Sinai car bomb underscores Egyptian army's tenuous grasp on security

A spate of militant attacks on Egyptian security forces and government officials could be a nascent insurgency.

Egyptian army soldiers patrol in an armored vehicle backed by a helicopter gunship during a sweep through villages in Sheikh Zuweyid, northern Sinai, Egypt, May 21, 2013. Ten Egyptian soldiers were killed after a car bomb exploded next to their bus in the northern Sinai Peninsula, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.

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Ten Egyptian soldiers were killed after a car bomb exploded next to their bus in the northern Sinai Peninsula today, underscoring the precarious security situation since former President Mohamed Morsi's ouster.

The number of attacks in the Sinai has increased since the July 3 military coup that overthrew Mr. Morsi, raising concerns that sporadic attacks will flare into a sustained insurgency.

At least 35 people were wounded in the attack, according to the Egyptian military. Egyptian army spokesman Col. Ahmed Quell Ali said the armed forces would “carry on the war against black terrorism...purge Egypt and secure its people from treacherous violence,” according to the Egytian El-Ahram newspaper.

More than 100 Egyptian security forces have been killed in the Sinai since Morsi’s disposal, according to the BBC. Militants have also targeted officials in the nation’s capital. Today’s bombing comes three days after gunmen assassinated a senior Egyptian security official in Cairo who was responsible for investigating Muslim extremists.

An extremist group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has also struck in the Sinai, claimed responsibility for that attack Tuesday, according to The New York Times.

The bombing was the deadliest since an Aug. 19 ambush in the Sinai that killed 25 Egyptian soldiers. The Monitor’s Christa Case Bryant, reporting after the August attack, explained the security stakes:

While details of today’s attack are still emerging, the overall challenge is abundantly clear. An uptick in militant attacks in Sinai since the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 places additional strain on security forces already preoccupied with escalating political violence in Cairo and elsewhere, and has raised concerns that Sinai is on the road to becoming a magnet for global jihadi groups.

The violence is also the result of the “Egyptian military’s freer hand to crack down after deposing President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood last month,” the Monitor reports: 

The Army for the longest time has been holding back from interfering in Sinai,” says Sameeh, a high-ranking security official in northern Sinai who would give only his first name. “The elements in this area fear that they might lose this [strategic area] now that we have deployed more tanks and we’re putting more effort into clearing this area, so obviously they are going to fight back."

The Egyptian army is “fighting an insurgency using very forceful means,” Anna Boyd, the manager for country risk in the Middle East and Africa at London’s IHS Jane told Reuters. In the Sinai, the army has used “helicopters, tanks, and other heavy weaponry in its campaign,” Reuters writes.

The instability in the Sinai has also set neighbor Israel on edge, The Monitor reported in August:   

Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster on July 3, Egypt has launched a major military operation in Sinai, bringing in two additional battalions, which required Israel’s approval. Israel couldn’t be more eager to contain Sinai militancy after a series of attacks shattered decades of calm along the Israel-Egypt border, causing Israel to boost elite forces and accelerate construction of a 150-mile border fence. Israeli drones were rumored to be behind the deaths of four of at least 16 suspected militants killed in weekend airstrikes.

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