In the worst battles the Sinai has witnessed in decades, ISIS terrorists killed scores of Egyptian security personnel in a series of terror attacks.
Islamic State (ISIS)-linked terrorists struck Egyptian army outposts in the Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday in a coordinated wave of suicide bombings and battles. Security officials said dozens of troops were killed, along with nearly 100 attackers. Egypt officially announced that 17 soldiers were killed, but the number is estimated to be much higher, with several soldiers feared kidnapped by the terrorists.
The restive territory’s deadliest fighting in decades followed the assassination of Egypt’s chief prosecutor and a vow by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi to step up the legal battle against Islamic terrorists.
This attack by an ISIS affiliate was the latest of four deadly attacks from Europe to the Middle East.
Later Wednesday, a Special Forces team raided a Cairo apartment and killed nine fugitive members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, including a former member of parliament, security officials said. The Interior Ministry said that the nine had been plotting attacks on the police
The Brotherhood responded by calling for a rebellion against al-Sissi, saying the nine were “murdered in cold blood.”
Authorities and pro-government media have blamed Egypt’s recent violence on the Brotherhood, which has been officially declared a terrorist group, as well as other supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The Brotherhood denies involvement.
The Brotherhood has close ties with the Gaza-based Hamas terror organization, which is estimated to have aided Wednesday’s deadly attacks.
The new bloodshed also came as Egypt was marking the second anniversary of the events that led to the July 3, 2013, military-led overthrow of Morsi, although the celebrations were muted by Monday’s killing of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat and fears of unrest by the former president’s supporters.
Terrorists in northern Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, stepped up their attacks following Morsi’s fall. Last year, the main insurgent organization operating in Sinai, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, pledged allegiance to ISIS, calling itself Sinai Province.
The coordinated Sinai assault focused on the town of Sheikh Zuweid and targeted at least six military checkpoints, security officials said. The militants also reportedly took soldiers captive and seized weapons and several armored vehicles.
Scores of terrorists besieged Sheikh Zuweid’s main police station, shelling it with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and exchanging fire with dozens of police inside in an attack that lasted most of the day, the officials added.
As fighting raged, an Apache helicopter gunship destroyed one of the armored carriers captured by the terrorists, they said. Warplanes also roared through the skies.
The officials gave a death toll of 64 soldiers, 90 terrorists and four civilians. It was the biggest battle in the Sinai since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. At least 55 soldiers were wounded, they said.
Other security officials put the number of soldiers killed at more than 50, but they did not give a precise figure.
In a statement on state television, the military said 17 soldiers had died, with 13 wounded, while at least 100 alleged terrorist supporters had been killed. Discrepancies are common following such attacks.
ISIS Striving for Control of Territory in Sinai
The Sinai, characterized by poor towns and desert and mountainous areas suitable for guerrilla operations, has long been neglected by the Egyptian government. Local Bedouin tribesmen have grown to resent Cairo, turning to smuggling, organized crime and, in some cases, Islamic terror.
The sustained attack — the first of its kind — suggested the terrorists have ambitions to seize an entire city.
ISIS claimed that its fighters targeted 15 army and police positions and staged three suicide bombings – two that targeted checkpoints and one that hit an officers’ club in the nearby city of el-Arish.
Last week, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued an audio statement calling for massive attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, now entering its third week.
The United States condemned the assault as a terrorist attack, with White House spokesman Ned Price saying that the US “stands resolutely” with Egypt and will continue to work with Cairo to address threats to its security.
The planning and coordinated execution of the Sinai attack shows the insurgency in the area is growing stronger, especially since Morsi’s ouster and the crackdown on Islamic terrorists. They have been battling Egyptian security forces in the northern Sinai for more than a decade, despite military reinforcements, strict curfews and the destruction of homes and tunnels along the border with Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The insurgency also poses a serious threat to Egypt’s security as the military-backed government struggles to restore stability after years of unrest since the 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
“This specific attack is by far the worst we’ve ever seen,” said Daniel Nisman, CEO of the Levantine Group risk consultancy. “It’s not a hit-and-run — this is what they used in places like Syria and Iraq to actually capture and hold territory.”
Nisman said the attack revealed the weaknesses of the military’s “scorched earth” operations in the northern Sinai, which, he says, have made it difficult for an army that is “very, very overstretched” from multiple missions and struggles to recruit support among the local population.
Egypt digs huge anti-tunnel trench along Gaza border
The Egyptian army has commenced with another phase to eradicate Hamas’ tunnel network between Gaza and the Sinai.
The Egyptian military has constructed a trench along its border with Gaza to prevent smugglers from operating in the area, the Egyptian army announced Monday, according to the PalestinianMa’an news agency.
The trench, 20 meters deep and 10 meters wide, is located two kilometers from the border with Gaza outside of Rafah city, the report said.
This action by Egypt’s military is the latest development in a broader Egyptian campaign to create a buffer zone between the Gaza Strip and the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula. The ditch is intended to prevent smugglers from driving their vehicles to the opening of tunnels along the border and unloading their smuggled goods or weapons intended for Palestinian terror organizations.
Hamas uses the cross-border network of tunnels to smuggle everything from cigarettes to cars and weapons.
The Egyptian army says it has destroyed some 80 percent of the tunnels.
Ma’an quoted a military official who said that the army has further plans to expand the trench and install watchtowers along its length.
Egyptian Campaign to Stop Hamas Activity
The Egyptian army launched a broad campaign to destroy the Hamas smuggling tunnels and to create a buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza in February 2014, destroying hundreds of Palestinian homes in the process. Some 10,000 residents of the city of Rafah are expected to be affected by this latest Egyptian expansion of the buffer zone.
The military stepped up a campaign to build the buffer zone after a bombing killed more than 30 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai in October 2014.
Around 1,110 houses on the Egyptian side had been demolished by the end of April to make way for the expanding buffer zone, with more than 1,000 families displaced.
Egypt accuses Hamas of involvement in the smuggling of weapons through underground tunnels into the Sinai Peninsula and of actively attacking Egyptian military targets.
Egyptian military sources said earlier this month that in order to eradicate the potential danger of smuggling tunnels “once and for all,” the current no-go area should reach 5,000 meters and be protected with a water canal dug alongside it.