Egypt Update: Sinai in CrisisJuly 18, 2013 in Egypt
The ousting of Mohamed Morsi on 4 July has caused violent conflicts across Egypt. On 16 July, clashes in Cairo resulted in seven dead and 261 wounded. Leaders of Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, have called for a “million-man” demonstration in Cairo on 19 July; it is likely that the march will lead to more hostility. However, some analysts believe that the demonstrations are a diversion.
While protesters are in the streets, anti-government factions appear to be preparing for further violence and the conduct of terrorist activity. Salafist militants in the Sinai, reportedly receiving assistance from Hamas, have already conducted several coordinated attacks in the northern part of the peninsula, and may be intent upon bringing the chaos into mainland Egypt.
Counterfeit Military Uniforms
On 16 July, Egyptian security forces seized a shipment of counterfeit Egyptian uniforms and other equipment worth over a million Egyptian pounds from two tankers at the Ain Sukhna Port in the Suez governate. An unnamed source disclosed that the impounded items were to be used in terrorist attacks within Cairo or in other governorates.
This occurrence marks the fourth discovery of counterfeit uniforms in 2013. In March, Egyptian forces raided a counterfeit military uniform workshop north of Cairo, and also found 10,000 items of military-style clothing with an Egyptian businessman on his way to Benghazi. In another case, 25 tonnes of material, similar to that worn by Egyptian soldiers, was seized from a Chinese shipment to Alexandria.
The seizures have been linked with reports that Hamas is using the material to make counterfeit military uniforms. Hamas has been particularly angered by the removal of Morsi, as they had hoped the Islamist-backed party would provided diplomatic and financial support in its struggle with Israel. However, Hamas has met with growing opposition as the Egyptian media reports that Hamas fighters were and are being smuggled into Egypt to restore and entrench the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas denies both claims; however, the Egyptian government remains concerned that any group with the ability to impersonate Egyptian military personnel could cause problems within the nation.
Militant Movement in Sinai
Following the removal of Mubarak in 2011, North Sinai became a hotbed for violent activity. Security forces abandoned the area for several months, leaving militants and smugglers to take advantage of tunnels and above ground systems to enter the region and hide out in secluded caves and mountains.
Despite the return of Egyptian security forces, the vast, predominantly desert area is still under-policed. The sparseness of officers, many of whom are unfamiliar with the region, provides militants with secluded operational space from which to carry out extremist plots. Since Morsi’s removal from office, two Salafi-Jihadist groups have announced their presence in North Sinai, and have taken responsibility for violence in the region: Ansar al-Shari’a in the Land of Kinaanah (Egypt) announced their existence on 5 July, vowing to respond to the “war against Islam in Egypt.” On 6 July, a group called al-Salafiya al-Jihadiyah fi’l-Sinai condemned the military for allegedly firing on demonstrators in al-Arish, and called for the “comprehensive and immediate application of Islamic law,” telling Egyptians to abandon the concept of democracy and resist “the enemies of Islam in Egypt.”
On 8 July, Dr. Muhammad Beltagy, a senior leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, stated that the MB is not responsible for the upsurge of violence in the Sinai, but that the attacks will stop when Defence Minister, General al-Sisi, withdraws the coup and restores Morsi to office. While this statement sparked rumours of MB responsibility for growing violence in the region, the MB as an entity has in fact made little headway in the Sinai. According to prominent North Sinai activist Mos’ad Abu Fajr, individuals associated with Hamas and their military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, have been aiding the violence in the Sinai through funds provided by one man, Khayrat al Shater, the deputy leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who is now imprisoned.
Violence in North Sinai
Following Morsi’s removal, hard-line militants have mounted daily attacks against Egyptian security forces in the region. The strikes have increased in intensity and boldness, and show greater coordination and planning. Since the removal of Morsi, the following events have occurred in the Sinai:
- 4 July: Gunmen send rocket propelled grenades toward army checkpoints at al-Arish airport.
- 4 July: Gunmen attack an army checkpoint on a road south of al-Arish.
- 4 July: Police stations and a military intelligence headquarters in Rafah attacked, killing one soldier and wounding two, as Egyptian Army closes over 40 major smuggling tunnels along the Gaza border, and closing the Rafah border itself.
- 5 July: Egyptian border guard killed in a gunfight at Ghornata checkpoint, another wounded hours later.
- 5 July: A series of coordinated attacks throughout North Sinai, presumably by disparate militant groups working in unity.
