Experts caution that Islamic State terror cells could be moving from east to west, potentially getting closer to Suez Canal, mainland Egypt
Analysts say the security situation in Egypt’s North Sinai region is deteriorating following a deadly attack claimed by Islamic State.
A blast on May 1 targeted an armored vehicle south of Bir al-Abd, killing or wounding 10 soldiers, including an officer, Egypt’s military said.
Two days after the attack, Egyptian security forces raided a home in Bir al-Abd, killing 18 suspected militants in a firefight, according to Egypt’s Interior Ministry.
Bir al-Abd was the scene of the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history in 2017 when around 40 gunmen opened fire during Friday prayers at the Sufi al-Rawda mosque, killing and wounding hundreds.
The latest round of violence there has observers concerned that Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate is moving east to west along the coastal road, beyond where Islamic State – Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province) terror cells have traditionally operated since the insurgency began in 2011 – places such as Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid.
Wilayat Sinai is getting closer to the Suez Canal and mainland Egypt despite Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi authorizing a massive security operation in 2018 following the 2017 mosque attack. The counter-terror campaign, dubbed Comprehensive Operation − Sinai 2018, mostly targeted Islamist insurgents in northern and central Sinai and parts of the Nile Delta.
“The closer you get to the Suez Canal, the more worried the Egyptians should be. It is a major navigation route, a major source of income to Egypt,” Professor Yossi Mekelberg, a Middle East research fellow at London’s Chatham House who is also affiliated with the city’s Regent’s University, told The Media Line.
Mekelberg said that the westward movement beyond their traditional territory shows that Wilayat Sinai has become more confident and daring. That should concern not just Egypt but Israel, as well, and if terror attacks continue closer to the Suez Canal, the international community could get involved – a scenario that, according to Mekelberg, might draw in NATO.
“I think the Sinai terrorists have sought to target the Suez Canal from the beginning of their campaign,” Jim Phillips, Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation, told The Media Line. “It is a vital strategic asset and economic engine for Egypt and the Islamist extremists seek to damage Egypt’s economy, particularly tourism, to undermine the regime. Attacking the canal also would yield global publicity, which the terrorists covet.”
Phillips was critical of Egypt’s counterinsurgency strategy, saying that Egypt was married to conventional military tactics against an unconventional enemy while alienating local Bedouins recruited by Wilayat Sinai.
“Many Bedouin tribes in the Sinai long have complained about being discriminated against by Egypt’s central government, which they charge provides few economic benefits for their tribesmen,” Phillips said. “They have cooperated with ISIS and other Islamist extremists based in Gaza to smuggle arms, people and illicit goods into Egypt and Gaza.”
At about 23,000 square miles (60,000 square km, around the size of West Virginia), the sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula is vast, complicating the Egyptian military’s efforts to defeat the insurgency.
“These groups are more and more entrenched in Sinai. It is difficult to control the Sinai. It is a big territory,” Mekelberg said.
The coronavirus pandemic demonstrates how a health crisis can quickly shift attention and resources.
“The Egyptian army is dealing with this and managed to contain it,” Mekelberg said. “But it is not easy because Egypt is a huge country with plenty of issues beyond the Sinai Peninsula.”