Egypt wary as ISIS shows battle for Sinai not over
Cairo- An Islamic State (ISIS) attack on a military checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula in which at least 23 Egyptians were killed raised fears the terrorist group is showing renewed strength after a perceived lull in violence.
“By all measures, this was the most violent attack against army troops in Sinai in months,” said retired army general Hamdi Abu Hashema. “The scale and the strength of the attack are really worrying.”
On July 7, ISIS fighters in 24 SUVs charged a checkpoint in the remote village of el-Barth, south-west of the border town of Rafah. In addition to the 23 Egyptian soldiers killed, 40 attackers died. Surviving militants looted the checkpoint of weapons and ammunition.
Cairo appeared to be making gains against ISIS in Sinai in recent months, including securing agreements with Bedouin fighters to try to remove ISIS from the territory. The el-Barth attack shows the setbacks have not hindered ISIS’s ability to coordinate large-scale attacks in the Sinai Peninsula.
Egyptian forces retaliated by attacking an ISIS training camp in Egypt’s eastern province of Ismailia on July 8, killing 14 ISIS militants. Funerals for the Egyptian soldiers killed in the el-Barth attack were the same day and many Egyptians expressed anger about the assault.
Despite the setback, Egypt seems to be winning the fight against ISIS. In the first half of 2017, there were fewer terrorist attacks across Egypt than in previous years, including fewer attacks on Egyptian military targets in the Sinai Peninsula.
Military experts attributed the drop in terrorist operations in Sinai to a multilevel military strategy that has significantly weakened ISIS in Egypt. While ISIS has executed headline-grabbing attacks, such as the el-Barth assault or actions targeting Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, its day-to-day operations have been significantly disrupted.
“Apart from alienating ISIS militants in most of Sinai, the army killed a large number of the group’s leaders and cut off the militants from supply routes,” said Reda Yacoub, another retired army general.
“Unrelenting army raids, the demolition of hundreds of smuggling tunnels along the border with Gaza and winning Sinai tribes to the army’s side were all measures that paid off.”
The objective of the el-Barth attack was not just to send a message to Cairo, analysts said, but also to hinder rapprochement between the Egyptian government and Hamas. Egyptian media said some of the ISIS gunmen who took part in the attack were former members of Hamas.
Following the attack, Hamas Deputy Interior Minister Tawfiq Abu Naim said the group would further increase security along the border “to prevent any cases of wanted fugitives attempting to sneak into Gaza from Egypt.”
“If anything, this means that Hamas is not in full control of the Palestinian territory,” Egyptian security analyst and ex-military official Samir Badawi said.
The el-Barth attack came after victories by the Libyan National Army against Islamist militias, including ISIS, in the north-eastern Libyan city of Benghazi after almost three years of fighting.
Although ISIS continues to have a presence in other Libyan cities, its defeat in eastern Libya is significant and will cut off ISIS in Egypt from one of its major supply routes. With increased security along the Egyptian-Gaza border, ISIS supply lines are being squeezed from both sides.
“ISIS wants to say that although it is losing territories, it is far from dead,” Badawi said. “The attack aimed to present living proof of its strength.”