The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, claimed responsibility for several attacks on Egyptian security forces this quarter. The largest attack took place on 7 July, when two SVBIED blasts at two military checkpoints south of Rafah, North Sinai province, killed at least 23 soldiers (although ISIS claimed 60 were killed). The attack, which targeted the elite 103rd battalion, suggested that militant groups may have carried out higher-risk attacks in light of the strong military crackdown in North Sinai between February and April 2017. ISIS also claimed responsibility for an IED and gun attack on 11 September, which targeted a security convoy in Arish, North Sinai province, killing at least 18 police officers. Overall, 75 members of the security forces were killed this quarter, indicating an increase in targeted attacks against them when compared with the 23 killed in the second quarter. On 4 July, Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province), the Sinai affiliate of ISIS, also claimed responsibility for several attacks against security personnel and civilians in North Sinai province, although it did not specify the number of fatalities.
For their part, security forces claimed to have killed 167 suspected militants between July and September, including 121 in July alone, although these numbers cannot be verified. Among those killed was a suspected leader of Wilayat Sinai, Ahmed Hassan al-Nashu (also known as Ghandur al-Masri) – allegedly a senior recruiter for the group – during armed clashes in Arish, North Sinai province, on 18 July. Security forces also killed 20 suspected members of the Hassm militant group, whose attacks decreased this quarter. However, on 27 July, Hassm issued a statement denying media and state reports that security forces had killed several of its members, dismissing them as ‘mere lies’. Another militant group, Lewaa al-Thawra, also claimed on 21 August that security forces had not killed any of its members since March. While Egypt has maintained strict control over reports of casualty numbers, this marked the first time that the two groups openly questioned the state’s narrative. In a rare interview on 21 August via social media, Salah al-Din Youssef – purportedly Lewaa al-Thawra’s spokesman – also said that the group’s end goal was not the removal of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, but to topple ‘the military regime that has ruled Egypt for more than six decades’.
The military also targeted suspected smuggling routes into Egypt, both in North Sinai and towards its western border with Libya. On 30 July, the military announced that it foiled an attempt to smuggle large quantities of explosives from one of the Suez Canal crossings into North Sinai, although they did not specify which crossing was targeted. On 28 September, the military said it destroyed a large convoy of ten vehicles allegedly carrying weapons and explosives into Egypt from Libya. Egypt has previously targeted militant groups based in eastern Libya, accusing them of carrying out attacks on Egyptian civilians, and launched airstrikes there in May.
Egypt’s conflict escalated this quarter. Armed groups, particularly Wilayat Sinai, the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, clashed not only with security forces but also with tribal groups in North Sinai, especially the Tarabeen tribe. Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for two attacks in Rafah on 25 April and 10 May, during which 19 members of the Tarabeen were killed. It is most likely that this violence was related to the tribal cooperation with security forces, which appeared to escalate following the kidnapping of elders and a businessman from the Fawakhriya tribe, another major tribal group in the province, in mid-April. In a statement claiming the 25 April attacks, Wilayat Sinai called the tribes ‘apostates’. The group is thought to have killed 22 tribesmen during this quarter, while members of the Tarabeen tribe claimed to have killed 19 suspected militants in April and May.
Exact information regarding the composition of tribes and the extent of their cooperation with the government is unclear, but it is likely that they are fighting in coordination with security forces. On 15 May, North Sinai’s second-largest tribe, the Sawarka, also ‘declared war’ on Wilayat Sinai, stating that its actions were ‘under the auspices of the armed forces’. A day earlier, two members of an unnamed tribe were killed while accompanying a military convoy in Sheikh Zuweid, North Sinai province. This represents a significant escalation, as tribes had previously seemed reluctant to participate in direct armed conflict. Security forces, meanwhile, struggled to cope in the face of armed insurgency.
Twenty-three members of the security forces were killed in attacks this quarter, mostly involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). The largest single attack on security forces took place on 31 May, when four army officers were killed in the Bahariya Oasis in the western desert area of Giza province. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack. Meanwhile, security forces claimed to have killed 79 suspected militants during this quarter, including 19 in one operation in an unnamed location in North Sinai on 20 April. The military also announced that it killed the leader of Wilayat Sinai, Salem al-Hamadeen (whose nom de guerre is Abu Anas al-Ansari), in an airstrike in North Sinai in March.
Elsewhere, Hassm and Lewaa al-Thawra launched attacks primarily targeting the police. Hassm in particular stepped up its attacks in Cairo, claiming responsibility for two attacks on 1 May and 18 June, in the northeast district of Nasr City and Maadi in the south respectively, which killed four police officers. In response, police forces increased operations against the group, killing seven suspected militants in raids across Egypt, including Mohamed Abdel-Moneim Abo Tabikh in west Cairo, whom the police claimed was a leading Hassm member. In contrast to ISIS and its affiliate groups, Hassm and Lewaa al-Thawra have used the state’s crackdown as justification for their use of violence, even deploying the language of revolution. In its statement claiming responsibility for the 18 June attack, Hassm said the bombing was in protest against the government’s decision to transfer two islands to Saudi Arabia. This may have been an attempt to gain popular support.
Egypt launched airstrikes in Libya on 26–29 May. The airstrikes were purportedly in retaliation for an attack on Coptic Christians in Minya province on 26 May – a pretext Egypt has used before to intervene in the Libyan conflict. However, Egypt attacked the positions of the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, although ISIS claimed responsibility for the Minya attack. Cairo is thought to have launched the airstrikes as a diversion from its own domestic security failings, and as part of its larger strategy to shore up the position of Libya’s Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is a key ally of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which said on 29 May that it was carrying out airstrikes alongside the Egyptian military.
Early 2017 saw Wilayat Sinai, the militant group affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, claim responsibility for a large truck-borne IED targeting a police checkpoint in Arish, North Sinai. The 9 January attack killed seven police officers and one civilian, and injured 13 others. It was carried out using a garbage truck the group had hijacked.
Wilayat Sinai further claimed responsibility for numerous assassinations this quarter and said its operatives killed hundreds of members of the security forces in clashes. In the first week of March alone it reported killing around 50 members of the security forces. The group also claimed responsibility for an attack on a security checkpoint in Arish on 8 March that killed a senior police colonel.
The ISIS-affiliate launched rocket attacks on southern Israel twice in February, but neither caused damage or casualties. The first incident on 9 February targeted the Red Sea resort of Eilat, while the second on 20 February targeted Eshkol region. Wilayat Sinai released photos of Katyusha rockets targeting what it described as 'Jewish settlements'.
The Islamic State itself used these attacks as part of its sectarian discourse. In its publication al-Naba, the group described Wilayat Sinai's attacks on Israel as attacks against Jews and claimed that they had killed three Israeli spies. ISIS also highlighted attacks on North Sinai's Coptic Christian minority, with the release of a video that focused on Egyptian Copts.
In late March, Wilayat Sinai released another video that showed footage of the beheading of two Sufis last November. The same video featured footage of the group carrying out religious policing in North Sinai. Furthermore, the ISIS-affiliate released photos in mid-March of checkpoints set up in Arish, demonstrating its attempt to present itself as a 'state'. Residents reported that there were also operatives linked to Wilayat Sinai roaming around the city.
On the other hand, Egyptian security forces claimed to have killed more than 130 militants in North Sinai this quarter during armed clashes or using airstrikes, while arresting hundreds. The dead included a senior member of Wilayat Sinai, Hamdan Hussein, who was killed in Arish on 15 January.
