Coordinated attacks on Egyptian army positions in the northern Sinai Peninsula killed at least 33 security personnel on Friday, prompting the country’s National Defense Council to declare a three month state of emergency in the area and triggering a broad counter-terrorism sweep that looks likely to extend into the medium-term. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi convened a meeting of senior defense advisers to discuss plans for uprooting the terrorist infrastructure in the territory, which Cairo says dramatically deepened during the one-year tenure of the country’s former Muslim Brotherhood-linked President Mohammed Morsi, and which was activated after Morsi was ousted by the army:
Security forces face a jihadist insurgency that has killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen since the army toppled President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood last year after mass protests against his rule. Most attacks have been in Sinai.
Israel-based security analyst Daniel Nisman suggested that the day’s violence may prove politically problematic for the subsequently-elected Sisi government, “especially if reports are true that 3 troops [were] abducted.” The attacks – one an assault on an army checkpoint and the second a car bombing – were blamed on Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a group once firmly linked to Al Qaeda that has in recent months become aligned with ISIS:
The success of militants in seizing large parts of Syria and Iraq has raised concerns in Egypt, where authorities are battling Ansar as well as militants who have capitalised on the chaos in post-Gaddafi Libya to set up over the border.
Unlike Al Qaeda, which specialises in hit and run operations and suicide bombings, militants act like an army, seizing and holding territory, a new kind of challenge for western-backed Arab states.
Army offensives have squeezed Ansar, forcing its members to flee to other parts of Egypt, the commander said. But it still poses a security threat.
Egypt’s state news agency (MENA) announced that the military had launched a “large-scale combing operation,” and Apache helicopters were dispatched to target Islamist fighters in towns near the Gaza Strip. Egyptian intelligence has emphasized that terror groups in that area are deeply embedded within civilian infrastructure, and that extensive military action will be needed to degrade their capabilities. The crisis has the potential to reverberate diplomatically.
The Egyptian military’s ability to procure counter-terrorism assets in general – and Apaches in particular – has been a source of friction between the Obama administration and Cairo since last October, when the White House cut off delivery of the helicopters in the wake of a government crackdown against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The decision was met with a wave of criticism from domestic analysts, U.S. lawmakers, and American allies in the region, and became a proxy for broader concerns regarding Washington’s willingness to side with its traditional Arab allies against Sunni and Shiite extremism. Despite promises to release the assistance the helicopters had still not been delivered as of June 2014, prompting another round of criticism at the time.
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