Just days ago, the Egyptian army began what it called the "largest military campaign against the terrorists in the northern Sinai Peninsula," saying the campaign would continue until the whole area is, in its words, "fully cleansed."
Army Colonel Ahmed Ali said the army has so far targeted 118 terrorist bases and destroyed three large weapons caches and 33 vehicles that had been modified to carry heavy weapons. The army said it had killed at least 30 militants in about a dozen villages in recent operations using troops and helicopter gunships.
Egypt’s military said the campaign is in response to militant violence that has claimed the lives of dozens of police and army officers since the ouster of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in July.
On Wednesday, the militants struck back. Two suicide bombers rammed vehicles into an Egyptian army intelligence office building in the town of Rafah, on the frontier with the Gaza Strip, and into an army checkpoint nearby. At least nine army soldiers were killed more than a dozen wounded.
Jihadist violence has a long history in the northern Sinai. Even before the Egyptian revolution, the region had been a base for drug and weapons smuggling, human trafficking and a wide array of militant activity.
Egypt’s Sinai border with Israel and Gaza and its proximity to the Suez Canal make the region an area of strategic importance.
Experts say the current militancy and lawlessness has the potential to threaten regional stability, the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords and Egyptian national security.
Ehud Yaari, an Israeli-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East policy, argues that since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the Sinai Peninsula has emerged as a new hotspot for terrorists.
“Parts of the Sinai resemble an extension of Gaza, as certain groups forged close military, political, ideological and economic ties with Hamas through the tunnels connecting the two sides of the border,” Yaari said.
Emerging Terrorist Groups
Yaari said one of the jihadist groups, Al-Tawhid Wal-jihad, is the product of militant doctrines that have proliferated among the Sinai Bedouin since the late 1980’s. Another group, the Mujahedeen Shura Council in the environs of Jerusalem, has a small presence in Gaza as well as Sinai. Other groups include Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (“Supporters of the Holy Temple”), which is based entirely among Sinai Bedouin tribes, where it has been active for several years along with Ansar al-Jihad.
Yaari said some of the militant supporters of these groups have migrated to the Sinai in recent years seeking to build an ideal Islamic society in the largely lawless region.
Retired army general Hossam Sweilam, former president of the Egyptian army’s Center for Strategic Studies, said there are nine known terrorist groups based in Sinai that comprise Jihadi Salafi, Hamas and al-Qaida elements.
“These organizations were emboldened by terrorists who fled from prisons during the revolution like Dr. Ramzi Muwafi, who was serving a life sentence, and by the Muslim Brotherhood government, which he said allowed non-Egyptian Islamist militants to reside in Sinai," he said.
Sweilam estimates the number of militants in Sinai at about 3,500, which he said are under the leadership of Ramzi Muwafi, who is calling his group the Egypt Free Army.
According to Sweilam, there is a connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of violence in the Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood strongly denies any involvement in the Sinai attacks, but Sweilam, who supports Egypt’s military-backed government, disagrees.
“Prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed el-Beltagi said that the attacks in Sinai could stop in a second if President Mohamed Morsi is re-instated.” he said.
Sahar Aziz, a professor at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law, says the Egyptian central government’s neglect of the region has pushed some Bedouin tribes into the smuggling business.
“As a consequence the Bedouin were presumed to be criminals and traffickers, resulting in collective punishment through arbitrary arrest and detention, followed by military trials pursuant to the three-decade-long emergency law,” she said.
Ehud Yaari, an Israeli analyst, said that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak also contributed to the anger of Sinai tribes by neglecting development in favor of other regions of Egypt.
“By 1997, Mubarak’s advisors convinced him to channel funds allocated for Sinai economic development to the Toshka Project aimed at creating a second Nile Valley in Southern Egypt,” Yaari said. “The Sinai soon returned to the bottom of government’s priorities list.”
The collapse of central authority during Egyptian revolution led to another change in the Sinai said Sahar Aziz. “Shortly after the 2011 revolution, an influx of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles from Libya into Sinai began worsening the situation,” she said. “This continued throughout Morsi’s presidency. Some arms found their way into Gaza via underground tunnels, while others stayed in Sinai under the control of extremist groups.”
Both Ehud Yaari and Hossam Sweilam agreed that there is no quick fix to the problems posed by the security situation in the Sinai. Restarting large-scale economic development plans would require funding that is not available, and disarming Bedouin groups is not a realistic option. But both said the Sinai could be stabilized.
Yaari pointed to Israel approving an amendment to the peace accords that allowed the Egyptian army to deploy seven battalions in the Sinai equipped with tanks and Apache helicopters to strike at pockets of militancy and cited growing security cooperation between Egypt and Israel.
Retired army general Sweilam said he expects the current military operations in the Sinai to last several months and he points to some recent successes.
“An Egyptian Apache [helicopter] spotted terrorists as they were preparing to launch their rocket across the border into Israel,” he said. “Four militants were killed by a missile.” Sweilam added that with the ouster of the Morsi government, Egypt’s army now has the authority to attack militant safe havens.
“The Egyptian army launched attacks against the terrorist safe havens and destroyed an expanded series of smuggling tunnels,” he said.
Sweilam also said that he believes when the current military campaign in Sinai is completed, Egypt’s government will launch a number of economic development projects in the northern Sinai and make a real effort to respond to legitimate grievances of the Sinai population. The governor of the northern Sinai recently unveiled a six-month economic development plan despite the current security challenges.
For now, though, Egypt’s military-backed government is focused instead on defeating on what it sees as a growing militant threat.