BEIRUT — Egypt’s military which has been battling fledgling jihadist groups in the Sinai for months says the rate of terrorist attacks has declined in recent weeks, leading to optimism in army circles that security sweeps are having an effect, but some analysts question this and warn of burgeoning ties between Egyptian jihadists and al-Qaida.
“The rate of attacks in the Sinai is currently on the decline,” says David Barnett, who tracks Egyptian jihadists for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington DC-based think tank. “There have been about 200 attacks since the beginning of July, there were 104 that month, but last month we saw about 20.”
Egypt's army has been batteling jihadists in Sinai since 2004 when militants bombed parts of the Hilton hotel in Taba on the border with Israel, killing a dozen people.
But since the ouster on July 3 of Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first ever Islamist President, the army has increased its crackdown on jihadists, focusing on the Sinai Peninsula, the huge region of desert and mountains neighboring Israel's southwestern border, home to the strongest of the jihadi groups, the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, also known as Ansar Jerusalem. The army is also targeting smaller urban-based groups such as al-Furqan brigades, which carried out two attacks on ships in the Suez Canal.
But Sinai residents including a local sheikh contacted via Skype argue the army’s campaign is indiscriminate. Fearful of being identified they declined to be named but warn that the harsh crackdown is helping jihadists to recruit. In September, the army jailed Ahmed Abu Draa, a Sinai-based journalist, for reporting on alleged military attacks on women, children, and a mosque.
Egyptian army on war footing in Sinai
The army offensive consisting of 20,000 troops and U.S.-supplied Apache attack helicopters amounts to the biggest deployment of the Egyptian military in the peninsula for decades. According to analyst Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation, an American think tank that monitors global terrorism, it “marks the greatest Egyptian military concentration in the region since the 1973 war with Israel.”
Egyptian military officials say they have captured or killed hundreds of jihadists. In August, Army spokesman Col. Ahmed Ali announced that security sweeps in the peninsula led to the deaths of 78 militants, and in September in a televised news conference he said the Egyptian military had gained the upper hand over the terrorists since Morsi’s ouster, saying the military had detained in all 309 “terrorists,” including 36 in July, 140 in August and 33 in September.
The military’s reports can’t be verified – media and rights groups are blocked from entering parts of the Sinai.
But even when taking the army’s claims of accomplishments at face value, Barnett cautions the military shouldn’t declare victory. “Ansar’s core members have not been arrested in the security sweeps in the Sinai and while their attacks have declined in number, they have grown in sophistication and are more strategic; and they have shown they can strike in Cairo and south Sinai, which if they continue with strikes there, they would destroy the tourist industry,” he said.
South Sinai is home to the country’s important Red Sea resorts.
Barnett and other analysts believe the jihadist challenge to Egypt’s new rulers is still in its early stages. “You have seen the jihadists develop their skills over time. At the beginning they were carrying out opportunistic shooting attacks but now you see them unleashing suicide attacks and huge car-bombings and this is a clear development of capability and strategy,” said Barnett.
During his visit to Egypt this week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who sought to mend frayed relations between the Obama administration and Egypt’s military since Morsi’s ouster, talked of the need for the U.S. to continue to aid in Cairo’s counter-terrorism efforts.
A major concern for the U.S., say Obama officials, is evidence of growing transnational links between Ansar Jerusalem and other Egyptian jihadists and al-Qaida. In August the U.S. news site the Daily Beast reported that American intelligence had intercepted an Internet-based conference call between al-Qaida’s leader the Egyptian-born Ayman al Zawahiri and representatives of 20 jihadist groups including some from the Sinai Peninsula.
An Egyptian jihadist network set up by Mohamed Jamal al-Kashef, who was captured by Egyptian security forces a year ago, appears to be of the greatest American interest. U.S. officials say members of the network have been linked to the assault on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi a year ago that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
In October the U.S. State Department named the Jamal Network and its founder as "specially designated global terrorists.” And the UN also designated last month the network as a terrorist group, saying in its designation notice: “Some of the attackers of the U.S. Mission in Benghazi on 11 September 2012 have been identified as associates of Muhammad Jamal.”
Barnett believes that while reports mount of foreign fighters joining Ansar Jerusalem, Syria is still the big draw for jihadists from across the Middle East, Europe and central Asia. But influential ideologues are speaking out on the Internet more about the jihad in Egypt and it may only be a matter of time before Ansar Jerusalem pledges allegiance to al-Qaida.
Says Barnett: “The difference will come when – or if – Egyptian jihadists get more outside assistance and training,”