On Tuesday, the Egyptian government announced that it is increasing security at airports over the possibility that a Russian plane departing from a Sinai resort was brought down by a bomb late last month.
A statement released by the interior ministry disclosed that “taking into consideration all possible causes behind the plane crash, including the possibility that it was targeted by a terrorist attack, the Egyptian authorities have enhanced security measures in all airports.” The country’s’ interior ministry further disclosed on Tuesday that there was a review of screening measures for passengers and luggage, “and enhancement of search procedures for passengers and workers upon entry into the airport.” The ministry added that “security sweeps” of airplanes would be conducted as well as “reviews of flight crews’ security permits.” The release of the statement came as an Egyptian minister disclosed that a probe into the crash had yet to reach any final conclusions pertaining to the disaster. Speaking at a news conference, Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal stated that “until now the (investigation) committee has not yet arrived to any results indicating the cause of the crash.” The remarks came shortly after officials in Russia announced that a bomb had brought down the aircraft. Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s FSB, disclosed Tuesday that the conclusion of Russian investigators was that a homemade bomb containing around 1 kg (2 lbs) of TNT had detonated during the flight, which caused the plane to break up in mid air. He further stated that “we can unequivocally say it was a terrorist act.”
The plane, which was flown by Russian firm Kogalymavia, came down shortly after take off from resort Sharm el-Sheikh on 31 October. All 224 people on board were killed in what is Russia’s worst air disaster. The crash prompted Britain to restrict flights to the resort, and Moscow to all Egyptian airports while barring the country’s national carrier EgyptAir from Russia.
It is now known how a bomb would have been smuggled on the plane before it set off from the popular Red Sea resort, however there have been suspicions that it was an inside job. Two security officials and an airport employee disclosed on Tuesday that Egyptian authorities have detained two employees of Sharm el-Sheikh airport for questioning in connection with the downing of the Russian jet. One of the security officials has indicated that “seventeen people are being held, two of them are suspected of helping whoever planted the bomb on the plane at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.” The other security official has disclosed that CCTV footage showed a baggage handler carrying a suitcase from an airport building to another man, who was loading luggage onto the doomed airliner from beneath the plane on the runway. Meanwhile an employee at the airport media department has also confirmed that two members of the ground crew had been detained for questioning on Monday night. It currently remains unclear what role the employees had at the airport, which is the third largest in the country and which handles a vast number of charter and budget flights for tourists visiting the southern Sinai peninsula. In a statement however, the interior and civil aviation ministries’ media departments denied that there had been any arrests.
Separately, other sources at the airport have reported that security forces were searching for two employees who are suspected of leaving a baggage-scanning machine unattended for a period of time while passengers were boarding the Russian plane. Sources have indicated that CCTV footage is being examined in order to confirm what occurred. Sources however have reported that investigators had questioned all the airport staff involved with handling the Russian plane, its passengers and bags after the accident. So far, no arrests have been made in the search for the two employees who were believed to have stepped away from the baggage-scanning machine.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has previously stated that failures in security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport may have enabled the attack. According to Hammond, “you don’t need a sophisticated capability to get a small bomb, and that’s all you need to bring down an aircraft, a small bomb with a straightforward timer,” adding that “sadly there are many, many people who can do that. The issue is about getting it air side in an airport that is supposed to be secure…Where this points the finger is at the capability of the security on the ground at Sharm el-Sheikh.”
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.
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.”
On 4 December, a report entitled “The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond” was presented to EU home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström in the European Parliament. This, the second report on the topic, focuses on collusion between authorities and criminal networks in human trafficking from the Horn of Africa into the Sinai Peninsula. Between 2007 and 2012, as many as 30,000 men, women and children were trafficked by Eritrean and Sudanese security officers working with Bedouin gangs.
The report categorises trafficking in two main categories, those who are “kidnapped”, and those who are “smuggled”, leaving voluntarily, but abducted in the process of migration. In both cases, the victims are ultimately transferred to members of the Rashaida and Hidarib Bedouin tribes (either through financial exchange, or surrendered by force), and sent to torture camps in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Many of the victims have been abducted from refugee camps in Ethiopia, Sudan or Eritrea. Most troubling, the report finds that approximately 95% of abductees are from Eritrea.
Nearly 3,000 Eritreans attempt to leave their landlocked nation each month. The disproportionate number of Eritreans abducted stems from three key factors: 1) the diaspora includes a tightly knit community structure and disposable income, which increases the chance of collecting ransom; 2) the lack of alternatives and relative destitution of Eritrean migrants and refugees particularly youth who are forced into conscription and child labour; and 3) the involvement of some Eritrean authorities in trafficking.