The military stepped up security operations in central Sinai (part of the province of North Sinai), focusing mostly on the Helal mountain area. The expansion of operations into central Sinai suggested that militants have managed to widen their area of action despite continuous security raids.
This led to increased concern over the possibility of terrorist attacks in tourist areas in South Sinai. In late March, Israel urged its citizens to leave the Sinai Peninsula due to the threat posed by militant violence.
In addition to fighting Wilayat Sinai, the military also targeted tunnels that were mostly used to smuggle goods in and out of Palestine's Gaza Strip. On 19 February, the military reportedly destroyed a 'major' smuggling tunnel south of Rafah, on the border with Gaza. Five days later, the army killed three Palestinians and injured five others, reportedly by pouring toxic gas into a tunnel the men had been attempting to repair.
Security forces said they killed nine suspected militants in armed clashes in Giza, near Cairo, in early March. According to Egyptian police sources, the militants were planning a 'major attack' near Cairo. Egyptian sources referred to the militants as takfiris, but it was not clear whether they were affiliated with the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, the militant Hassm movement claimed responsibility for an attack on a security-patrol vehicle in Bahtim, Qalyubia province, on 26 March. While security officials denied that any casualties occurred, the group claimed five members of the security forces were injured in the attack. Egypt took measures to crack down against the group. The Cairo Court for Urgent Matters designated Hassm a terrorist organisation in February, after referring more than 300 people to military prosecution for their alleged links to the group.
On 16 January, an attack on a security checkpoint in the province of New Valley in the Western Desert killed eight police officers and injured three others. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack.
A large-scale bombing at the Botroseya Church, inside the grounds of Egypt’s largest Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, killed 27 civilians on 11 December. The bombing was claimed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, via its news agency Amaq, and was the largest attack claimed by the Islamic State inside Egypt, excluding attacks in the Sinai Peninsula.
Meanwhile, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) exploded in the Nasr City district of east Cairo in early November. It targeted a prominent judge who ruled in a case against former president Mohammed Morsi, alongside a number of other figures from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The attack did not result in any fatalities, but it indicated an escalation of the medium-level insurgency waged by radicalised supporters or sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hasm Movement, a group that emerged last quarter, claimed responsibility for a bomb blast on 9 December that killed at least six police officers and injured three others in Haram district, Giza. On the same day, there was another bomb blast in Kafr el-Sheikh, northern Egypt (110km north of Cairo), which killed a civilian and injured three security personnel. Responsibility for this attack, which was targeting a police vehicle, was claimed by another recently formed group, Liwaa al-Thawra. Egyptian security forces have described these two groups as armed wings of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Security forces reportedly killed three suspected members of the Hasm Movement on 6 December as part of an operation on a hideout in Asyut province, southern Egypt. Later in the month, in a raid on an apartment belonging to an operative of Hasm in 6 October city (west of Cairo), a police conscript and a suspected militant were reportedly killed. Furthermore, in Menoufia province (around 50km north of Cairo), security forces killed two men in armed clashes. The interior ministry said they were involved in the October assassination of a senior army general near Cairo.
In North Sinai, security forces claimed to have killed 130 suspected militants from Wilayet Sinai in security operations, including clashes, raids and airstrikes in North and Central Sinai. At least 23 members of security forces were also killed by militants.
On 24 November, Wilayet Sinai launched a large attack on al-Gaz military checkpoint in al-Sabeel village near Arish, killing 12 soldiers. This attack marked the third month in a row in which Wilayet Sinai had conducted a large attack on a military checkpoint, killing at least ten soldiers. Most of the other attacks by Wilayet Sinai relied on improvised explosive devices (IEDs). At least five members of the security forces, including both police and army, were killed in IED attacks in Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid. A further IED in Kontla district of Central Sinai killed one police conscript. Wilayet Sinai also carried out a number of assassinations. A police general was killed outside his home in Arish, while a sniper attack killed a security conscript in Sheikh Zuweid. A policeman was also shot dead close to Arish police station on 18 November, along with a civilian.
On 12 November, two residents from Arish who had been recently kidnapped by unknown militants were killed in a public square, in front of pedestrians. The two residents were among four people from Arish who had been kidnapped, and are thought to have been killed by operatives from Wilayet Sinai.
Furthermore, in mid-December, the group published images of militants firing two Grad projectiles at the al-Oga/Nitzana border crossing between Egypt and Israel. This was the first time in several months that the group had targeted Israel, as it has generally focused on Egyptian security forces. The group claimed that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had responded by launching airstrikes on its positions, stating that Israel had carried out three airstrikes on Sheikh Zuweid. The IDF refused to respond to the allegations, which aimed to highlight the fact that Israel was operating in Egyptian territory.
During the quarter, Egypt began easing its blockade of the Gaza Strip. According to an Israeli NGO that monitors the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza, exits from the Rafah border crossing have more than quadrupled since September, compared to the same period in 2015. Egypt also began to allow Gaza to import commercial goods via Rafah for the first time since Sisi’s rise to power in 2013. The change in policy has been described as a sign of a potential reconciliation between Egypt and Hamas, following several visits by Hamas to Cairo. Within both Egyptian and Israeli circles, there have been increasing talks about potentially turning Rafah into a commercial crossing with a free trade zone.
Armed attacks by jihadi groups in North and Central Sinai killed at least 62 members of the Egyptian security forces. Despite ongoing security operations in this area and elevated security levels in North Sinai, including a consistent renewal of the state of emergency, activity by militant groups has not subsided. There were frequent attacks, although the majority were small in scale, aside from one large attack on 14 October that killed 12 soldiers in Bir al-Abd in central Sinai. Wilayat Sinai, affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The group released a video entitled ‘Flames of the Desert’, in which it killed two police officers who had been missing since March, following an attack on a security checkpoint in Arish, North Sinai. In addition, the video featured footage of several bombings and armed clashes between the group and security forces.
Airstrikes by Egyptian security forces in Arish killed the group’s regional leader in North Sinai, Abu Duaa al-Ansari, along with 45 other suspected operatives in August. The group confirmed his death, naming ‘Sheikh Abdullah’ as a new leader and warning of more ‘bitter’ attacks to come against the state.
Wilayat Sinai was thought to be behind the beheading of a man in Hurriya neighbourhood in Rafah, North Sinai. In early October, security officials found the severed head of the victim, who was thought to have been killed over his cooperation with security forces. At around the same time, four Sufi clerics were reportedly killed in Nagaa Shabaneh village, south of Rafah, for speaking out against the group’s activities. In another bold attack, a police officer was kidnapped and his vehicle hijacked at the Arish bus station in broad daylight. He was later shot dead in the Masaeed district of Arish in front of residents.
Militant groups in North Sinai launched several attacks targeting infrastructure, including a mortar attack on a truck that was transporting water, and a bomb on a vehicle belonging to an electricity company. There was a rare attack on a security convoy in Abou Redis in South Sinai on 5 September, which has so far been spared the frequent violence of North Sinai.
In mainland Egypt, two new armed groups launched deadly attacks against security officials. Liwaa al-Thawra announced its establishment on 21 August following an attack that killed three police officers in Menoufia province in northern Egypt; it published footage of the attack in September. The same group killed a senior military officer outside his home in Obour city in northeast Cairo. This was the first targeted assassination of a senior military figure outside a military operation. Brigadier-General Adel Ragaie, who had previously served in North Sinai, was shot multiple times as he left his home.
