The conflict between the Egyptian armed forces and jihadist groups in Sinai has reached a new level in violence after a series of explosions and gunfire left over 25 security forces and civilians dead in the peninsula last Thursday.
Jihadists in the area used car bombs and mortar rounds in the largest attack on military property in the country since the ouster of the former Egyptian president Muhammed Morsi. The State of Sinai, a jihadist group that was previously named Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis (ABM) before announcing its allegiance to ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attacks in the Sinai cities of Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuweid in a statement posted on its Twitter page.
The attacks targeted a checkpoint and a military compound for the 101st brigade in Arish, checkpoints and military camps in Sheikh Zuweid, and two checkpoints in Rafah. According to the statement, the attack on the military compound in Arish involved three car bombs and two suicide-bomb infiltrators. The attacks involved approximately 100 jihadists, according to the statement.
According to Egyptian journalist based in Sinai Muhamed Sabry, civilians whose apartments are located near the security headquarters that were attacked have begun leaving their homes.
تم رصد رحيل بعض الأسر تماما من العمارات السكنية المجاورة للمقرات الأمنية التي تم مهاجمتها والتي تضررت وتضرر ساكنيها بشكل كبير #سيناد
— Sinai سيناء (@muhamedsabry) January 30, 2015
Some families have been seen leaving residential apartment buildings, neighboring the security headquarters that were hit, for good after they were severely affected by the events.
In a statement following the attacks, the Egyptian military spokesperson said the attacks came as a result of the successful military and police hits on terrorists and terrorist pockets.
The Egyptian General Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a statement the following day. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cut a visit to Ethiopia for an African Union summit short on Friday and met with the SCAF on Saturday.
El-Sisi formed a new joint command for the area east of the Suez Canal and placed it under the command of Field Marshal Osama Rushdie Askar, according to a statement issued by the SCAF following the meeting.
In a televised address, standing with a group of military officers, el-Sisi blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, the political group that rose to power following the January 25 revolution in the country before being ousted in 2013, for the attacks despite the Sinai State’s claim of responsibility.
The Sinai State, ABM, and ISIS
The Sinai State was previously an independent jihadist group named Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis (ABM – which translates to Supporters of Jerusalem) that carried out attacks ranging from Israeli-Egyptian pipeline sabotages, during the transition period in which the SCAF was in power, to assaults on Israeli troops on the border with Egypt during Muhammed Morsi’s time in office.
No ABM attacks against Egyptian security forces have been reported from the ousting of Muhammed Morsi on July 3, 2013, until the Rabaa Massacre on August 14, 2014, which left hundreds of pro-Morsi protesters dead. An air strike killed four ABM members on August 10, 2014, with conflicting reports on whether the strike was carried out by the Egyptian army or Israel. In retaliation, ABM launched a rocket aimed at Eilat, Israel. The rocket was intercepted by Israel’s anti-rocket defense system.
ABM has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on Egyptian forces since the Rabaa Massacre, including a failed assassination attempt on the life of Muhamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian minister of the interior, on September 8, 2013, and a number of bombings in the border city of Rafah that left six soldiers dead three days later.
ABM announced its allegiance to ISIS in a YouTube video in November. Prior to the announcement, Reuters had reported in September that a level of cooperation existed between ISIS and ABM.
The situation in Sinai
In August 2012, the Egyptian army began an operation against ABM and other militant groups in the peninsula after a series of attacks by unknown assailants left a number of Egyptian security forces dead. According to a BBC News article published in October of last year, “residents say that no distinction is being drawn between militants and civilians” in the military’s efforts against armed groups in Sinai.
The village of al-Lafitat in the northeastern area of the peninsula has been largely destroyed by military forces. According to Middle East news and analysis site Al-Monitor, a man by the name of Suleiman expressed one reason behind the increase of armed groups in Sinai. “The army is fighting terrorism with terrorism, or even creating terrorism,” he said, referring to the army’s indiscriminate shelling of al-Lafitat, bombarding the village “with more than one hundred shells” in one week.
The military has systematically shut civilian communication systems in Sinai during its operations. Comparing the Egyptian military’s communication blackout in Sinai with Israel’s strategy during its offensive in Gaza, award-winning blogger and political activist Wael Abbas wrote:
اسرائيل بتضرب غزة لكن سايبالهم الانترنت … سيناء برضه بتنضرب بس كل الاتصالات مقطوعة ومش عارفين ايه اللي بيحصل هناك :(((
— Wael Abbas (@waelabbas) July 1, 2014
Israel attacks Gaza but leaves their internet services . . . Sinai also get attacked, but all communication is cut and we do not know what is happening there.
During his time in office, former Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi took a more diplomatic route to solve the problems in Sinai. In October 2012, he held a meeting with Sinai tribal leaders and provided them with a list of promises which included a retrial of people in the Sinai who received guilty verdicts in various cases in absentia and the establishing of a legal framework that would allow Sinai natives to purchase land in the peninsula at cheap rates. According to Sky News Arabic, Morsi visited Sinai twice in one week in August of the same year. (The second visit followed a militant attack on an army base that left 15 Egyptian soldiers dead.)
The current military operation isn't the first time the Sinai Peninsula has dealt with violence. The peninsula, home to about 550,000 people, has served as the gateway for trade between Asia and Africa throughout the ages, switching hands various times. The Ottoman Empire governed the area from 1517 until the end of World War I in the early 20th century, when the peninsula was handed over to Egypt.
Egypt lost the peninsula to Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967. Six years later, Egypt launched an offensive in an attempt to regain the peninsula. Following the signing of the US-brokered Camp David Accords in 1979, Israel agreed to return Sinai to the Egyptians.
The area has witnessed a number of attacks on tourist sites in recent years. In October 2004, three blasts in three different tourist destinations killed dozens, most of whom were Israeli citizens. At least 88 people were killed about three months later when bombs blasted throughout Sharm El-Sheikh, a famous destination along the shores of the Red Sea. Bombs killed over 23 people in April of the following year in Dahab.
The Economist, in an article published in 2010, stressed the Egyptian government’s indiscriminate campaigns of arrests at the time after the bombings that took place earlier. An estimated 3,000 people were arrested and some languished in jail without charges. “The brutal policing campaign has left lingering bitterness, which erupted earlier this year in strikes, protest marches and scattered attacks on government facilities,” said the article.
Sinai has suffered a sense of detachment from the Egyptian mainland for decades. According to a report by crisis-prevention non-profit the International Crisis Group, published in 2007, “Sinai has long been, at best, a semi-detached region, its Egyptian identity far from wholly assured.” The report went on to discuss the Egyptian government’s lack of care regarding development in the peninsula, stating:
The government has not sought to integrate Sinai’s populations into the nation through a far-sighted program responding to their needs and mobilizing their active involvement [ . . . ] The government has done little or nothing to encourage participation of Sinai residents in national political life, used divide and rule tactics in orchestrating the meagre local representation allowed, and promoted the Pharaonic heritage at the expense of Sinai’s Bedouin traditions.
In April, Wael Abbas criticized the Egyptian government’s continuous disregard for the demands and needs of the people of Sinai by tweeting a satirical twist on the national Sinai Liberation Holiday that commemorates the complete Israeli withdrawal from the peninsula:
— Wael Abbas (@waelabbas) April 24, 2014
The Egyptian military began establishing a buffer zone along the Egyptian border with Gaza, demolishing hundreds of homes and forcing over 1,000 families to leave following an attack by ABM in October 24th, 2014 that left over 30 security forces dead.