Egypt airstrikes in Sinai kill 20 'terrorists' in reprisal for attacks on military posts

The Aug. 5 attack on a border post in the Sinai has spurred an Egyptian military crackdown on the growing militant activity in the Sinai peninsula, which poses a challenge to Egypt's new leader.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
In this photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 8, Egyptians ride a pick-up truck near the Kerem Shalom crossing, a zone where the Israeli, Egyptian, and Gaza borders intersect and where an Egyptian military vehicle that was seized by Islamist gunmen tried to storm the border into Israel on Sunday.

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The Egyptian military launched its first airstrikes in the Sinai peninsula in decades today, killing 20 “terrorists,” Egyptian state-run media reports.

The airstrikes along the Israeli-Egyptian border came after several Egyptian military checkpoints in the region were attacked overnight and three days after unknown gunmen attacked Egyptian border guards. The incidents have left Egypt lurching to contain the Sinai's growing lawlessness, which has been fostered by the upheaval of post-revolution Egypt and poses an important challenge for the country's new leadership. 

An unnamed Egyptian senior military official told Agence France-Presse that “20 terrorists were killed” in the village of Tumah, near the Gaza border, by Apache helicopter strikes. The military source said the operation was ongoing and other airstrikes have been reported in neighboring villages.

The attacks came the day after a military funeral for the 16 men who were killed by suspected militants on Aug. 5, when gunmen disguised as Bedouins staged an assault on a border post as guards stopped to break the Ramadan fast. The attack was the deadliest attack on Egyptian security forces on the peninsula since Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, according to Reuters. 

The border unrest and escalating reports of militant and criminal activity in the Sinai region are seen as a test for Egypt’s new president, its first Islamist head of state. The Washington Post reports:

Morsi is under heavy pressure to endorse a crushing crackdown on militants in the Sinai, but any missteps or abuses could trigger a backlash from Islamists, his main political base.

On Tuesday, Morsi stayed away from the military funeral for the 16 slain soldiers – a conspicuous absence for a leader whose thorny relationship with the military is being closely watched. Angry Egyptians heckled and tried to assault Prime Minister Hesham Kandil when he arrived for prayers before the funeral, prompting his security detail to whisk him out.

[W]hile Morsi’s victory in Egypt’s first free presidential election marked a watershed moment for Egyptian Islamists after decades of repression, it also set up a potential standoff between his government and religious extremists, who are willing to launch attacks against the state in order to further their own agenda.

“Those who carried out this crime will pay dearly,” Morsi said, according to the Guardian. “Clear orders have been given to our armed forces and police to chase and arrest those who carried out this assault on our children. The forces will impose full control over these areas of Sinai.”

No group has taken credit for the attack.

The airstrikes today followed overnight clashes between armed men and Egyptian security forces at numerous checkpoints in the region, including Arish and neighboring Rafah, reports Reuters. One checkpoint has been targeted 28 times since the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak began, according to the state-funded Middle East News Agency.

Maj.-Gen. Amos Gilad, an Israeli defense ministry bureau chief, said the Egyptian military was determined to expunge terrorism in Sinai. “If they don’t remove and uproot [terrorism], it will continue to strike,” Mr. Gilad told Israel Radio today

But Mona Zamalot, an anti-militancy activist in the city of al-Arish, told the Washington Post she fears militants will move into the Sinai's towns if the government and military crackdown continues. “If the militants stay in the desert and mountains, they will fall,” she said. “They want to go into the cities.”

Ms. Zamalot said an Egyptian military official told her that the men believed to be behind the border post attack “want victory or martyrdom.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for Egypt’s efforts to strengthen security in the Sinai and State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the US was committed to improving counter-terror work in Egypt and ensuring Israel’s security. Mr. Ventrell added that those in the region would feel comforted when Egypt’s new Islamist government and neighboring countries fully establish working relations.

Daniel Nisman, an intelligence officer at a security company in Tel Aviv, wrote in an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal that the US should start making its aid to Egypt conditional, based on Egypt's efforts to stamp out extremists inside its borders.

In the security vacuum that ensued since Hosni Mubarak's ousting, militant groups from Gaza and elsewhere swarmed into the Sinai Peninsula, quickly establishing a mini-Afghanistan on the Mediterranean. Amongst the sand dunes and jagged mountains, these militants found fertile breeding ground for their extremist ideology, quickly radicalizing the native Bedouin tribesmen who were long considered second-class citizens under the Mubarak dictatorship.

In the Sinai Peninsula, a strict counter-terrorism doctrine must be enforced upon Egypt, requiring the new leadership to provide tangible results in reigning in militancy within their borders. It would serve the Obama administration well to correct its approach toward post-revolution Egypt.

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