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Militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula grow stronger

A policeman, foreground, with the Hamas militant group stands guard in the southern Gaza Strip as an Egyptian soldier watches from the other side of the border. Egyptian security officials say Hamas has dispatched militants to the Sinai Peninsula.
(Said Khatib / AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO — While the Egyptian army moves to contain violent protests in Cairo and other major cities, extremist attacks on police stations and military checkpoints in the desolate Sinai Peninsula have added a perilous dimension to the country’s unrest.

Fueled by weapons smuggled from Libya and widening calls for jihad, the militants have grown stronger on a harsh terrain dominated by Bedouin tribes and criminal clans.

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Frequent skirmishes between the army and militant networks have killed dozens in recent weeks. The bloodshed is another pivotal test for the new military-backed government, which is struggling with political divisions, a broken economy and rising sectarianism.

Militant attacks in the Sinai’s deserts and lawless scrublands spread amid the security breakdown left by the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They have intensified since July 3, when Islamist anger deepened after the coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The instability has spurred neighboring Israel, which signed a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, to tighten its border.

Security officials fear a new wave of terrorism reminiscent of the assaults on resorts and tourist sites that killed dozens in late 1990s and early 2000s. Indications that militant plots may be radiating beyond the Sinai arose Wednesday when a bomb hidden beneath a car exploded outside a police station in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, killing one soldier and wounding 28 others.

The Brotherhood said the “attacks would stop if Morsi was reinstated,” said a tribal sheik who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “There’s no Al Qaeda in Sinai or anything like that. Maybe fundamentalist ideology exists here, but it was imported to Sinai because of the security vacuum.”

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It is not clear, however, how much sway the Brotherhood has over extremists in the Sinai. Foreign fighters, including some reportedly from Saudi Arabia and Libya, have joined the ranks of indigenous Bedouins in a mix of interests that includes battling Israel and the West, destroying the Egyptian government and demanding jobs and other opportunities.

Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, urged Egyptians on Wednesday to hold mass rallies Friday to support a military crackdown against violence and terrorism. The move was a reaction to the chaos in the Sinai and part of the army’s strategy to isolate the Brotherhood, which had been the country’s most potent political force.

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Clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators have killed more than 90 people nationwide in recent weeks, raising fear of factional fighting if the Brotherhood refuses to disband its sit-ins and marches.

“I did not deceive the former president,” Sisi, who has been vilified by Islamists for unseating Egypt’s first freely elected leader, said in a speech. “The former president was advised, directly and indirectly, either to step down or hold a referendum to see if the people want him or not.”

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The general’s comments confirmed “that what happened was a coup against legitimacy, a coup against Islam,” said Sheik Ibrahim Menei, head of the Sinai Tribal Union. “I never expected to hear what we heard today; it’s an open call for war. Today, what was hidden has been revealed.... The military has bared its fangs.”

Hours after Sisi’s comments, violence erupted in the Sinai. Gunmen reportedly killed two soldiers and, in a separate incident, three extremists died when a car carrying explosive belts and gasoline canisters exploded in the desert outside the coastal city of El Arish.

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Militants, many of them poor Bedouin tribesmen, have carried out at least 30 attacks on security forces in the region over the last three weeks. The extremists’ arsenal includes Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and SAM-7 missiles. The army has sent reinforcements, and desert roads and town squares now rattle with tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Military patrols sweep across the windy landscape on highways while militants and smugglers, traveling on foot and in pickups, traverse a web of dirt paths and shifting sandy roads. Traffickers sneak drugs, weapons and African migrants past the edges of villages and the army barricades, police stations and government buildings.

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Two soldiers and a policeman were killed Monday in ambushes targeting a radio station, an administrative office and a police headquarters in El Arish. Another attack that day killed a policeman outside his home.

“This escalation is new [and] has never happened with this intensity before,” said Hossam Refai, a pharmacist in the northern Sinai. “There used to be long periods between such attacks, but now there’s daily targeting of checkpoints and security installations.”

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A number of extremists in the Sinai were freed from prisons over the last two years as part of an amnesty program to correct the injustices of Mubarak’s police state. Other released prisoners were accused this year of planning terrorist attacks in Cairo and other cities.

Security officials also said Hamas, the radical group in the Gaza Strip that was born out of the Muslim Brotherhood, has dispatched militants to the Sinai. The claim could not be independently verified, but the army has destroyed many tunnels leading into Gaza. Egyptian prosecutors are investigating whether Hamas was involved in a prison break in 2011 that freed Morsi and other Brotherhood members during the uprising against Mubarak.

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The Sinai’s troubles are rooted in poverty and years of marginalization, especially under the Mubarak government. With few opportunities, tribesmen took to smuggling, including human trafficking and shuttling weapons, cement and groceries through tunnels into Gaza. Some residents helped the terrorist cells that targeted resorts, including bombings in Sharm el Sheik that killed more than 80 people in 2005.

A crackdown on the region followed. The atmosphere further deteriorated amid the security vacuum after Mubarak’s downfall. Natural gas lines supplying Israel were blown up repeatedly and a checkpoint between El Arish and the border city of Rafah was hit at least 40 times by militants in 16 months.

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Police retreated and the military clumsily stepped in. In August 2012, masked gunmen attacked several military checkpoints, killing 16 border guards. The assault gave Morsi a pretext to purge the military leadership, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, then commander of the armed forces.

“There are many people whose interests lie in the absence of security in the Sinai,” said Refai. “They do not belong to any Islamist organizations or groups, but they just don’t want to see security return, so they may participate in such operations.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Hassieb is a special correspondent


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