Egypt’s long, bloody fight against Is­lamic State in Si­nai stag­nates

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN sudarsan.raghavan@wash­post.com Heba Farouk Mah­fouz con­trib­uted to this re­port.

CAIRO — Egyp­tian se­cu­rity forces are find­ing them­selves in­creas­ingly bogged down in their fouryear fight against an Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate in the north­ern Si­nai Penin­sula, de­spite bil­lions of dol­lars in U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism aid. The strug­gle has cost the lives of hun­dreds of po­lice of­fi­cers and sol­diers, in­clud­ing at least 20 in the past week.

On Monday, at least 18 po­lice­men were killed when a sui­cide bomber det­o­nated his ex­plo­sives­laden car near their se­cu­rity con­voy. The at­tack, near the heav­ily pa­trolled North Si­nai pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Ar­ish, was fol­lowed by clashes as other mil­i­tants opened fire, a mil­i­tary spokesman said.

The Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate, known as Wi­layat Si­nai, as­serted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the at­tack, claim­ing that the bomber “plunged him­self into six of their ve­hi­cles and blasted his car.” The mil­i­tants also de­stroyed sev­eral mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles, as well an am­bu­lance and a firetruck.

Two days later, two sol­diers were killed in a gun bat­tle af­ter mil­i­tants staged a failed as­sault on a se­cu­rity check­point in North Si­nai, a mil­i­tary spokesman said. Again, the Is­lamic State as­serted re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“We see this at­tack that is sup­pos­edly in a com­pletely se­cure area, and it claims 18 lives,” said Mo­han­nad Sabry, the au­thor of a book on the Is­lamist in­sur­gency in Si­nai. “It’s a sig­nal that things are still not re­ally un­der con­trol.”

Sim­i­lar vi­o­lence has un­folded every few weeks in re­cent months, un­der­scor­ing the in­sur­gency’s re­silience, as well as its abil­ity to mount com­plex, mul­ti­lay­ered at­tacks us­ing the lo­cal ter­rain to its ad­van­tage.

Since July 2013, at least 1,000 mem­bers of the se­cu­rity forces have been killed in ter­ror­ist at­tacks across the restive Si­nai Penin­sula, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by the non­profit Tahrir In­sti­tute for Mid­dle East Pol­icy. In 2017, more than 200 mem­bers of the se­cu­rity forces have been killed there.

Wi­layat Si­nai alone has claimed more than 800 at­tacks across Egypt since its pledge of al­le­giance to the Is­lamic State in Novem­ber 2014, said Nancy Okail, the Tahrir In­sti­tute’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. Egyp­tian se­cu­rity forces, she added, have killed more than 2,500 sus­pected ter­ror­ists in op­er­a­tions in Si­nai since 2013, al­though un­of­fi­cial num­bers re­ported by lo­cal me­dia are sig­nif­i­cantly higher.

Al­though there have been fewer ter­ror­ist at­tacks this year than last, the num­ber of fa­tal­i­ties has risen, Okail said. That sug­gests the mil­i­tants are plan­ning their op­er­a­tions more strate­gi­cally and with the in­tent of cre­at­ing max­i­mum car­nage, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts.

With the Is­lamic State near­ing de­feat in Iraq and Syria, its af­fil­i­ates are as­sert­ing them­selves in other parts of the world, from North Africa to Afghanistan to the Philip­pines. The mil­i­tant group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has pen­e­trated the moun­tains of Tu­nisia and main­tains a ro­bust pres­ence in Libya, de­spite the loss of its strong­hold of Sirte last year.

In north­ern Si­nai, Is­lamic Statelinked mil­i­tants are lead­ing the Is­lamist in­sur­gency launched in the sum­mer of 2013 af­ter Egypt’s mil­i­tary over­threw the elected Is­lamist pres­i­dent, Mo­hamed Morsi. The coup was led by the cur­rent pres­i­dent, Ab­del Fatah al-Sissi, and the in­sur­gency’s stated goal is to top­ple his govern­ment.

The Is­lamic State has also in­creas­ingly tar­geted Egypt’s Cop­tic Chris­tians, who make up roughly 10 per­cent of the coun­try’s 94 mil­lion peo­ple. The tac­tic ap­pears de­signed to sow fur­ther di­vi­sion, turn­ing Egyp­tians against the Sissi govern­ment, which has failed to pro­tect the mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity.

In 2015, the Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate in Si­nai as­serted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the down­ing of a Rus­sian pas­sen­ger plane af­ter it took off from the Red Sea re­sort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. That at­tack, which killed all 224 peo­ple aboard, hit Egypt’s econ­omy hard; Rus­sia halted civil­ian flights to the coun­try, and Bri­tain and other na­tions stopped air­lines from fly­ing to Sharm elSheikh.

Monday’s at­tack came two months af­ter Is­lamic State mil­i­tants killed at least 23 sol­diers at a re­mote out­post near Rafah, the Egyp­tian town bor­der­ing the Gaza Strip, in the dead­li­est at­tack on se­cu­rity forces in two years.

FAYED EL-GEZIRY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An Egyp­tian sol­dier’s cof­fin is car­ried dur­ing a July fu­neral in 10th of Ra­madan city. The Is­lamic State claimed the at­tack the day be­fore that killed at least 23 in North Si­nai near the Gaza bor­der.

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