The coordinated attack by Islamic State loyalists on Egyptian military targets that killed as many as 40 people in the northern Sinai Thursday night was the deadliest against the army in decades, shocking even close watchers of the guerrilla war in that region.
Egypt's army had claimed to have the IS-linked group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which now calls itself “State of Sinai” on the run. But Thursday night’s attack appeared to expose flaws at the heart of Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy, and perhaps even a policy of deliberate misinformation.
“This attack is unparalleled in terms of scale and impact,” says Mokhtar Awad, who researches Islamist movements for the Washington-based Centre for American Progress. “The military has done well to export an image to an outside world that it was winning, and indeed up to this point it seemed so.”
In addition to those killed, more than 100 people were wounded by the simultaneous blasts and gun battles in locations across the region. Ten mortars and a minibus laden with explosives hit a heavily fortified security directorate in the city of El Arish, as attacks took place on military targets elsewhere in the city and in the nearby town of Sheikh Zuwayid.
The explosions lit up the sky and gunfire crackled for hours into the night, according to eyewitnesses in the strategically sensitive desert governorate which runs along Egypt’s border with Gaza. Details of the clashes and estimates of the number of militants involved were hard to come by as the region remained almost entirely closed to media.
Alignment with Islamic State
Although Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for sporadic attacks on the Egyptian mainland since the July 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, most of its activity has focused on the eastern Sinai Peninsula, where the group has been hemmed in by Egypt’s army.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis announced its pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State group back in November. It changed its name to State of Sinai and now describes its desert heartlands as part of the Islamic caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
A health ministry official said late Thursday the exact death toll from the attacks could not be revealed as the matter was of a “military nature.”
A Christian Science Monitor visit last year to the site of some of Thursday’s blasts found the area heavily fortified. After weathering dozens of attacks since 2011, El Arish is one of Egypt’s most heavily guarded cities.
Checkpoints carve the roads, and vehicles approaching army or police installations risk being shot on sight. At dusk, the city falls silent. In October, State of Sinai killed 33 soldiers in a double-pronged assault near the Gaza border, prompting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to declare a curfew across the northern Sinai region.
Echoes of Sinai 'collapse' in 1967?
“This is a wake-up call for everyone,” says Mr. Awad at the Centre for American Progress. “There is almost a certain '67 type twang to this, of how the military fed stories of great success that no one could easily verify only to have such attacks happen.”
Known to Egyptians as the “naksah,” or “collapse,” Egypt’s brief 1967 war with Israel ended in a humiliating defeat – including the loss of the entire Sinai Peninsula – despite bellicose rhetoric from President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
On Friday morning, Egypt’s military had reportedly mounted a wide-scale offensive against targets across North Sinai, using helicopters and unmanned aircraft. A 3-month-old baby and a 3-year-old boy were reported to be among additional dead on Friday, after their home was shelled in the town of Sheikh Zuwayid.
This cycle of violence now fits a well-worn pattern. Militants in Sinai have exploited the army’s repeated heavy-handed responses to their attacks as a recruiting tactic in an impoverished region where resentment of the central government runs deep.
The mainly Bedouin population has long complained of neglect by Cairo and the army's offensive against the area’s jihadists has left villages ruined and farmlands razed.
How to measure militant's strength
In late October, the Egyptian military began destroying houses in the border town of Rafah, making way for a kilometer-wide buffer zone. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced, and photos circulating on social media appear to show that the State of Sinai has distributed charitable donations to stricken families.
Questions of what all this means hang uncomfortably over the heads of Egypt’s top brass as the army licks its wounds. According to Zack Gold, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, State of Sinai’s likely future operations, as well as the strength of its links with its IS overlords, will be better assessed in terms of frequency than size.
“Sporadic major attacks – the last being three month ago – are not out of the ordinary,” he says. “If the group… resumed major attacks across the country on a monthly basis, this would likely indicate greater assistance from the Islamic State.”
According to Mr. Gold, Thursday’s attacks reveal fundamental flaws in Egypt’s security and counter-insurgency policies in North Sinai. “If no one loses his job for this latest attack it would show a shocking lack of accountability,” he says.