25 April marked the 33rd annual Sinai Liberation day in Egypt, celebrating the return of the peninsula to the Egyptians in 1982. During a ceremony, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi saluted the residents of the region, and the sacrifices of the armed forces in the Sinai Peninsula. He announced the government’s new plans for development in Sinai, including the development of new cities, in particular, New Rafah and New Ismailia. Finally, the president expressed hope that these projects would create jobs for youths in the region.
Despite the positive message delivered by Sisi, the story in Sinai has been a troubled one in recent years. Since 2013, armed forces have struggled to maintain security in the region. Attacks against security forces in North Sinai have spiked to almost daily levels since the ouster of Islamist former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Egypt’s army, heavily reinforced in the region, has regularly declared arrests, confiscation, and deaths of militants in an effort to quell the operations in the region. In November, the most notorious militant group in the region, Ansar Beit al Maqdis, declared allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The new cities planned by the Egyptian government are the result of forced relocation of residents who live on the border with Gaza. A week earlier, Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab issued a ordering the isolation and evacuation of more areas surrounding Rafah in North Sinai. This expands the current buffer zone that was implemented by Egyptian security forces on the border with Gaza. Initially the evacuation was to clear all homes within 500 metres of the border, for fear that homes in the immediate vicinity would be used to cover underground tunnels which could smuggle individuals or contraband into the country. Hundreds of tunnels have bene flooded and destroyed. Currently, the border clearance is expanded to a one-kilometre-wide and 14-kilometre-long buffer zone on the eastern border of North Sinai as part of its fight against militants in the peninsula. The announcements of the buffer zone in recent months have caused the evacuation of hundreds of people, and the demolition of hundreds of houses. Mahlab’s announcement included a promise that evacuees would receive alternative housing and reparations, and a warning that state would confiscate the property of anyone who resisted the evacuation. The evacuations, with little notice, have raised the ire of local residents and caused human rights organisations to speak out against Sisi’s policies.
Meanwhile, on Saturday Egypt extended a state of emergency imposed on parts of northern Sinai. The initial state of emergency was put in place late last year after Islamist militants stepped up attacks in the peninsula bordering Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal. In October, 33 security personnel were killed in an attack at a checkpoint in northern Sinai, one of the largest attacks to occur in the region. The attack was claimed by Ansar Beit al Maqdis, who seeks to topple Sisi’s government, but largely focuses their attacks on police and security forces in North Sinai. The state of emergency was extended for another three months in January. The current extension is to last for three months, and will impact Rafah, al-Arish, Sheik Zuweid and surrounding areas. It also extends a night-time curfew in place in the same areas.
In the midst of a growing battle against militants in Sinai and throughout the country, last month the US announced that it would lift the ban of the supply of military equipment to Egypt. The ban was put in place when Morsi was overthrown in 2011. The White House said it would release the equipment and “modernise” the way it provided military aid to Egypt, including a greater focus on counterterrorism, border security, maritime security and Sinai security. President Obama directed the release of 12 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, 20 Boeing Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits made by General Dynamics. With an influx of weapons, the mass relocation of residents, and intensified battles against militants in the region, Egypt hopes to see a second liberation in Sinai.
20 November 2014– Nine people have been wounded in two bombing incidents in Cairo. Five police officers were injured in an explosion targeting a police outpost near Helwan University in Southern Cairo. Reports from the interior ministry indicate that the assailants threw an incendiary explosive device (IED) from a speeding car as they approached the university.
Earlier today, four Egyptians were wounded in a stampede following a stun grenade detonation at Ramses railway station in Central Cairo. Outside of Cairo, three state transport buses were set ablaze in Sharqiya province. The buses were empty; no injuries were reported.
The series of incidents today is part of a string of attacks that have been conducted in Egypt over recent weeks. On 13 November, sixteen people were wounded when a bomb detonated near a metro train during rush hour. In early November, four people were killed in an explosion on a train carriage in Menoufiya, north of Cairo.
While no one has taken responsibility for the incidents earlier today, militant groups have been targeting security forces around the country since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Ansar Beit al Maqdis has conducted several bombings and shootings of police and military forces. The group predominantly operates in North Sinai but occasionally targets major cities in the Nile Valley. In mid-November, Ansar Beit al Maqdis announced that they had sworn allegiance to ISIS. A second militant group known as Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) also operates in Cairo and has claimed responsibility for several attacks targeting security forces.