Another recently formed group, Hasm Movement, has claimed at least five deadly attacks since July 2016. It killed a police officer in 6 October city, west of Cairo, in September, and published pictures of the incident on its Facebook page. The group shot dead another policeman in Rahmaniya village in Beheira province in northern Egypt. In addition, it claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination of Egypt’s assistant general-prosecutor in New Cairo on 29 September – described as a form of revenge for thousands of death sentences handed out by Egypt courts.
In August, Hasm attempted to assassinate Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s former Grand Mufti, the country’s highest Islamic cleric. He is an outspoken critic of Islamist groups and has largely been viewed as being close to the military establishment. Egyptian officials described Hasm as an armed wing affiliated with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The interior ministry continued to crack down on any members of the Brotherhood, and it killed two members, including a senior figure, in a shootout with the police in early October. Mohamed Kamal, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, was killed along with his bodyguard during a raid on an apartment in Basateen district in Cairo. Security officials said they were planning to execute attacks on the police and army. Egyptian forces mounted several similar raids against suspected ‘terrorist hideouts’, including in Bahariya Oasis, to the west of Cairo.
Finally, an Egyptian military delegation travelled to France in mid-September to attend the formal handover ceremony of the Mistral-class helicopter carrier. This is the second such warship purchased since July. Egypt’s air force is due to receive eight new Rafale fighter jets in 2017, bringing the total number to 14 and doubling the capabilities of the armed forces.
The Islamic State’s (also known as ISIS or ISIL) affiliate, Sinai Province, continued to launch frequent and deadly attacks against Egyptian security forces. The group killed more than 60 members of the security forces this quarter, including 30 conscripts. Most of the attacks took place in Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Arish, and the overwhelming majority were perpetrated via IEDs, followed by sniper attacks. There were several cases of armed gunmen storming the homes of policemen around Arish and killing them, demonstrating a new level of boldness. Sinai Province has reportedly been collaborating with police officers in Sinai: at least two low-ranking police officers in Arish were accused of espionage. They reportedly fed militants information that facilitated attacks against the police.
The Islamic State released several propaganda videos, including one of a plane crashing and burning to the ground, allegedly the Russian passenger jet the group brought down on 31 October. The group also released a video threatening to destroy the Giza pyramids and Sphinx and emphasising its capability to do so. In another video in June, Sinai Province highlighted an attack on an M113 tank, which resulted in clashes with the accompanying army platoon.
Security operations against militants in North Sinai expanded during this quarter, which saw the army kill 442 suspected militants in airstrikes and ground raids in North and Central Sinai. The Second and Third Field Armies, as well as naval and infantry forces, were involved in the operations. There has also been increasing cooperation between Egypt and Hamas over the borders in Sinai. Reportedly responding to Egyptian pressure, Hamas deployed 300 fighters in April along Gaza’s sea and land border crossing with Sinai to prevent attacks from Sinai Province.
In mainland Egypt, the Islamic State directly claimed responsibility for several attacks. It took credit for an armed attack on a police vehicle that killed eight officers on 8 May in Helwan, an industrial city in Cairo. However, it is not clear whether the incident was actually perpetrated by an operative of the Islamic State, or whether the group was simply taking advantage of the violence to demonstrate its reach into Cairo. During a raid to arrest suspects in Helwan, another officer from the Central Security Forces was killed. Some sources alleged that two police officers were actually behind the attack, but the government has denied this. It subsequently announced the killing of three suspects in clashes in Damietta (in the Nile Valley area) in relation to this attack.
In the Western desert, an armed shoot-out left six border guards dead in Farafra Oasis, near the border with Libya. The attack took place on 30 June, the anniversary of the large protests against former president Mohammed Morsi, which eventually resulted in a coup d’état against him. However, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Security forces announced the death of a suspected member of armed group Ajnad Misr in Warrak in Cairo in a shootout in early April, although some identified him as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. There were also smaller clashes between militants and security forces, including an attack on a police vehicle in Qalyubiya, killing a policeman, another in Minya (in Upper Egypt), killing a policeman, and one in New Cairo, killing two gunmen.
Meanwhile, reports from risk analysis firm IHS revealed that Egypt has become the fourth-largest defence importer in the world, increasing its spending on military imports in 2015 to US$2.7bn. Egypt has increasingly diversified its sources of weapons after the US suspended some of its military assistance to Egypt in 2013 after the death of around 1,000 protestors.
However, the latest US House of Representatives draft budget called for the allocation of US$1.45bn in military and economic aid to Egypt, with no restrictions related to human rights and democratisation. The draft bill stipulated that the funds can be made available as long as Egypt is meeting its obligations to the 1979 Camp David Accord with Israel.
At the same time, the US military is looking to scale back its actual presence in Egypt. It notified Egypt and Israel that it is reviewing peacekeeping operations in Sinai and looking for ways to automate some military functions. In response to a growing security threat, it is considering moving troops from a base in north-eastern Sinai to the south of the province. Fiji announced a reduction in its presence as well, returning 65 of its 300-plus peacekeeping force stationed in Sinai. Colombia is reportedly planning similar reductions. Egypt denied that there were any attacks on the Multinational Force of Observers in Sinai, despite reports to the contrary.
Security forces claimed to have killed 255 militants this quarter, including a leader, Atallah Abu Reteima, who reportedly coordinated logistics for Sinai Province. The group said that, since its formation in November 2014, it has killed more than 1,400 soldiers, policemen and collaborators, but its figures are certainly exaggerated.
Sinai Province’s deadliest attack this quarter took place on 19 March, killing 19 policemen at a checkpoint in Arish, North Sinai. The attack was one of many deadly raids and ambushes targeting checkpoints, which have accompanied the group’s abundant detonation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), killing at least 24 soldiers this quarter. Gunmen affiliated to Sinai Province reportedly shot dead two wounded soldiers and a medic in an ambulance in Sheikh Zuweid, North Sinai, shortly after they had been injured in an attack on their armoured vehicle.
Militants from Sinai Province blew up the natural gas pipeline in Arish in January, disrupting the flow to Jordan. The group released a statement to the effect that Jordan will not receive a ‘drop of gas’ without the ‘permission of the Caliphate’ first and added that it will continue to target the interests and economic facilities of ‘apostate rulers’ in the Middle East. There were attacks against other strategic infrastructure, including rocket attacks at the airport in Arish and strikes on the electricity grids of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, which temporarily left both cities without electricity.
Meanwhile, Sinai Province said that two Israeli Apache helicopters and drones had entered Egyptian airspace, targeting its positions north of Sheikh Zuweid and killing several of its operatives, but Egypt said the airstrikes were Egyptian. Egypt collaborates extensively with Israel in security arrangements in the Sinai, with Israel’s energy minister stating that the security coordination between the two countries is currently ‘stronger than ever before’. He said that Egypt’s decision to flood tunnels between Sinai and Gaza was as a result of Israeli pressure. Israeli sources also reported that fighters from Sinai Province are smuggled into the Gaza Strip to receive medical treatment there; Hamas denied the claim, saying the allegations are an attempt to harm its ties with Egypt.
