Missile attack on Egyptian vessel stirs concern
CAIRO - An attack on an Egyptian naval vessel off the coast in the north-eastern part of Egypt offers new evidence that the country’s strategic waterways are within reach of terrorist groups.
A gunboat patrolling the coast off Rafah near the Gaza Strip was hit by a missile on July 16th. A group affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement that it fired a guided missile at the vessel.
The Egyptian military said the ship caught fire during an exchange with militants but that no crew member died in the attack.
However, it is the use of a missile that caused the most concern in Cairo.
Security expert Khaled Okasha says it is worrisome that terrorists are using modern weaponry in attacks against the Egyptian Army.
“They have obtained these weapons in the past months and are now using them against the army, especially in their latest attacks in the Sinai,” Okasha said. “If they tell us anything, it is that these attacks are carried out by people who are qualified and well-trained.”
Egypt has been cracking down on Sinai militants for almost two years. Authorities are engaged in a massive operation that includes destroying hundreds of smuggling tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Dozens of militants have been killed and scores of others arrested.
In November 2014, militants who used to operate under the umbrella of the local terror group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, swore allegiance to ISIS and called themselves Sinai Province. They have attacked Egyptian Army and police posts in northern Sinai, killing several military personnel and policemen. They have also launched attacks in Cairo and other provinces.
On June 29th, the group carried out coordinated attacks in north Sinai, killing 17 Egyptian troops and wounding several others. Two days earlier, it claimed responsibility for the assassination of Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat.
The July 16th attack comes a few weeks before Egypt is to inaugurate a new waterway along the Suez Canal, one that will shorten transit time in the canal, which links the Mediterranean with the Red Sea.
The project is expected to more than double revenues from the canal (Egypt receives almost $5 billion in transit fees annually from the canal) in ten years and develop the Suez Canal region into a magnet for foreign and local investments.
Military experts say Egyptian Army successes in Sinai are forcing ISIS to take its attacks to the sea.
“The army is tightening the noose around the terrorists on the ground, targeting their hideouts and killing a large number of them,” Nabil Fouad, a former high-ranking Egyptian defence official, said.
“It is normal for them to try to confuse the army by staging attacks in other areas.”
Quickly after the attack on the navy gunboat, the Egyptian Army retaliated by attacking ISIS hideouts in Sinai.
At least 59 militants were said to have been killed in operations on July 18th. The army destroyed two warehouses containing explosives, along with three cars, according to army spokesman General Muhammad Samir.
Seven Egyptian Army personnel have died in battles with the terrorists, he said.
In November 2014, an Egyptian Navy vessel was attacked off the coast of the northern city of Damietta. Eight navy personnel remain missing from the attack.
Fouad said he does not expect naval attacks to turn into a strategy for the ISIS branch in Egypt. He described the sea as an “open field” where attackers can be easily spotted and targeted.
“There can be no hiding for the terrorists in the sea, which makes similar attacks not highly possible in the future,” Fouad said.