Meanwhile, security forces have arrested a Mohammed Ali Bishr, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, now deemed a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government. Bishr’s arrest was linked to a call for demonstrations at the end of November, however the group organising the demonstrations is Salafi Front. The government has conducted heavy crackdowns against the Muslim Brotherhood since August 2013. The crackdown has given rise to heavy, sometimes violent protests, particularly around universities throughout the nation. Security has been tightened around universities across Egypt; protests supporting former President Morsi have increased in number since the school year began in October. In the past academic year, at least 14 students died in clashes with security forces on campus. In the wake of Bishr’s arrest, it is likely that protests will continue to rise. Heavy clashes are likely on the last Friday of November.
28 October- On Saturday, Egyptian President Abdul Fatah El Sisi declared a three month state of emergency in north and central Sinai Peninsula. The state of emergency which began on Saturday at 0300 GMT will last for three months. A curfew will be enforced from 1700 to 0500. In addition, the Egyptian government has closed the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip. Sisi’s presidential decree stated, “The army and police will take all necessary measures to tackle the dangers of terrorism and its financing, to preserve the security of the region… and protect the lives of citizens.”
The decision came after a militant fighter rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into a security checkpoint northwest of El-Arish in North Sinai on Friday, killing at least 30 soldiers and leaving 29 others injured. One senior army official and five officers were among the wounded. Earlier on Friday, gunmen shot and killed an officer and wounded two soldiers at a checkpoint south of El-Arish. On Saturday, the body of a soldier who disappeared after Friday’s attack was found riddled with bullets. Immediately following the incidents, Sisi called for three days of national morning and called for a meeting of the National Defence Council.
The attacks are the worst the country has experienced against security forces since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. In August 2013, 25 soldiers were killed in the Sinai when gunmen opened fire at two buses transporting troops. In July 2014, 22 border guards were killed in the western desert near the border with Libya. Later in July, militants conducted two bombings in the Sinai, killing 17 police officers. Each of these attacks has been claimed by Ansar Beit al Maqdis, a Sinai-based terror group that as targeted security forces in the Sinai Peninsula and Nile Valley Egypt since Morsi’s removal from office.
The latest bombings followed the sentencing of seven members of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis to death on Tuesday for conducting deadly attacks on the army. Sisi said Friday’s attack was carried out with “external support” in order to “break the will of the Egyptian people and army.” A spokesman for Ansar Beit al Maqdis has recently stated that they have been receiving assistance from ISIS in the form of advice and guidance, although he underscored that there was no transfer of weapons or personnel.
Sisi has stated that the militants posed an “existential threat” to Egypt, and has authorised a new law that expands military control over state facilities, including power plants, main roads and bridges for the next two years. The law calls for state infrastructure to be defined as “military facilities” and allows the army to work with police to protect these sites, and to arrest and present for trial anyone suspected of launching attacks on those sights. Trials would be held in a military court.
Critics caution that the law allows the army to return to the streets, and will result in the return of military trials for civilians, one of the major reasons for the Egyptian uprising in 2011. Activists believe the law is too broad, and may be reinterpreted to cover universities, where clashes between and protesters have become a regular occurrence. The increased capacity for military power has been perceived as an attempt to quell dissidents against the Sisi administration. A large number of anti-military activists have been arrested in October, and at least 17 newspapers across the nation have refrained from publishing criticism of the army or the state.
Yet Sisi’s presidential spokesman, Alaa Youssef, said the decree is a limited and proportional response aimed at tackling terrorism, not protesters. The Egyptian foreign ministry has also contacted ambassadors of several nations to ask for additional security support and to “and supply information for Egypt that meets its security needs.” Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has called for the international community to provide support in order to “carry out a strong and decisive” operation. The EU, US and UK have condemned the two attacks and pledged to support Egypt.
The Egyptian government has taken extensive ground and air efforts to eradicate the terrorist threat in the Sinai Peninsula. Despite the number of targeted killings, arrests, tunnel closures, and confiscations of militant held homes and weapons the militant threat does not appear to be diminishing. The military launched fresh air strikes Saturday in northern Sinai, killing eight suspected militants.
5 October, 2014– Ansar Beit al Maqdis (ABM), a Sinai-based militant group, released a video showing the execution of four men accused of spying for the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, and the Egyptian army. In the video, the four men recorded their ‘confessions’ and urged other ‘spies’ to publicly repent. The victims said that ABM knows who the spies are, and they will not be spared. Three of the victims were beheaded, their heads placed atop their backs. A fourth was shot multiple times.
In the video, an ABM spokesman cautioned that the militants would storm peoples’ homes to kill and capture those they suspected as being army agents. The video is the second depicting ABM beheading victims accused of spying for Egypt or Israel. A video released in August shows the beheading of four Egyptians accused of providing Israel with intelligence for an air strike that killed three of its fighters. In September, Sinai residents found a decapitated corpse bearing a note signed ABM. The victim was also accused of being an Israeli spy.