In Hurghada, a resort town along the Red Sea, militants attempted to stab three tourists, but security forces stopped the attack. The assailants were thought to be operatives of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, but the group appeared to distance itself from the failed attack. ISIS continued to claim attacks in Cairo and Giza, but most of them were smaller in scale and often failed to cause fatalities, especially compared to the ones in Sinai. ISIS’s attacks in Sinai suggest the limits of its reach: the group has not managed to set up organised cells, but has rather sought to disseminate its ideas among disenfranchised individuals.
The largest attack claimed by ISIS this quarter was the death of seven policemen in Haram after a bomb exploded during a police raid on the militants’ hideout. However, it is not clear whether this was an ISIS-coordinated attack, or an attempt by the group to take credit retrospectively for the incident. ISIS also claimed responsibility for an attack against a police colonel and conscript in western Cairo, as well as one that killed a policeman at a checkpoint in Giza. Another attack targeted the Omani cultural attaché, and a further one targeted a hotel and tourist bus that ISIS said was directed against ‘Jews’, although they were in fact Palestinian citizens of Israel. In many of these cases, Egypt attributed the attack to the Brotherhood, whose members have launched sporadic violent acts against security forces and the political, economic and military infrastructure.
Security forces reported killing six militants linked to the Ajnad Misr group, but the claim seems somewhat dubious as the group has not been active for a long time. There were also several deadly raids against members of the Brotherhood, including two in Cairo, two in Damietta, one in Fayoum and one in Beni Suef. Many were controversial: policemen were captured on tape torching an apartment in Damietta; they also killed three students in Sharqiya, saying that they resisted arrest and were involved in a plot to assassinate the head of Zagazig University. At least four policemen died in attacks in Qalyubiyah, one in Giza, one in Beni Suef and two in Sharqiya. A civilian also died in the attack in Sharqiya.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi acknowledged in the middle of a speech in February that the downing of the Russian plane in October 2015 was an act of terror, despite Egypt having officially ruled out terrorism as the cause. There were reports that Egypt has taken steps to find the perpetrators, arresting a mechanic at the airport who is suspected to have placed the bomb on the jet, but Egyptian security sources denied this. Airport security came under scrutiny again when a man claiming to be wearing a suicide vest hijacked an EgyptAir flight from Alexandria to Cairo in late March, diverting the flight to Larnaca, Cyprus. However, it turned out that he was not wearing a vest and wanted to contact his ex-wife. He was subsequently arrested, and there were no casualties.
Sinai Province launched its largest attack so far when it downed a Russian airplane in late October and killed all 224 people on board. Security experts initially dismissed the group’s immediate claim of responsibility, but the UK, US and Russia later concluded that militants brought down the plane with a 1kg-IED. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, released additional ‘details’ of the attack in its publication Dabiq, claiming to have placed the IED in a soda can. It described the attack as a form of retaliation against Russian airstrikes in Syria and alleged that it was planning to target another member of the US-led coalition, but changed its mind at the last minute. It is not clear whether this claim is true, and it likely to be a way to gain international coverage and attention, rather than an actual reflection of tactics or capacity.
The leader of Sinai Province, Abu Osama al-Masri, is thought to have masterminded the attack, arguably to officiate Sinai Province’s loyalty to ISIS on the one-year anniversary of its declaration of allegiance. The attack highlighted the extent of Sinai Province’s collaboration with ISIS as well as its embrace of various aspects of the organisation’s modus operandi, such as large-scale attacks against civilians. But Sinai Province also used the attack to undermine Egyptian security forces, saying its operatives arrived to the site of the crash before the authorities and releasing photos of passports of passengers that were allegedly on board.
Meanwhile, the group continued to launch deadly attacks against security forces. Most were IEDS against army positions, though there was one case of beheading an intelligence officer. The group claimed to have killed 100 soldiers in the month leading up to mid-November alone and 800 soldiers and 130 ‘spies’ in the preceding year period. The same statement advertised its destruction of the army’s advanced weaponry, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers, Hummer vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles, military bulldozers, as well as oil and water-tanks. It also claimed to have captured tank guns from the army, possibly because they are relatively easier to loot and conceal.
Despite increasing cooperation with ISIS, Sinai Province underlined its role and agenda as a ‘local’ actor, framing its attacks as a defence against the rights of North Sinai’s residents, particularly women. It described an attack against a policemen’s club in al-Arish, which killed six policemen, as revenge for the army’s violence towards women. It targeted the policemen’s club twice this quarter, as well as other strategic places in al-Arish, such as the main police station, a military building and a hotel. The attack against the hotel, which killed seven people in late November, was described as a response to the government’s continuous imprisonment of women—which it has referred to several times. Sinai Province cited the same motive in its claim of another bomb targeting the hotel, which detonated a few minutes after the deputy security director passed through the area.
Similar themes were discernible in audio and visual material that the group released in early November, which showed the army’s ‘crimes’ against residents in North Sinai and scorned Operation Martyrs Right—alleging that the only ‘martyrs’ in Sinai are children killed in the military’s airstrikes. The same video criticised cooperation with Israel and the presence of the Multinational Force of Observers (MFO) in Sinai.
At the same time, Sinai Province appeared to be cracking down on ‘spies’ in North Sinai. It claimed responsibility for killing an alleged collaborator in al-Arish who cooperated with the army, but it was also thought to be behind the execution of a family of nine in al-Arish. The family had fled from Rafah over fears of revenge attacks due to collaboration with security forces. Sinai Province’s operatives also reportedly detained three pro-government tribal fighters who were manning a checkpoint in Sheikh Zuwaid, five days after they announced the establishment of local ‘Popular Committees’. The group released photos of its fighters manning checkpoints instead. The army’s claim of being in control in North Sinai was also challenged by reports of Bedouin tribes claiming that they have been organising against the expansion of militants from Sinai Province relying on their own weapons and resources, rather than the army.
This followed Sinai Province’s assassination of the pro-army leader of the Sawarka tribe. The tribe itself is based in North Sinai, but the assassination took place in Cairo, where Sinai Province has increased its operations. A key figure thought to have been involved in the group’s activity in mainland Egypt was Ashraf al-Gharabli, who was killed by Egyptian security forces in Cairo in November. Gharabli had reportedly coordinated militant activity in the Nile Valley and was involved in the murder of two foreign hostages.
ISIS itself continued to claim responsibility for attacks in Cairo and Giza, leading to rising speculation that the group may have another branch operating there, independent of its Sinai affiliate. One example was an attack on a checkpoint in Saqqara road near Giza, which left four policemen dead.
Finally, in early December, assailants hurled a Molotov cocktail at a restaurant in Agouza neighbourhood in Cairo, killing 17 people. Egyptian sources said the attack was a result of a dispute with employees working there, rather than a terrorist attack.
Sinai Province launched a coordinated attack in al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid, North Sinai, on 1 July. Militants reportedly struck 11 different checkpoints in Sheikh Zuweid and briefly took over the city, only retreating under heavy aerial fire. Fatality figures were contentious – sources initially reported 100 soldiers killed, however the army’s official account insisted that only 17 were killed, along with a 100 militants. To quell a nationwide panic, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi flew to al-Arish on 4 July and emphasised that Sinai is completely stable and under army control. Sinai Province released footage from this attack in a 40-minute video, entitled ‘Harvest of the Soldiers’ on 1 September.
On 7 September, shortly after the video was released, the military announced a new large-scale operation in North Sinai. The ‘first phase’ of Operation Martyr’s Right lasted 16 days until it was declared a ‘success’, before the military announced a second phase which aimed to take full control of Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and al-Arish. Operation Martyr’s Right reportedly killed 500 suspected militants in the first 16 days, following another 450 earlier this quarter, including 241 in the first six days of July.
