs and munitions (al-Ahram [Cairo], July 7). 

Hamas has been bitterly disappointed by the failure of the Islamist experiment in Egypt, which was expected to provide Hamas with diplomatic and financial support in its struggle with Israel. Instead, Hamas has encountered growing levels of popular opposition and media criticism in Egypt, with rumors sweeping the country that Hamas fighters are being smuggled into Egypt to restore the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nonetheless, the Hamas premier of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, tried to inject some optimism into a grim situation in a July 5 sermon: “Egypt is behind us, as are the Arab and Islamic countries… We believe good will emerge from this Arab Spring, these revolutions and this rebirth. We expect the Arab Spring cycle to continue until its objectives are attained, including our own cause" (AFP, July 6). 

The Israeli Response to Deteriorating Security in the Sinai 

Explosions were reported in the Israeli port of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba during the night of July 4, though investigations did not find direct evidence of a rocket attack. The alleged missile strike on Eilat was claimed in a statement issued the next day by the Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (the Group of Supporters of Jerusalem). [1] Eilat was last targeted by rockets fired from the Sinai by suspected Gaza militants in April. Former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) chief-of-staff General Gabi Ashkenazi warned that even if Mursi’s overthrow did not present a direct threat to Israel, some risk could be generated from the Sinai where Islamists might use the opportunity to exploit the limited Egyptian military presence to strike Israel (Jerusalem Post, July 5). 

For now, the IDF has adopted a policy of allowing Egyptian security forces to take care of armed individuals or groups spotted in the border region, taking action only if gunmen proceed to cross the border (Haaretz [Tel Aviv], July 7). According to the commander of the Israel Caracal Battalion, currently deployed along the Sinai border, Israeli forces are working “on the assumption that an attack will happen… We're preparing the soldiers for complex tasks, drilling extreme scenarios and doing all we can to give them the tools to deal with the situation. Terrorism in Sinai is growing stronger. We have to prepare" (Jerusalem Post, June 27). The Egyptian Army is well aware of the dangers posed by Sinai militants to Egypt’s current relationship with Israel and is reported to have moved quickly to make its position clear to Israel authorities by receiving an Israel representative for talks in Cairo with Egyptian security and intelligence officials only hours after Mursi’s overthrow (Yediot Aharonot [Tel Aviv], July 5). Nevertheless, suspicion and anxiety still permeate the post-overthrow climate, with Israel warning its nationals to avoid popular resorts in the Sinai and Egypt proceeding with the detention and trial of a number of individuals accused of spying for Israeli intelligence in the Sinai. 

Jihadi Groups in the Sinai

Already well-populated with various jihadist groups incorporating both Gazan militants and Egyptian Islamists, Sinai has been targeted by two Salafi-Jihadist groups since the Mursi overthrow. 

On July 5, a group using the name Ansar al-Shari’a in the Land of Kinaanah (i.e. Egypt) issued a founding statement promising to respond to the “war against Islam in Egypt,” a war waged by “secularists, atheists, Mubarak loyalists, Christians, security forces and the leaders of the Egyptian Army.” The statement describes democracy as “blasphemous” in its assumption of a prerogative of God and warns of impending “massacres of Muslims in Egypt” that could turn the country into “another Andalusia” (i.e. a nation in which all Muslims are expelled). [2] 

A day later, a statement issued by al-Salafiya al-Jihadiyah fi’l-Sinai condemned the military for allegedly opening fire on demonstrators in al-Arish on July 5, warning that a return to the practices of the former regime was unacceptable. The statement went on to call for the “comprehensive and immediate application of Islamic law” and for Egyptians to abandon the concept of democracy and resist “the enemies of Islam in Egypt.” [3] 

Christians are already being targeted by Islamist militants in the Sinai – on July 6 the priest of al-Arish’s Virgin Mary Church was murdered by motorcycle-riding gunmen and a Christian merchant in Shaykh Zuwayid was kidnapped (Middle East News Agency [Cairo], July 7). The militants are infuriated by the very public role Coptic Pope Tawadros II played in supporting Mursi’s overthrow by the military. The Coptic activist Maspero Youth Union claims churches have been attacked across Egypt since the Army’s takeover (al-Masry al-Youm/Reuters, July 6). 

Jihadi Operations in the Sinai Post al-Mursi 

The intensity, mobility, coordination and apparent planning of militant strikes in the Sinai since the military’s removal of President al-Mursi demonstrate a growing sophistication and organization that has so far kept Egyptian security forces off-balance: 

