As reports of deaths from around the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid continue to mount, it seems that Wednesday’s events represent the largest terrorist attack that the Egyptian army has ever confronted in the peninsula.
Unconfirmed reports put the number of militants involved in the attack at figures of up to 250, and at the time of publishing the police station in the town of 60,000 confirmed to Daily News Egypt that it was under siege.
‘State of Sinai’, formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis until affiliating with ‘Islamic State’ (IS), hailed their “blessed invasion” online in a declaration that they were behind the operation. Later following up with their own statement that they had surrounded the police station.
The anniversary of the 2013 regime change that ousted former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi has been a bloody week and a success for the militant groups that have grown fiercely since that summer. From the affluent neighbourhood of Garden City, to the impoverished district of Helwan, and streets in Fayoum to the motorcade of the Prosecutor General – militant attacks have left few corners of the country untouched.
But, for the public and the media, trying to assess what is happening in North Sinai is still not an easy task. “The lack of independent media in North Sinai is of course a problem, but it is unfortunately clear that the situation is deteriorating,” analyst Zack Gold, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told Daily News Egypt.
Militant groups, foremost among them “State of Sinai”, have capitalised on an absence of hard information, releasing videos of attacks that have long suggested they are well-established and move with alarming freedom.
The size of Wednesday’s attacks has been massively alarming but with the anniversary of 30 June 2013 foreseen and IS calling for heightened attacks during Ramadan, some have been surprised that the Egyptian army appeared so unprepared and fell apart so horrifically easy.
“IS leadership called for an escalation during Ramadan, of course, but its far-flung affiliates have not really needed an excuse – or direction – for escalation,” Gold said.
Earlier this year, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy released a regular analysis of Egypt’s security situation with the findings that in the first three months of 2015, there were almost as many attacks across the country as in the whole of 2014.
For many, it seems that security forces, the backbone of Egypt’s government, are showing they are grossly unequipped to tackle the problem of rising militancy across the country.
Indeed, Gold believes that in terms of Wednesday’s assault, militants displayed no particularly new approach in attacking state forces. “’State of Sinai’… and other militants have been laying IEDs along the main roads of North Sinai for some time,” Gold said. “There are few main roads, so by daily laying down IEDs, ‘State of Sinai’ has reasonable odds of ‘catching’ a military vehicle on the move.”
But for Janet Basurto, an independent security analyst based in Cairo, Egypt’s security situation is “not necessarily” deteriorating, and the picture is more complex. “Military and police raids in Giza and Cairo during previous months have debilitated networks’ capacities, primarily focused on locating IED production labs, in Giza and Cairo,” Basurto told Daily News Egypt.
And while Basurto observes that the nature of homemade IEDs make their production “significantly harder to detect”, the military has been able to claim successes, including preventing “the proliferation of military-grade weaponry, such as the anti-tank missiles used in the Sinai attack today, [entering] mainland Cairo”.
When asked whether Wednesday’s attacks demonstrated a new chapter in terrorism in Egypt, with militants exercising the power to occupy towns, General Nabil Fouad, an analyst and ex-deputy defence minister, sought to pour cold water on the idea. “For one, the attacks in North Sinai have decreased, every now and then they do a big operation that makes it seem that they are in control.”
“There is no absolute security anywhere in the world. When there is a checkpoint hit they are often stationed remotely so it is difficult to provide prompt support. But let me say, it is very unlikely that Sheikh Zuweid will fall. We have fought with Israel for Sinai, so we are not going to give it up to a few militants,” Fouad said, and suggested that the military will respond harshly.
But as militant attacks across Egypt are documented as continuing to grow, centred on Sinai, there are questions regarding whether the severe military practices of the army may be increasing the problems. Forced clearances of residents in Rafah, severe curfews, and mobile phone cuts are just a few of the difficulties of living in what has become a warzone, and may be giving momentum to militant groups.
“What is clear is that despite attempts by the Egyptian military to cut off militant resupply routes, they have been unsuccessful,” Gold say, and suggests that “many of these manoeuvres have negatively impacted the local population, which then feeds resentment for the military and the state”.