During Operation Martyr’s Right, Sinai Province released a video of its operatives destroying tanks and Humvees in North Sinai. The video targeted the army’s morale, playing on the fact that troops had abandoned their weapons, despite continuous claims of victory. Another video released by Sinai Province showed a guided missile attacking a navy vessel off the coast of Rafah, which took place in mid-July. The military contended that the vessel caught fire following a fire-fight.
Sinai Province reportedly beheaded a Croatian hostage on 12 August. It had threatened to do so a week earlier, unless Sisi released all ‘jailed Muslim women’. The announcement, which came a day prior to the opening ceremony of the ‘New Suez Canal’, was an attempt to sabotage the hype. The incident demonstrated collaboration with cells in Cairo, as the hostage was kidnapped on a highway west of Cairo.
Armed groups continued to launch sporadic attacks against security forces in North Sinai. At least eight policemen were assassinated in al-Arish, including two generals in mid-September. A bomb killed four soldiers in Rafah on 23 July, while seven further soldiers were killed in a mortar against a checkpoint in Sheikh Zuweid on 18 July. Sinai Province claimed responsibility for many of these attacks, while also launching three Grad rockets at the Israeli city of Eilat in early July.
In early September, two IEDs struck a vehicle of the Multinational Force of Observers (MFO) in Sinai, injuring four people from the US Task Force Sinai and two Fijian peacekeepers. Shortly afterwards, the Pentagon announced the deployment of 75 more troops to Sinai, joining the roughly 650 already present. They were accompanied by counter-mortar radars and advanced communications equipment. The deployment followed speculation that the US was considering withdrawing its peacekeepers from the MFO due to the rising insecurity.
Meanwhile, a former Special Forces officer, Hisham al-Ashmawi, announced the formation of a new al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group, al-Mourabitoun. He urged attacks against Sisi, whom he described as a ‘new pharaoh’. Ashmawi was most likely a member of Sinai Province and has been linked to assassinations in Cairo by security officials.
Attacks increased against strategic and symbolic buildings in Cairo, such as a security building and courthouse in Shubra and a foreign ministry building. Claimed by Sinai Province, the former was ‘revenge’ for the Arab Sharkas cell, whose six members were executed in May. The latter was claimed by ISIS itself. ISIS also took responsibility for a car bomb against the Italian consulate in downtown Cairo on 11 July, which killed one person. Officials suggested, however, that the attack was perpetrated by Ajnad Misr in retribution for the death of two of its operatives by security forces. The interior ministry alleged that the Muslim Brotherhood was involved in this attack. Security forces killed nine Brotherhood figures in late September, who were accused of participating in Italian consulate attack. This followed a higher-profile raid that killed 12 Brotherhood members, described as ‘terrorists’, in a Cairo suburb in early July, some of whom were prominent figures. A further 12 Brotherhood-linked figures were killed in similar raids in the period between July and September.
The low-level insurgency by radicalised, pro-Brotherhood operatives has continued, targeting policemen, conscripts and other security figures. They killed at least 13 people in Beheira, Fayoum, Giza and Suez. Bombs also struck water and electricity infrastructure.
Finally, security forces killed 10 suspected militants in the Western desert, several weeks after a highly-publicised attack that killed eight Mexican tourists and four Egyptians. The tourist convoy was mistaken for one containing militants.
In further counter-terrorism efforts, Egypt purchased weapons from the US, its usual supplier, as well as France and Russia. In addition to signing a US$1.1bn contract with France for Gowind-class corvettes, Egypt received a FREMM multipurpose frigate from France at Ras al-Teen naval base in Alexandria in late July. Egypt reportedly agreed to purchase two French Mistral-class warships at a cost of 950m euros on 23 September; they were originally intended for Russia, but France reneged due to Russia’s role in Ukraine. Egypt ordered Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopters from Russia on 27 August, after having received an R-32 missile boat in late July. It also received eight F-16 jets from the US, which promised to deliver four more in the autumn. Five M1A1 Abrams Tank Turrets were also delivered to Cairo East Air Base.
This represented a complete reversal of the US’s freeze on weapons to Egypt. The US and Egypt restarted the ‘Strategic Dialogue’, which aims to strengthen bilateral ties, in early August. Furthermore, Egyptian officials held talks with the US to buy high-tech border surveillance equipment for the border with Libya. This includes mobile surveillance sensor towers and communications equipment. The deal will reportedly cost US$100m, but must first be approved by Congress.
Egyptian security forces grappled with a rising insurgency in mainland Egypt and Sinai. They scored a significant victory on 9 April when they killed the leader of militant group Ajnad Misr in Giza. His death prompted condolences from al-Qaeda-affiliated franchises, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The group announced a replacement on 10 April, but has not taken responsibility for subsequent attacks.
At least five policemen were killed in Cairo and Alexandria during the quarter. Small-scale cells or radicalised ‘lone-wolves’, who also increasingly targeted tourist sites, are thought to have carried out the killings. An attack by gunmen at the Giza pyramids on 3 June killed two members of the tourism police, while a suicide bomber targeted the ancient Temple of Karnak in Luxor a week later. In the Nile Delta, a bomb killed three students at a military academy in Kafr el-Sheikh on 15 April, a day after a policeman was shot dead in Qalyoubiya. A shoot-out in Damietta on 9 May resulted in the deaths of three Islamist militants and a guard.
These attacks were linked to a rising nationwide insurgency by marginalised, anti-coup Islamists who have described themselves as the Popular Resistance Movement, though the ‘movement’ does not seem to have an organised structure or leadership. Its loosely affiliated members continued to target economic installations such as power plants and water towers, as well as commercial spaces such as shops. The most high-profile attack was the assassination on 29 June of Hisham Barakat, the chief prosecutor, using a car bomb, which a ‘Popular Resistance’ group based in Giza said that it had carried out.
Meanwhile, in North Sinai the army extended the state of emergency for a further three months on 26 April and renewed the overnight curfew. The army announced in April that 73 large tribes in Sinai had united to support it in the battle against militants, particularly Sinai Province (previously Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), which is affiliated to ISIS. This reportedly followed the militants’ beheading of a 16-year-old boy who was affiliated to the powerful Tarabin tribe. However, there has been little evidence of actual fighting between tribes and militants in North Sinai.
Sinai Province said that it was responsible for several large-scale attacks, including a twin car bomb attack in Sheikh Zuwaid on 2 April, which killed 17 soldiers; 15 militants were also killed in an ensuing gun battle. Ten days later, a car bomb attack on a police station in al-Arish killed seven people, including five soldiers, and injured 44 more people, while a roadside bomb attack on an armoured vehicle in Sheikh Zuwaid killed six soldiers. On 16 May, hours after former president Muhammad Morsi was sentenced to death on charges relating to a jailbreak in 2011, militants affiliated to Sinai Province shot dead two judges, a prosecutor and a driver in al-Arish. They called on 20 May for more attacks against judges, describing them as ‘tyrants’.
Sinai Province threatened on 30 May to attack Eilat, Israel, within the coming days, but the announcement was viewed merely as a scare tactic. Sinai Province draws on an anti-Israel narrative, but the overwhelming majority of its attacks have been against military positions inside Egypt, including military-related infrastructure. Militants set fire to six military trucks loaded with fuel and food supplies in Sheikh Zuwaid on 10 April, and in Al-Arish blew up the natural gas pipeline on 31 May and attacked a military-affiliated cement factory on 2 June. Sinai Province also said that it was responsible for firing rockets at the al-Goura airport, south of Rafah, on 9 June, which is used predominantly by UN peacekeepers stationed in Sinai.