Eritreans require an exit visa to leave their nation. Because there is a “shoot to kill” policy at the Eritrea/Ethiopia border, many Eritreans choose to exit the nation through the Sudanese border, seeking shelter in Sudanese refugee camps. The report finds that trafficking would not be possible without the collusion of local Eritrean security officials. Further, many involuntary Eritrean victims are kidnapped by the country’s senior military officers and smuggled into Sudan.
Once in Sudan, the victims’ families are contacted with a threat to sell the hostages to Bedouin traffickers in Sinai if the ransom demand is not met. The report states that the hostages are, “chained together without toilets or washing facilities and dehydrated, starved and deprived of sleep.”
If demands are not met, victims are ultimately sent to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and placed in torture camps as ransom demands continue. Torture methods include “burning, beating, and electrocuting. Some hostages are slashed with knives, or have bottles melted on their skin. Some are repeated [sic] raped; some have been hung.” In addition, some victims have had their organs harvested.
Estimates reveal that between 5,000 and 10,000 of the hostages have died in captivity. Refugees continue to be abducted and held in Sinai, and an increasing number of victims are taken involuntarily from their home countries. Since 2009, nearly £366 million has been extorted from families in ransom payments. Those that escape trafficking risk further abduction, or are detained by Egyptian or Israeli authorities, where they are imprisoned then forced to pay their own deportation and repatriation fees.
Ten Egyptian soldiers have been killed, and at least 35 wounded when a roadside car bomb detonated near a two-bus convoy which was carrying soldiers back to Cairo for their leave. The attack, which occurred on the road between Rafah and el-Arish, and is the latest and most severe attack on security forces in the Sinai since the removal of President Mohammed Morsi in July.
The attack targeted troops from the Second Field Army, which is headquartered in Ismailia. The Second and Third Field Army are responsible for security within the restive Sinai Peninsula and the economically critical Suez Canal. The army has heavily stepped up security in the region to ensure safe passage for ships travelling through the canal, and is in the midst of a large operation to eradicate radical groups from the peninsula, which has been rife with extremist elements since the 2011 revolution which saw the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
As of yet, no group has claimed responsibility; however in another attack, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (a.k.a. Ansar Jerusalem), an al-Qaeda linked group from the Sinai, has taken responsibility for the murder of a high-ranking member of Egypt’s National Security Agency outside his home in eastern Cairo earlier this week.
A statement posted to jihadist forums on 19 November revealed that the group was responsible for the 17 November shooting that killed Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Mabrouk. Mabrouk was responsible for the managing the security surrounding the cases against the Muslim Brotherhood, including the investigation of the escape case of President Morsi and other leading members in the Muslim brotherhood from the prison of Wadi El-Natron in 2011. Mabrouk was due to testify against former president Mohamed Morsi when his trial begins in January 2014.
According to the statement released by Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, the attack on Mabrouk, conducted by its Mu’tassim Billah Battalion, was in response to the arrest and interrogation of Muslim women by Egyptian security forces. According to the statement, the battalion is responsible for attempting “to liberate the female prisoners and to pursue who[ever] participated and contributed in capturing them, from officers and individuals of the Interior Ministry.”
Mabrouk was denounced by Ansar Jerusalem as “one of the top tyrants of State Security.” The attack on Mabrouk is “part of the series of operations entitled ‘Release the Female Prisoners from the Hands of the Tyrants’,” the statement continued.
Ansar Bayt al Maqdis also called for action from Egyptians: “Rise to defend your honour even if your lives go with it.” The group also warned that fighters are “lying in wait [to strike] those like” Mohammed Mabrouk if detained Muslim women are not released. They are seeking “any information that helps us in tracking those tyrant criminals who participated in imprisoning our sisters.”
Currently, protections remain in place in the Suez region; no disruption in the region or service of the canal has been reported.
On 19 November, several hundred Egyptians commemorated the deaths of protesters killed in 2011, calling for reforms. Many voiced criticism of the military, something rarely heard in recent times.
Since the removal of Morsi, the Egyptian police and army have been held in high regard. For the police, this is an unusual shift, as a great number of protesters in 2011 where revolting against police brutality. While the security forces have curried favour with a large population of Egyptians, the voice of criticism against the military has begun rise. Supporters of army General Abdel Fatah Al Sisi showed up at Tahrir during the protests, but were chased away by activists.
Protesters in Tahrir said the goals of the 2011 uprising had not been met and accused the security forces of acting mostly with impunity in the intervening two years. Protesters chanted, “Down with the military regime,” and, “We want to protect our country from oppression.” While many claimed not to support the Muslim Brotherhood, they also claimed that the military has more strength than it did before the end of the Mubarak era. One protester said, “We do not want Sisi as president. He is a strong defence minister and he should remain in that position. We want a civilian leader.”
At one point, security forces fired tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd, but were unsuccessful. Reluctant to avoid clashes on a sensitive anniversary, they departed.