The ABM videos are similar to those released by ISIS, and underscore the connection between ABM and the notorious group. A spokesman for ABM said last month that ISIS had been advising them on how to operate more effectively. This weekend’s footage shows members of Ansar Beit al Maqdis manning checkpoints to search for spies, and overlays statements from a September speech given by ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, in which he urges Sinai-based militants to kill Egyptian security personnel.
In what appears to be a response to this call, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis announced they would launch attacks targeting police and soldiers during Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday which began on Saturday.
Prior to the holiday, on Thursday unknown assailants travelling by motorbike threw a bag containing a bomb near the municipal governor’s in Egypt’s Gharbia governorate. The blast wounded Gharbia security chief, Mohamed Rizk, and a security guard. One of the men is said to be in a critical condition. One security source says at least five explosions hit the governorate on Thursday; the bombers are suspected to be members of ABM. On Sunday, a ‘sound bomb’ detonated near the Evangelical Church in Minya. No casualties or damage has been reported. ABM has not taken responsibility for this attack.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has been a major security threat since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The group has killed hundreds of police officers and military personnel and targeted security infrastructure. The attacks have also resulted in civilian casualties. Authorities have struggled to combat ABM and to dismantle their relationship with ISIS. On Sunday, security forces have arrested four Egyptian nationals who were suspected members of a militant cell recruiting fighters for ISIS.
On 3 October, the Egyptian army announced that they have killed twelve militants and arrested 68 in raids across four different governorates: North Sinai, Ismailia, Port Said and Daqahlia. Among those killed was Mohamed Abu Shatiya, a field commander of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. The military also claims to have seized 17 vehicles and 49 motorcycles, and destroyed a field hospital which was used by the militants. The government is in the midst of a large-scale campaign to eradicate militant groups in the region, and has systematically demolished houses and tunnels being used by extremists.
The US and UK embassies have updated travel advice for Egypt. Citizens have been urged to limit their movements. The announcement comes after a tumultuous series of events. Over the weekend, thousands celebrated in the streets of Cairo and across Egypt to mark the 3rd anniversary of the Egyptian uprising. Amidst the attacks, a series of protests among divided groups led to heavy conflicts across the nation. Clashes between demonstrators and security forces left at least 49 people dead and 247 injured. The Egyptian Interior ministry reportedly arrested over 1,000 demonstrators.
Further darkening the celebrations, a series of bombings took place across Cairo. Radical Sinai-based group Ansar Beit al Maqdis has taken responsibility for the bombings, as well as the shooting down of an army helicopter in the Sinai Peninsula on 25 January. The group released a video of one of its members using a surface to air missile to attack the helicopter.
On 28 January, members of Ansar Beit al Maqdis shot and killed an aide to Egypt’s interior minister. Two assailants on motorcycle targeted General Mohamed Said, head of the minister’s technical office, as he was leaving his home near the governorate building and Talbia police station.
The surrounding area has been cordoned off while investigations continue. Egypt’s Interior Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, escaped an assassination attempt conducted by the same group in September.
Within hours of the assassination, security forces also found a box containing Molotov cocktails and a homemade bomb near Egypt’s High Court in downtown Cairo. The box was removed and dismantled, and the area was forcibly cleared of protesters demonstrating against the renewed trial of Mohamed Morsi.
During Morsi’s trial, he and 21 defendants were enclosed in a sound-proof glass cage in order to prevent a repeat of the interruptions they made in their first court appearance last year. The defendants, along with at least a hundred others who are being tried in absentia, are charged in the escape of more than 20,000 inmates from three Egyptian prisons during the early days of the 2011 uprising. Additionally, they have been charged with damaging and setting fire to prison buildings, murder, attempted murder, looting prison weapons depots, and allowing prisoners from the “Hamas movement, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Jihadists, Brotherhood [members] and other criminals” to break out of jails. Morsi insisted to the court that he is a political prisoner, not a detainee. “I am the legitimate president of the country […] and this trial is not legal.” The detainees chanted “Down with military rule,” and “null, null, null.” The judges postponed the trial until February 22 to allow the lawyers enough time to review the case files.
The US embassy has updated their advice to ask US citizens to elevate their level of awareness and limit their movements to the near vicinity of their neighbourhoods. Likewise, they advise overland travel outside metropolitan areas.
Similarly, the UK FCO has urged foreign nationals to be aware of nearby protests and leave the area immediately. Further citizens are urged take particular care in areas with a history of regular protests. On 24 and 25 January, some westerners “were singled out and attacked by some protestors.”