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Islamic State affiliate tries to destabilize Egypt

By Missing Peace
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis squad in Sinai desertAnsar Bayt al-Maqdis squad in Sinai desert

This article also appeared at Western Journalism.com

Over the last two weeks, Islamists in Egypt have escalated their attacks on the Egyptian army and civilian targets.

First, four bombings were carried out in Cairo on Friday January 23th. Six people were killed, and more than 100 were injured in these explosions. In one case, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb near a police station killing 5 and injuring 51. The blast also severely damaged a 19th-century Islamic art museum.

Last Friday, an Army helicopter was shot down with surface-to-air missiles. These missiles are smuggled into Egypt from the arsenals of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. The attack was carried out by the Al-Qaeda off-shoot Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis that declared its allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in December 2014. After the group aligned with Islamic State, it changed its name in Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province) to underline that Sinai is now part of the Islamic State.

The attack on the helicopter was followed by organized and qualitative attacks on ten military headquarters and bases in three different cities in the Sinai Peninsula. The attacks left 35 soldiers and citizens dead, and wounded 70 others.

The attacks led to a trust crisis and raised the ire of the Egyptian population. The attacks proved that the army is still not in control of the Sinai Peninsula despite a large military operation that has lasted for 18 months now.

President Abdel al-Sisi cut short a visit to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to deal with the situation. On of his generals, Ahmed Rajai Attia, founder of the Task Force 777, appeared on television and said that those who carried out the recent operations were military forces. They are affiliated with Hamas, he said, and came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. He also claimed that the West and the CIA were planning and leading the attacks.

Attia’s statement is part of a cover-up campaign that aims to hide the lack of success of the military campaign. By broadcasting false news about the operation in Sinai, the illusion is created that the army is in control, but also that ‘foreign’ forces are sabotaging the process of routing out terrorism in Sinai.

A spokesman for Wilayat Sinai explained that one of the reasons for the recent operation is to expose the cover-up campaign by the authorities.

He told the news site Al-Monitor: “The first reason is exemplified by the viral media reports about the results of the large operation in Egypt, a country with significant international standing. The second reason is earning the trust of the Islamic State emir, who provided them with more rewards, money, and weapons.”

The army operation has had some success; 1850 contraband tunnels were destroyed near the border with Gaza. The border with Israel is better secured now, and some 1000 terrorists have been killed.

But last week’s attacks show that after 18 months of fighting, the army still does not know how to defeat the terrorists.

The cause of this failure is that the Egyptian army has never been trained for this type of warfare. The focus has always been on conventional warfare, and all of the army’s exercises are directed at fighting a future war with the IDF.

Another element that contributes to the failure of the military campaign is the collaboration between the local Bedouin and the Jihadi groups in Sinai. The Bedouin is hostile to the Egyptian army because of decades of neglect by the central government.

This has been proven a fertile ground for radicalization among the Bedouin and caused them to assist Hamas in setting up contraband routes to bring missiles and other weaponry from Sudan to Gaza. Today, the same routes are used to bring in Jihadists and weapons from Libya.

Egypt is in urgent need of assistance to overcome the terrorist threat by Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Sinai.

Both groups are also threatening Israel.

Israel has already been attacked by Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis. The group staged cross-border attacks on Israeli vehicles traveling along the border and has launched rockets at the Red Sea resort Eilat.

Egypt’s long-term ally, America, is dragging its feet, however, and has not yet fully restored its military cooperation after al-Sisi took over from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Obama administration still supports the Muslim Brotherhood, which it sees as the legitimately elected government of Egypt. Last week, a delegation of Muslim Brotherhood members who fled to the United States was received at the State Department. The photo-op went viral.

President al-Sisi has now turned to others for military assistance. The United Arab Emirates has offered to deliver a number of Dassault-built Mirage-2000-9’s fighter planes to Egypt. And Egypt is reportedly negotiating with Russia about the purchase of MIG-35 planes.

Meanwhile, The Muslim Brotherhood keeps up the pressure on the al-Sisi regime. Over the weekend, 25 Brotherhood activists were killed during rallies marking the anniversary of the 2011 uprising against the Mubarak regime. Security forces opened fire on the activists, which in some cases were armed.

The unrest is unlikely to escalate dramatically, however, since most Egyptians back Sisi’s efforts to stabilize the country and to stimulate the economy.

Sisi’s long-term survival may hinge on his attempts to create jobs. Egypt’s unemployment rate has climbed from 8.9 to 13 percent since the fall of Mubarak. The president has instigated mega-projects designed to boost the economy and to create jobs. One of these mega-projects is a second Suez Canal.

Foreign investors are slowly returning to Egypt. This year, foreign investments are expected to rise to $10 billion up from $6 billion over 2013-2014.

This development has not gone unnoticed by the terrorist groups. On Tuesday, several bombs exploded in Cairo and Alexandria. Several hours later, police found two unexploded bombs at Cairo Airport.

The string of attacks is ruining the image of stability that the government is trying to project ahead of an investment conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm e-Sheikh in March. The government hopes the conference will generate ventures worth billions of dollars.