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.
Following the failed attack on the Panama-flagged shipping vessel COSCO ASIA in the Suez Canal, Egyptian authorities have bolstered security along the waterway.
Suez Canal Authority Chairman Mohab Mamish said in a statement that the military dealt “decisively” with the 31 August attempt, but gave no further details. It is known that three gunmen were arrested for opening fire on the ship, and investigations are ongoing. Sources within the Suez Canal Authority indicated that a rocket-propelled grenade had been used in the attempt; there was no damage to the ship or its cargo. It is believed that the attack was most likely conducted by foreigners, or Egyptians working with foreigners, from bases in the North Sinai.
Egyptian authorities, meanwhile, have elevated security along the Canal Zone. Commander of the Third Field Army has announced that the waterway and the ships transiting the canal are completely secure. While Egypt is under national curfew until 31 August, authorities stress that traffic through the Suez Canal remains unaffected. The Canal Zone is secured by the military, including land, sea and air patrols.
The Egyptian military and interim government are determined to keep traffic in the Suez flowing normally. Authorities have highlighted high-risk areas of threat to the canal and its land-based facilities, and are increasing security. But it is likely that such an incident could happen again. While there is intense security along the canal zone, residential areas could become trading areas for light weapons, free from the scrutiny of authorities.
Ships transiting the region are advised to pay attention to updates and recommendations from local authorities, and maintain a constant security watch.
The Joint War Committee, which is comprised of representatives from the Lloyd’s and IUA company markets, are reviewing the situation to identify whether this attack is indicative of a trend, and whether it was carried out by individuals rather than a group. They have not placed Egypt or the Suez Canal on their list of high-risk areas.
Traffic is currently uninterrupted in the Canal.
Mohab Mamish, Chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, says that the Egyptian military foiled an attack on a container ship on Saturday. The attack, conducted by “terrorist elements” was intended to disrupt shipping in the Suez Canal. Reports indicate that the attempt was “completely unsuccessful” and the vessel was undamaged. The report did not indicate how the ship was targeted.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that two explosions occurred at 12:30 GMT as the Panama-flagged vessel, Cosco Asia, traversed the canal. Egyptian authorities have enacted extra security measures to secure the waterway, and have dealt “firmly” with the attempt. There was minimal interruption to shipping activity.
It is possible that the attack was linked to the increased arrests of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders and members following the removal of President Mohamed Morsi. Attacks in the Sinai have become a near daily occurrence since the removal of the MB backed leader. It is known that factions of al-Qaeda have taken residence in the North Sinai region. A week earlier, 25 off-duty, unarmed policemen were killed by suspected al-Qaeda militants; one of the worst militant strikes since the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The Egyptian government says they are conducting arrests of MB supporters in the fight against terrorism.
On Saturday, a top militant leader, Adel Mohammed (aka Adel Habara) was arrested in the Sinai Peninsula. Habara was tried in absentia and sentenced to death last year for the murder of soldiers in Nile Valley Egypt. The arrest of Habara could undermine militant activity in the area.
Earlier on Saturday, an Arabic recording was released by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, spokesman for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The recording stated, “There is nothing more right in God’s religion (Islam) than those who speak of the infidelity, reneging on Islam and abandonment of religion, and call for the necessity to fight these armies, foremost of which is the Egyptian army.” Al-Adnani also accused the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist al-Nour party of being co-opted to conduct the “futile secular approach to power through elections and democracy.”
There are currently no reported delays in the Suez Canal.