Sinai Province in mid-June warned residents not to use tractors or other heavy equipment for agricultural purposes without coordinating with its ‘soldiers’ first, to avoid being struck by improvised explosive devices targeting security forces. Military operations against militants in North Sinai continued, leading to the deaths of around 160 alleged militants in April, 141 in May and at least 66 in June, including four takfiri – the name given to radical Salafis in Egypt – ‘leaders’ on 5 June.
Finally, although the United States restored military aid to Egypt on 31 March and pledged 12 F-16 jets, 20 missiles and 125 tanks, Egypt is still in the process of negotiating a weapons deal with Russia. Russian news sources reported on 25 May that Egypt agreed to buy 46 MiG-29s at a cost of around US$2 billion. Israeli sources also suggested that Egypt is in the process of buying a Russian S-300 air defence system, which is likely to be used against militants in North Sinai, who shot down an Egyptian helicopter with a surface-to-air missile.
On 29 January, Sinai Province (previously known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) carried out a large-scale and multi-front attack in North Sinai that killed 32 soldiers and police officers, the group’s deadliest attack to date. The attack, which utilised suicide bombings, car bombs, mortars and gun fire, targeted multiple fronts simultaneously, including a military hotel, military intelligence headquarters and some security facilities nearby, as well as army-patrolled checkpoints. The incident suggested that despite frequent announcements of military operations, the security forces have failed to diminish the threat from armed groups in North Sinai. Two days after the attack, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued a presidential decree establishing a unified command to combat terrorism east of the Suez Canal.
Around 50 militants were reportedly killed in security operations in North Sinai in January, while 173 were killed in February and another 116 in March. Militants continued to attack security forces in Sheikh Zuwaid, al-Arish and Rafah in North Sinai, using explosives to target military vehicles on multiple occasions and shooting dead at least 11 policemen and security officers. On 26 January, Sinai Province released a video showing the abduction and killing of a police officer in Rafah, North Sinai. He was abducted on 11 January and found dead on 13 February alongside at least ten other dead bodies.
Sinai Province called on residents of North Sinai to support its armed struggle against the ‘criminal’ military, and members purportedly distributed monetary compensation to ‘victims’ of the armed forces. The group also threatened to behead residents who collaborate with the army, and indeed there was a sharp rise in beheadings this quarter. At least 16 people were decapitated, including eight Bedouins accused of being informants.
Outside of North Sinai, there were small-scale, albeit frequent, attacks that relied predominantly on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or Molotov cocktails, targeting police infrastructure, public facilities, and even civilian spaces. Strikes against police stations and policemen took place in Alexandria, Aswan, Cairo, Fayoum, Minya, Qalyubia and Suez, killing nine people. Assailants also started to engage in acts of sabotage, such as hurling bombs at banks and vandalising electricity infrastructure. Civilian spaces were also subjected to fatal attacks: two people were killed in a youth centre in Kirdasa, one person in a restaurant in Imbaba, and another in a restaurant in Menoufia. Small bombs have killed at least three civilians in Alexandria this quarter.
President Sisi, who views himself as fighting a ‘war on terror’, called for increased US military aid to Egypt to assist in combatting the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other similar militant organisations. On 31 March, US President Barack Obama announced the restoration of US$1.3bn in military aid to Egypt. Although there are still some restrictions, the US has incrementally reinstated its military relationship with Egypt after having suspended its aid in 2013. Following the suspension, however, Egypt has sought to diversify its sources of military funding. The US monopoly of weapon supply to Egypt ended following a US$6bn deal with France in mid-February, which included 24 Rafale fighter jets and a multi-mission frigate.
Finally, Egypt’s war on terror transcended Egypt’s borders in mid-February when its air force struck ISIS-affiliated targets in Derna and Sirte, Libya. This followed the abduction and beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians by ISIS-affiliated militants.
Sinai-based Islamist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) swore allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on 9 November and proceeded to rebrand itself as ‘Wilayat Sinai’ (Sinai Province or State of Sinai). This demonstrated a victory for factions within ABM that had sought greater ties with ISIS having been inspired by its tactics.
ABM’s links with ISIS were highlighted in early October following the release of its second beheading video. Its operatives beheaded three Egyptians who ‘confessed’ to working as informants for Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, while another Egyptian who allegedly worked with the military was shot multiple times and killed. The propaganda video included a speech from ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, who previously urged Sinai-based militants to launch attacks against Egyptian security personnel. The video also contained footage of ABM operatives manning checkpoints and searching for ‘spies’.
Around the same time as ABM pledged allegiance to ISIS, it claimed responsibility for the killing of a US oil worker in August 2014. This followed the largest attack carried out by ABM so far, which took place on 24 October. The twin attack struck the towns of Sheikh Zuwaid and al-Arish in North Sinai, killing 33 security personnel and injuring another 28. It displayed an unprecedented level of coordination, demonstrating that the jihadists have boosted their capacity in the face of increasing security crackdowns.
In response to the attacks on 24 October, Egypt declared a state of emergency in north Sinai on 25 October and accelerated its construction of a buffer zone in Rafah on its border with the Gaza Strip. The buffer zone was originally 500m long, but was expanded to 5km on 29 December. Its goal is to eliminate tunnels from the Gaza Strip into North Sinai. In the meantime security forces continued crackdowns against militants in North Sinai using a combination of ground troops and airstrikes. Several alleged leaders of ABM were captured, including a senior leader and a commander. A leading member of the militant group al-Furqan Brigades was also reportedly arrested upon his return from Syria on 19 November. According to figures from the interior ministry, 116 militants were killed during this quarter and more than 1,000 arrested. Seven militants were sentenced to death on 6 December for killing 25 policemen last year.
Sinai-based militants staged two attacks against Israel this quarter. The first, on 22 October, was a cross-border attack into southern Israel from Sinai involving gunfire and anti-tank missiles. It led to the injury of two Israeli soldiers. The second, on 3 December, was a cross-border shooting targeting an Israeli army patrol that did not lead to casualties. No group claimed responsibility for either attack.
There were also numerous unclaimed attacks against police personnel near the city of al-Arish in North Sinai, many of which were thought to be linked to ABM. Roadside bombs killed six security personnel on 19 October, as well as an officer and a soldier on 25 December. An RPG struck a police vehicle on 16 October, killing three policemen. Two policemen were also killed near a police post on 14 December, and three others were shot dead on 26 November.
Attacks against policemen were not confined to the Sinai Peninsula. Two police personnel were attacked in Giza on 27 December while guarding a bank and a policeman was killed in Alexandria on 28 December. The interior ministry said that 152 police officers were killed throughout 2014 while fighting ‘criminal and terrorist activity’. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi passed a decree on 27 October enabling the military to assist the police with guarding state infrastructure. The decree also placed all civilian infrastructure under the military’s protection, including electricity towers, bridges and roads, as well as universities, which were made equivalent to military facilities.
The Cairo-based militant group Ajnad Misr, which has cooperated with ABM, was added to the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organisations on 18 December – a designation it welcomed. Two days later, the US delivered ten Apache helicopters to Egypt to support the military’s counter-terrorism operations.
