Egypt UpdateSeptember 12, 2013 in Egypt
Following two car bombing attacks on 11 September, the Egyptian government has redoubled its efforts to eradicate the terrorist elements in the Sinai Peninsula, and stem the flow of radical ideologies in Nile Valley Egypt.
On 11 September, a car bomb was detonated at the Egyptian Military intelligence headquarters in Rafah, on the border of the Gaza Strip in North Sinai, killing nine and wounded several. Reports indicate that the car bomb was detonated by a suicide bomber following an attack by rocket propelled grenades. The two story-building which housed the Sinai branch of military intelligence collapsed, burying an unspecified number of troops. Among the wounded were ten soldiers and seven civilians, three of which were women.
A second attack occurred at an army checkpoint near the intelligence headquarters, targeting an armoured personnel carrier. The remains of both suicide bombers have been recovered. An unnamed authority has described the remains of the attackers as having “darker skin, implying they may have been of African origin,” and adding that the explosives were complicated and unlikely to be made by Sinai-based terrorist groups. However, the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted on their website. The statement explains that the group had killed at least six soldiers and also claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt against Egypt’s interior minister last week in Cairo. The group vowed to conduct more attacks in revenge for the military operation against supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi on 14 August, and called on all Muslims in Egypt to stay away from military and interior ministry institutions.
Meanwhile, another militant group, Ansar Jerusalem, has claimed responsibility for three additional non-suicide attacks which targeted armoured vehicles with explosive devices. The group has also claimed attacks in the past on Israel, and has ties to militants in the Gaza Strip. In a two page statement, the group accused the Egyptian military of conducting a “dirty war, deputizing all anti-Islam forces in and outside Egypt, especially the Jews.”
Recent attacks have also included a thwarted attempt to detonate mortars on a railway between Suez and Ismailia, and the 19 August killing of 25 off-duty policemen who on their way home on leave from Sinai. The policemen were taken off of mini-buses and shot, with their hands tied behind their backs. The attacks have caused widespread outrage. Al-Nour party leader, Galal Murra, said in a press statement that all parties should work toward rescuing Sinai from a dark future. Members of the Dostor party vowed full support for military efforts to save Sinai from terrorism. Egypt’s top Sunni Islamic institution has called for an immediate move to provide security for the citizens and the state’s vital institutions, saying the government should “hit them with an iron hand to protect Sinai and Egyptian sovereignty.”
On 7 September, the Egyptian military began conducting offensive strikes in the Sinai. A spokesman for the military called it Egypt’s “largest military campaign against the terrorists in the Northern Sinai Peninsula” and vowed the operation would continue until the peninsula is “fully cleansed.” The offensive has unleashed helicopter gunships and tanks, as well as foot soldiers. The troops have targeted suspected militant hideouts and weapons caches, particularly in villages south of Rafah, and near Sheikh Zuweid. Authorities have also closed the Rafah border crossing to the Gaza Strip. War Colonel Ahmed Ali announced that since Saturday, the army has targeted 118 suspected terrorist bases, and destroyed three weapons caches and 33 vehicles with heavy guns placed on them. Officers have reported the capture of missile launchers and other weapons, as well as fuel storage sites. In the assault, dozens of militants have been killed and around 30 low- and mid-level operatives have been arrested. One officer and two soldiers have been killed in the operation.
In previous, smaller sweeps, a significant number of foreign militants were detained, reinforcing the widely-held belief that since 2011, the Sinai has become a safe haven for militants from around the region to train and develop tactics for actions in the area. There are at least six known militant groups comprised of up to 5,000 members in Sinai. The vast desert and mountain region has rugged, harsh terrain, making it difficult to search. Many of the militants operating in Sinai are among those who escaped from Egyptian prisons during the 2011 uprisings, in which approximately 1,000 prisoners were set free.
The military assault has caused conflicting emotions among local residents. On the eve of the offensive, the Egyptian army deactivated all communication facilities in the region, including land line telephones, mobile phones and the internet. This loss of communication, coupled with accusations of military personnel targeting homes and arresting innocent people, has caused frustration. Officials targeted approximately 40 homes in the village of al-Mahdiya, seeking a wanted militant who is known to be in the area. While no one was killed in the search, villagers were “terrorised” by the destruction of property. Some fear that the military’s heavy-handed actions will result in open war with Bedouin tribes in the region; still others support the military efforts.
Ansar Jerusalem is attempting to use the unease to its advantage. In the 11 September statement, they declared that the military had killed civilians, set fire to homes, torched private cars, bombed mosques and stolen possessions, adding that Israeli drones were backing the offensive.
Meanwhile, in Nile Valley Egypt, Minister of Religious Endowments, Mohammad Mokhtar Gomaa has barred nearly 55,000 unlicensed clerics throughout Egypt from preaching in mosques. Gomaa explained that the clerics lack licenses to preach, and are considered a fundamentalist threat to Egypt’s security. The ban will target unlicensed mosques and random praying areas in hopes of delivering moderate messages and preventing radicalised ideologies from affecting the nation.
Finally, Egyptian Minister of Civil Aviation, Abdel Aziz Fadel, has released a press release reassuring that Cairo International Airport is safe following a tip of a possible bomb attack on the plane from Cairo to London on 7 September. An anonymous caller reported to state security that two passengers on the EgyptAir flight were suicide-bombers. The flight’s passengers were de-boarded and searched, and luggage was taken off the plane to be checked by sniffer dogs.
Fadel states that the Cairo airport, as well as those in Sharm el-Sheikh and Borg el-Arab, is equipped with sophisticated equipment to detect explosives, and identify the content of passengers’ luggage, and has a staff of efficient security forces from the Ministry of Interior. The equipment will soon be provided to Hurghada airport as well.