- 5 July: Morsi supporters attack an administrative building in al-Arish carrying the black flag used by al-Qaeda and its subsidiaries.
- 5 July: Two police officers killed in front of a government building in al-Arish; an additional four officers killed the same day.
- 5 July: Simultaneous attack on five security checkpoints in Sheikh Zweid.
- 6 July: A Coptic Christian priest is killed at an outdoor market.
- 6-7 July: Four simultaneous attacks in Sheikh Zweid.
- 7 July: Egyptian border guards encountered a group of ten militants emerging from a tunnel from Gaza. The group, suspected Hamas fighters, escape back into the tunnel, leaving behind seven boxes of bombs and munitions.
- 7 July: al-Arish pipeline is bombed twice, halting natural gas supplies to Jordan. The pipeline has been struck over a dozen times since Mubarak’s removal in 2011, but had no instances of attack for 10 months.
- 8 July: Israeli sources claim that dozens of Hamas militants crossed into the Sinai and participated in a Muslim Brotherhood attack on an Army post in al-Arish.
- 8 July: A series of attacks are carried out by gunmen on motorcycles and in vehicles. One officer is killed outside a police station in al-Arish. Fourteen suspected militants were arrested.
- 9 July: Militants attack a security checkpoint using RPGs and heavy machine guns in Sadr al-Haytan.
- 10 July 10: Gunmen attempt to assassinate General Ahmad Wasfy, the commander of Egypt’s Second Field Army, responsible for the Sinai.
- 11 July: Militants abduct and decapitate a Christian merchant in Sheikh Zweid.
- 12 July: One Egyptian policeman killed and another wounded by militants who fired rocket-propelled grenades at security checkpoints in al-Arish.
- 13 July: Masked gunmen in an SUV fire at a security checkpoint near al-Arish airport. No injuries reported.
- 13 July: Egyptian security officials arrest a Palestinian man in relation to the al-Arish pipeline bombings. The criminal was detained in the Sinai Peninsula while trying to return to the Gaza Strip.
- 14 July: Militants al-Arish fire RPGs, mistakenly targeting a bus full of workers heading to a cement factory, killing three and injuring 17.
- 17 July: One Egyptian army officer and five soldiers wounded as gunmen attacked three army camps in al-Arish, using mobile anti-aircraft rockets and machine guns.
- 17 July: Egyptian forces seize a cache of handmade weapons in Port Said
- 17 July: Egyptian police officer shot in the neck outside of police station in Al Arish.
- 17 July: Eight people wounded in an attack in Rafah.
- 17 July: Gunmen killed three policemen in al Arish.
- 17 July: Forces intercepted 19 GRAD rockets, with a range up to 10 kilometres, heading to Cairo from Suez. Sources believe the rockets were made and supplied by Hamas and originated from the Gaza Strip.
Egyptian Security Reaction
Egyptian forces are losing troops at a rate of one death and six injuries per day. Per the 1979 peace accord, Egypt has requested and received permission from Israel to send additional troops into the Sinai. Two Egyptian battalions will be deployed: one in Rafah, on the border with Gaza, will focus on smuggling, illegal passage, and the defence of the highly targeted town of al-Arish; another battalion will be established in the centre of the peninsula. Forces intend to protect the peninsula and prevent militant activity from sweeping into mainland Egypt. Patrol has also increased in the Suez region to ensure the safe travel through the Canal Zone.
The offensive is expected to last at least a month, as Egyptian military is determined to eliminate the jihadist presence in the region. On the Israeli side of the border, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has chosen to act only if armed individuals or groups attempt to cross the border, and IDF forces are preparing the soldiers for complex tasks and drilling extreme scenarios. The Egyptian army and government have acted quickly to make its position clear to Israel authorities, receiving an Israel representative for security talks in Cairo hours after Morsi’s overthrow.
Because Egypt is working to regain stability, it is expected that for some time, military forces will more than likely be one step behind militant activities without the aid of outside forces. Attacks appear more united and coordinated than previous attacks over the past two years, and militant actors may also take advantage of Egypt’s tenuous relationship with the Bedouin community in the Sinai, who feel they have not received significant attention from the mainland government for several decades. Certain Bedouin tribes in the region have turned to smuggling as pastoral and other income opportunities have dried out. The result is an increased flow of weapons and contraband, particularly from Libya, which could reach the hands of the militants. If the Egyptian government is intent to set a timeframe on offensive activity in the Sinai, it is likely that the militants are prepared to wait them out.