Egyptian militants began to adopt some of the brutal tactics used by Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists in Iraq and Syria. Publicly urged on by ISIS itself, insurgents not only attacked the Egyptian security forces on a near-weekly basis – shooting soldiers, attacking checkpoints and bases, and planting roadside bombs – they also began beheading their captives.
Reuters reported that ISIS had been providing online instruction to Sinai-based terrorists Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in how to carry out operations effectively and how to form secret militant cells. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gave credence to a possible link between the two groups by mentioning it while trying to drum up extra support, and perhaps even weapons, for continued security operations in the Sinai.
All of this coincided with a significant rise in beheadings in Sinai. At least five civilians have been beheaded since 20 August. Most have been described by the militants as ‘collaborators’. The body of one beheaded man was left with a note accusing him of having been a spy for Israel. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis also shot dead those accused of cooperating with the Egyptian security forces, including two tribal leaders in Rafah who were assassinated on 21 July.
Eleven soldiers died on 2 September when their convoy hit a landmine on the road between Rafah and the city of Sheikh Zuwaid road. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis also claimed responsibility for an attack close to the Libyan border on 19 July, in which 21 border guards were killed.
Responsibility for an attack on the foreign ministry in Cairo on 21 September was claimed by Ajnad Misr, the new militant group behind high-profile bombings in the capital city in April and June. Two colonels and one conscript died in the incident. Other attacks in Cairo mostly targeted police stations or personnel, but were occasionally directed at electricity towers and other state infrastructure.
At least 77 security personnel died this quarter, while security forces killed at least 270 militants, including several top leaders of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Egypt’s top security official said 40 militant cells have been broken up since April.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claimed on 25 July that an Israeli drone had killed three of its members in Sinai, including a relative of the group’s suspected leader Shadi el-Manei. The three were apparently killed near the Israeli border after attempting to fire rockets across it. The next day, Israel’s Iron Dome missile shield intercepted a rocket fired towards Eilat. Egypt denied that there had been any violation of Egyptian airspace, either by Israel or others. The Israeli Defense Force declined to comment; earlier the Egyptian military had claimed it conducted the raid.
ISIS’s role in motivating Egyptian militants was still evident on 30 September, with the formation of the ‘Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Kinana’ faction. It draws its name from another new ISIS-inspired group in Algeria, which beheaded a French tourist a week earlier. The new Egyptian group vowed to strike Christians and US interests in Egypt.
Islamist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis killed five soldiers in two significant attacks this quarter, despite continuing military operations to hunt down militants on the Sinai Peninsula. In Rafah on 28 June, four border guards died in an ambush attributed to the group. In early May, one soldier was killed and nine people injured in two suicide bombings in al-Tur, a town on the main road between Cairo and Sharm el-Sheikh.
The United States officially declared Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis a foreign terrorist organisation after the al-Tur incidents, which were seen as an attempt to further undermine Egypt’s fragile tourist industry.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has been particularly active since the removal of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi in early July 2013. It claimed to have shot down a military helicopter over the Sinai Peninsula in January and to have bombed a tour bus in Sinai in February, leaving four people dead.
On 10 May, Egypt charged 200 suspected Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis militants with involvement in terrorist attacks, though half of them were charged in absentia. Egyptian security officials also reported killing the leader of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Shadi el-Menei, along with three other people. The group, however, has denied his death and said that he is not actually their leader.
The military continued to has arrest militants in Rafah, al-Arish and Sheikh Zuwaid in Sinai. It also transferred al-Arish port in the Sinai Peninsula to military ownership, citing national security reasons.
Warning that violence in the Sinai would contribute to instability throughout the Middle East, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for US military assistance in fighting militants. His statement came while the US was still considering the renewal of military aid to Egypt, having recently put a hold on it in late 2013.
In April, Washington promised the delivery of ten Apache attack helicopters to Egypt, but a week later, the Senate sub-committee overseeing foreign aid blocked $650m already approved by the Pentagon. Sub-committee head Senator Patrick Leahy said he and his colleagues were acting in response to the ‘sham trial’ that recently saw 683 people sentenced to death. Two weeks after Sisi’s election in May, however, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the release of $575m in military aid, which will be used mostly to pay existing defence contracts.
While Egyptian security forces went after insurgents in the Sina, there was also a surge in militant activity in Cairo. The newly formed Ajnad Misr claimed responsibility for at least three fatal attacks. It said it had planted the bomb that killed a policeman in Cairo on 18 April and another that killed a police officer a week later in 6 October City. On 30 June, a year after a mass demonstration in Cairo demanding then-president Muhammad Morsi’s removal, Ajnad Misr planted a bomb near the presidential palace in Cairo. Two Egyptian police officers were killed trying to defuse this. The organisation was declared an illegal terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government on 22 May.
Three South Korean tourists and a local driver died in a shocking incident at the Taba border crossing between Egypt and Israel when the bus in which they were travelling was bombed on 16 February. This blatant targeting of Eygpt’s vital tourist industry was just one demonstration of the changing face of Sinai-based jihadist organisation Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (aka Ansar Jerusalem).
The group, which once focused on attacking Israel, has been flexing its muscles against its new enemy: the Egyptian security forces. In January, it claimed to have both brought down an army helicopter in the Sinai, killing five soldiers, and to have detonated bombs in Cairo, leaving at least six dead and dozens wounded. The latter was outside Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’s usual theatre of operations.
Two new terrorist organisations joined Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’s campaign against the Egyptian regime. A group calling itself Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) announced itself on 23 January, and appeared to have played a role in at least some of the deadly bombings in Cairo the following day.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis originally said it was behind all of the violence, which began with a car bombing of the Cairo security directorate and was followed by an IED lobbed at security vehicles, an explosion outside a police station and another at a cinema. Later Ansar Bayt said there was ‘confusion’ over who exactly had done what, but acknowledged that ‘our brothers’ Ajnad Misr were partly responsible.
In early March, a new Egyptian branch of Ansar al-Sharia (Kataeb Ansar al-Sharia fi Ard al-Kinanah) released a founding statement online, before claiming responsibility for a spate of shootings in the governorates of Sharkiya, Beni Suef, and Giza that killed at least 28 security personnel.
After the deaths of foreign tourists at Taba, the border crossing was closed there between Israel and Egypt while security forces embarked on major North Sinai operations. Both sides took casualties in the raids and air strikes that ensued.
In total, Ansar Bayt has confirmed the death of 25 members since the beginning of 2014. These include a top commander, Tawfiq Freij, who died alongside another Ansar Bayt fighter on 11 March in a shoot-out with authorities in Cairo.
Two senior army officers and six militants were killed on 19 March in the Nile Delta region during an army raid on Ansar Bayt. The group claimed to have brought down a military helicopter in the Sinai with a surface-to-air missile on 27 January, but security officials said the crash, and the deaths of five soldiers on board, was due to an engine fault.
Militants also perpetrated attacks in Cairo, killing six military officers at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city on 15 March, gunning down a senior interior ministry official on 28 January, and fatally targeting several police officers in drive-by shootings in February. A bomb that exploded near a Giza police station on 7 February injured six.
Despite their denials, it appeared that both sides also killed civilians – the military in air strikes and raids, militants in attacks on army ‘collaborators’.
