Deadly Sinai Attack Undercuts Egyptian Army Claims Of Anti-Islamic State Success; Recent Terrorist Strike By Islamists In Sinai ‘Unparalleled In Scale And Impact
“The coordinated attack by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in the northern Sinai, the worst in decades (killed 40 and injured 100 others Thursday night) against Egypt’s military — appeared to expose flaws in the country’s counterterrorism strategy,” wrote Louisa Loveluck, in the January 30, 2015 edition of The Christian Science Monitor. “The attack shocked even close watchers of guerrilla warfare in that region,” Ms. Loveluck added.
“Egypt’s Army had made claims these past few months that it had Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which now calls itself “State of Sinai,” “on the run.” “But, Thursday evening’s attack, exposed flaws at the heart of Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy; and, perhaps even — a policy of deliberate misinformation,” she argues.
“This attack is unparalleled, in scale and impact,” said Mokhtar Awad, who researches Islamic movements for the Washington D.C.-based think tank, Center For American Progress. “The military has done well to export an image outside world that it was winning; and indeed, up to this point — it seemed if that were true,” he added.
Gun blasts, ten mortar rounds, and a minibus laden with explosives hit a heavily fortified security directorate in the city of El Arish — in the strategically sensitive desert governorate which runs along Egypt’s border with Gaza –, as attacks took place elsewhere in the city and in the nearby town of Sheikh Zuwayid., the paper stated. Ms. Loveluck described the night sky “lighting up with gunfire, which cracked for hours throughout the night, with estimates of the number of Islamic militants hard to pinpoint, as the region remained almost entirely closed to the media.
Alignment With The Islamic State
“Although Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for attacks on the Egyptian mainland since the July 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, most of its activity has focused on the eastern Sinai Peninsula, where the group has been hemmed in by Egypt’s Army,” Ms. Loveluck writes. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis announced its pledge to the Islamic State back in November of last year. It also changed its name to “State of Sinai,” and now describes its desert heartlands as part of the Islamic caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi .
“El Arish is one of Egypt’s most heavily guarded cities, with checkpoints that carve through roads; and, any vehicles approaching an Army or police installation risk being shot on sight,” Ms. Loveluck notes. In October, the State of Sinai killed 33 Egyptian soldiers, in a double-pronged assault near the Gaza border, prompting Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to declare a curfew across the northern Sinai region.”
Echoes Of Sinai ‘Collapse’ In 1967
“This is a wake-up call for everyone,” said Mr. Awad, at the Center for American Progress. “There is almost a certain 1967 type twang to this, of how the military fed stories of great success that no one could easily verify — only to have such attacks happen.” Known to Egyptians as the “naksah,” or collapse, Egypt’s brief 1967 war with Israel ended in humiliating defeat — including the loss of the entire Sinai Peninusla — despite bellicose rhetoric from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar.
“On Friday morning, Egypt’s military reportedly mounted a wide-scale offensive against targets across North Sinai, using helicopters and unmanned aircraft. This cycle of violence,” Ms. Loveluck notes, “now fits a well-worn pattern. Militants in the Sinai have exploited the [Egypt] Army’s repeated, heavy-handed response to these attacks, as a recruiting tactic — in an impoverished region — where resentment of the central government runs deep. The mainly Bedouin population has long complained of neglect by Cairo; and, the Army’s offensive against the area’s jihadists have left villages ruined and farmlands razed.”
How To Measure The Militant’s Strength
“In late October 2014, the Egyptian military began destroying homes in the border town of Rafah, making way for a kilometer-wide buffer zone. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced,” Ms. Loveluck writes, “and photos circulating on social media appear to show that the State of the Sinai has distributed charitable donations to stricken families,” something that the Hezbollah group in Lebanon has been doing for decades.
“Questions of what all this means, hang uncomfortably over the heads of Egypt’s top brass — as the Army licks its wounds. According to Zack Gold, a Visiting Fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, State of the Sinai’s likely future operations, as well as the strengths of its links with its Islamic State overlords — will be better assessed in terms of frequency — than size.” “Sporadic, major attacks — the last being three months ago — are not out of the ordinary,” he says. “If the group….resumed major attacks across the country on a monthly basis, this would likely indicate greater assistance by the Islamic State.
Mr. Gold concluded that Thursday’s attack, “revealed a fundamental flaw in Egypt’s security and counter-insurgency policies in North Sinai. “if no one loses his job for this latest attack — it would show a shocking lack of accountability.”
Islamic State Pledge Raises The Stakes For Egypt
A November 20, 2014 article on the Al Monitor, discussed the recent pledge by the State of the Sinai to the Islamic State and what it might portend. According to the publication, “a Sinai tribal sheikh close to the Armed forces, the largest city in the North Sinai, told the Al Monitor — on the condition of anonymity — that “one of the main challenges currently faced by the Egyptian government; and, one that is preoccupying Egypt’s President, is that thousands of Egyptians are losing faith in the information regularly published by the Army on the progress on the war on terrorism in the Sinai.” “The problem got worse after Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis posted a video showing the group attacking the military base at Karam zl-Kawadis October 24, 2014, south of Sheikh Zuweid, which claimed the lives of 32 Egyptian Army members, and wounded about a dozen others,” the sheikh said,
“The video caused anger at the Army General Command, as it showed disastrous details, especially that military unit, equipped with advanced combat equipment, did not confront the terrorists; and, didn’t even fire a single shot, not to mention that a tank withdrew in the middle of the battle,” he said.
A researcher in security affairs and jihadist groups in the Sinai, which also requested anonymity from Al Monitor, said “the time of the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ decision to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, — is fatal in light of Sisi’s — until now — successful attempts to convince the United States and Israel of his progress in eliminating the group. This progress, in terms of elimination of the threat to Israel’s security by establishing a buffer zone in Rafah, in exchange for the United States and the international community turning a blind eye on the violation of freedoms and human rights — and the practices of his repressive regimes.”
“The researcher said the video of Karam al-Kawadis confirms the battle in the Sinai is becoming highly complicated. The reality showed that there were small groups of terrorist working hard together; and, moving according to pre-calculated steps — with great confidence and planning — that must not be underestimated.”
“The researcher said defeating terrorists in the Sinai required “forces knowledgeable of the landscape of the place — trained in guerrilla tactics and, most important, on combat elements,” he said. “The problem is not in armament, since the military unit had two U.S.-made M-60 tanks, which have highly protective armor against [many of the] existing weapons in the Sinai — in addition to two armored half-track [vehicles] and a significant number of rockets and mortar systems, as well as heavy weapons. These weapons fell into the hands of Ansar bayt al-Maqdis, which will be used against them in the future — as the battles intensify.”
“A source sympathetic to the jihadists, in the border region, who also requested anonymity from Al Monitor, said “the announcement of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to join the Islamic State — was the result of attractive offers of supplies and weapons from [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi]. These will be given in return for Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis expanding its attacks in Egypt. This allegiance also aims to boost the morale of the fighters, as it reflects their spread into neighboring countries, and confirms they are not affected by violent coalition airstrikes.”
Clearly, Egypt’s Sisi has a “tiger by the tail,” and the Islamic State is metastasizing. The Arab Spring could morph into a cauldron of instability in the heart of the Arab world. V/R, RCP