  • Army checkpoints at al-Arish airport were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades on July 4 (Reuters, July 4; MENA, July 5). Gunmen in a 4x4 vehicle attacked an army checkpoint on the ring-road south of al-Arish on the same day (MENA [Cairo], July 4).
  • Police stations and a military intelligence headquarters in Rafah (on the border with Gaza) have been attacked repeatedly by militants no doubt angered by Egyptian Army efforts to close more than forty major smuggling tunnels along the border.  One soldier was killed and two police officers wounded in a July 4 attack on a Rafah police station and the Rafah border crossing was closed (Reuters, July 4). The next day, an Egyptian border guard was killed during a gunfight at the Ghornata checkpoint in North Sinai. A policeman was wounded by gunfire only hours later (Ahram Online, July 7).
  • On July 5, a well-coordinated series of attacks took place in a number of towns in the North Sinai, demonstrating a growing ability to unite the diverse militant formations in the region in a single purpose. Angry Mursi supporters launched an assault on the local administrative building in al-Arish on July 5, waving the black flag of jihad (al-rayat al-uqab – The Banner of the Eagle) used by al-Qaeda and related movements (AFP, July 7). Two police officers were shot and killed in front of a government building in al-Arish the same day, with the number of policemen killed rising to six by the end of the day (Ahram Online, July 5; July 7; Reuters, July 7; July 8).
  • Five security checkpoints were attacked simultaneously in Shaykh al-Zuwayid on July 5 (MENA, July 5). Four security checkpoints were again attacked simultaneously in the al-Zuhur neighborhood of Shaykh al-Zuwayid by militants in the evening of July 6-7, with gunfire being exchanged by security forces and gunmen in pickup trucks (Daily News Egypt, July 7; MENA, July 5; July 7).
  • Militants also revived their attacks on the pipeline carrying Egyptian natural gas to Jordan with two strikes south of al-Arish on July 7 after ten months without any pipeline attacks (MENA [Cairo], July 7). The attack resulted in the complete halt of natural gas supplies to Jordan, which is reliant on Egyptian energy sources (Petra [Amman], July 7).
  • A gunman riding a motorcycle shot a police officer outside an al-Arish police station on July 8 (MENA, July 8). It was only one of a series of attacks carried out by mobile gunmen that day on police stations and security checkpoints. Fourteen suspected militants were arrested later in the day, with 12 individuals described by the military as “dangerous terrorists” having been located by an unmanned drone (Ma’an News Agency [Bethlehem], July 8).
  • Islamist militants attacked a security checkpoint with RPGs and heavy machine guns at the village of Sadr al-Haytan on July 9 (Reuters, July 11). 

Military Operations Planned for the Sinai 

Egypt is currently coordinating a larger military presence in the Sinai with Israel. The size of the Egyptian military presence in different regions of the Sinai is closely regulated by the 1979 Camp David agreement and any unilateral deployment would create an immediate and heightened level of tension between the two countries. Annex 1 of the 1978 Camp David Accord divides the Sinai Peninsula into four zones running roughly north-south (Zones A to D), with the Egyptian security presence in each zone decreasing as they grow closer to the Israeli border. Any change to these deployments must be made with the agreement of the Israeli government, severely limiting Cairo’s ability to meet security challenges in the Sinai. The Egyptian military’s plan to deploy jet-fighters in the region to hunt terrorists and insurgents would be especially unacceptable to Israel without prior notice and approval. A July 2 statement released by the IDF said Egypt’s military efforts in the Sinai were being coordinated with the IDF and had been “authorized at the most senior levels in Israel” (Jerusalem Post, July 2). The expected Egyptian Army offensive in the Sinai is expected to be at least a month in length, with the military determined to eliminate the jihadist presence in the region (al-Shuruq al-Jadid [Cairo], July 6). 

Conclusion 

The volatility of the Sinai region and the danger of provocations leading to armed clashes between Egyptian and Israeli forces would be best dealt with by a stable state. Unfortunately, Egypt’s present instability provides ample opportunities for militants to exploit the political crisis for their own purposes. Militants can be expected to continue to take advantage of the fragile state of Egypt’s police and Interior Ministry forces and the unpopularity of service in the Sinai. Coordinated attacks have effectively prevented security forces from coming to the aid of other posts under attack by militants and the possible infiltration of the region by foreign jihadist elements could easily precipitate a dangerous struggle for dominance in the peninsula. 

Fueling this conflict is a steady flow of arms through the Sinai, some intended for use in the region with the rest destined for Gaza. Though some shipments are intercepted, there are indications that many of these cargoes continue to elude Egyptian police. On June 29, Egyptian security forces pursued two vehicles near Rafah. One vehicle escaped after an exchange of fire, but the second was found to be carrying five Grad rockets and an assortment of land mines, grenades and machine guns. Hours later, the North Sinai Security Inspector, Muhammad Hani, was pursued and killed by gunmen in a truck (MENA, June 29). In another incident, attackers in a July 5 assault on a Central Security Forces camp in Rafah were said to be using mortars, RPGs and Grinov heavy machine guns, the latter being a Soviet-era 7.62mm weapon likely obtained from Libya’s immense stocks of Soviet-made arms (MENA, July 5). Snipers using advanced firearms have also begun to take a deadly toll on exposed members of the security forces (Ma’an News Agency [Bethlehem], July 8). The current access to previously unattainable levels of firepower and their ability to find refuge in the Sinai’s mountains and deserts have emboldened the Sinai-based militants and will enable them to contest a time-constrained and militarily-limited Egyptian military offensive designed to wipe them out. 

Andrew McGregor is the Senior Editor of Global Terrorism Analysis and the Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues related to the Islamic world. 

Notes 

1. “Firing Grad Rockets at the Occupied City of Umm Rishrash [Eilat],” Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, July 5, 2013, http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=46329

2. “The Starting Statement: Ansar al-Shari’a in the Land of Kinaanah,” July 5, 2013, http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=46317.

3. “Statement regarding the crime of Army personnel against the protestors in al-Arish,” al-Salafiya al-Jihadiya fi’l-Sinai, July 6, 2013, http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=46328.


 
 

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