In a bid to thwart terrorism in late March, plans were announced for a security barrier around the North Sinai city of el-Arish, 30km from the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Initial media reports suggested a wall would be built encircling the entire city and allowing the control of entry and exit points. However, after Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis threatened to target investors, contractors or anyone else involved in the wall’s construction, security officials insisted that plans were limited to ‘a wall south of the town to secure the airport and nearby agricultural fields used by militants as hideouts’.
The military regime continued to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for terrorist attacks throughout Egypt, as justification for its ongoing crackdown on the group. The Brotherhood has always strenuously denied the allegations. Nevertheless, on 9 February the interior ministry announced the arrest of members of a ‘military wing’ linked to the Brotherhood, which it alleged was involved in the deaths of five Egyptian policemen in Beni Suef in late January.
The interior ministry also tried to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the Taba bombing, before Ansar Bayt took responsibility. Officials have repeatedly tried to link the two organisations.
There is no evidence of this. However, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters of ousted President Muhammad Morsi were involved in civil unrest. In clashes with the security forces, at least 31 protesters were killed and 60 injured before and during the constitutional referendum; another 45 were killed on 25 January, the anniversary of the 2011 uprising. Further unrest around the 19 March anniversary of the 2011 constitutional referendum and around the announcement of Sisi’s presidential bid saw at least another seven fatalities.
Egypt announced in November 2013 that it would buy $4bn worth of weapons from Russia to meet its security needs, in light of the partial suspension of military aid and equipment deliveries from the United States after the military ouster of the elected President Morsi. In February, Egyptian Defence Minister and army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy paid a return visit to Russia to further cement the relationship.
January – September
Military developments were marked by an escalation in terrorist activity in Sinai, as well as a heightened military response. The political crisis following the removal of President Morsi led to militant groups carrying out daily strikes against security forces, attacking local Christian houses and shops, and vowing to drive the military out of the peninsula.
There is significant evidence that elements from al-Qaeda have infiltrated into the Sinai Peninsula, with some reports estimating the number of jihadist groups to be at least 15. Egyptian security and intelligence sources reported that wanted al-Qaeda doctor and explosives expert Ramzi Mawafi is leading jihadists in Sinai, recruiting people as well as organising financing and weapons. According to a BBC Arabic report, Mowafi is thought to be the emir of the recently-established al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, also known as Ansar Jerusalem, carried out a number of significant attacks including an attempted assassination of the interior minister, firing two missiles at Eilat in Israel, as well as bombing the gas pipeline to Israel. Many of their operations were recorded on video, one of which includes the voice of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the background. Another emerging group called Jund al-Islam carried out an attack in the form of two car bombs that targeted military intelligence headquarters in Rafah and an army checkpoint nearby, killing six soldiers and injuring 17 others. Many of the armed groups have switched from targeting Israel exclusively to also targeting the Egyptian state apparatus, praising increased terrorist attacks on security forces.
In response, the military launched various large-scale operations in the Sinai Peninsula, the most recent of which began in July and has not yet ended, with military officials saying it will continue until the threat of terrorism is effectively contained. The Egyptian military has been liaising with the Israel Defence Forces, with both sides describing terrorism in Sinai as a common threat. On 8 August, Eilat Airport was shut down for two hours following an Egyptian intelligence report that insurgents were planning to target Israel with missiles with a range of 70km, within range of the airport’s airspace. Furthermore, Israel’s Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon approved Egypt’s request to deploy additional forces in the Sinai Peninsula, including assault helicopters, despite the demilitarisation clause of the Camp David Peace Accords.
However, the extent of on-the-ground military cooperation between Egyptian and Israeli forces is unclear. On 10 August, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis reported that four of its members were killed in an Israeli drone strike, but Egyptian officials have denied Israel was behind the strike, insisting it was an Egyptian air-strike. This is most likely a continuation of the military’s decades-old strategy of covert military cooperation with Israel, as an attempt to maintain its popularity and legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
According to a statement released by a spokesman for the armed forces, 103 people were arrested in relation to different kinds of terrorist activities, the most prominent of whom was Adel Mohamed Ibrahim (also known as Adel Habara), a leader of al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula allegedly involved in the killing of 25 soldiers on 19 August. Furthermore, the armed forces announced that they successfully destroyed tunnels to Gaza allegedly used for smuggling weapons, drugs and cars. Since the operation was launched in July, the military has reportedly detained around 300 militants. It has also seized seven weapons storehouses, confiscated 203 vehicles, and captured 10 tons of explosives. The military has sought to establish a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip as a ‘preventative measure’.
October – December
Military developments were dominated by the state’s pursuit of a ‘war on terror’ against jihadist and takfiri groups in the Sinai Peninsula, the violent attacks carried out by the Sinai-based insurgents, the state’s attempt to establish a campaign for the disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration of armed residents and Bedouins in Sinai, an increase of Russian-Egyptian military cooperation, as well as the completion of the border fence between Egypt and Israel.
The Egyptian military campaign in the Sinai Peninsula continued, albeit at a slower and more sporadic pace. The military destroyed tunnels for smuggling, defused around ten IEDs and foiled an attempt attack against a control tower in Rafah. The Egyptian armed forces reported killing 55 suspected militants and arresting over 482 people, of which some were militants, fugitives, alleged infiltrators and civilians. A member of the al-Qaeda inspired Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Abdelrahman Salamah Salim, was reportedly arrested by Egyptian special forces on 11 December, while three militants from the organisation were killed during a raid in Rafah on 20 December. The leader of another armed group, al-Takfir wal-Hijra, was also arrested during an operation in North Sinai on 1 November. The Egyptian armed forces subsequently stated that jihadist groups in Sinai are declining in power.
Despite this seemingly optimistic outlook, there is growing evidence that the insurgents are expanding beyond Sinai and carrying out attacks in mainland Egypt. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, in particular, has carried out attacks in Cairo, Ismailia, as well as in other Egyptian provinces. In November, it claimed responsibility for the assassination of a senior counter-terrorism official in Cairo. Furthermore, on 25 December, it claimed responsibility for a car bomb a day earlier in Mansoura which killed 15 people, of which 12 were policemen. On 20 November, a suicide bomber rammed a car laden with explosives into a convoy of four buses carrying off-duty military personnel in al-Arish, killing 23 soldiers and wounding 25 more. Other attacks that have not been claimed by any groups include blowing up a natural gas pipeline, attacking the police station in al-Arish and attacking an army rest house.
Meanwhile, the military has sought to bring stability to the peninsula by disarming and re-integrating the disenfranchised Bedouins, while cracking down on violent militants and expelling foreign jihadists. The defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has called upon residents in North Sinai to hand over unlicensed weapons to the state. In early December, a group of tribal chiefs in Sinai announced an initiative to hand over their weapons to the armed forces. In early November, one resident of North Sinai submitted three SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles to security forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
Egypt has also bolstered its military cooperation with Russia, which has sought to fulfil a vacuum left by the United States’ partial retreat as Egypt’s main ally and weapons supplier. On 9 October, the US announced that it will temporarily suspend the delivery of Apache helicopters, Harpoon missiles, and tank parts to the Egyptian government. It has also withheld a $260 million cash transfer and a $300 million loan guarantee. Russia, a main supplier of arms to Egypt in the 1960s and 70s, has announced that it will supply Egypt with military equipment worth $2 billion.
Finally, the Sinai border fence between Israel and Egypt was completed on 4 December, after four years of construction. The purpose of the fence is two-fold: to prevent infiltration and attacks from Sinai-based militants into Israel, as well as to prevent African migrants from reaching Israel via Sinai.