The assassination of Egypt’s top prosecutor Monday turned out to be the opening shot of an attack by Islamic groups on the generals’ regime in Cairo. Wednesday's deadly and audacious onslaught in Sinai — whose timing around the second anniversary of Egypt’s military coup is no coincidence — poses a hefty challenge to the Egyptian government.
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Arab media attributed the coordinated attacks in Sinai to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Actually, it seems they were carried out by a faction known as Wilayat Sinai (Province of Sinai), the largest Islamic group in the peninsula. It has been fighting the Egyptian regime for years.
In its previous incarnation, the group was known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, but toward the end of last year, following the Islamic State’s huge and unexpected military victories in Syria and Iraq, the group changed its name and transferred its allegiance from Al-Qaida. In return, it received a new ideological umbrella and financial aid from the enormous profits the Islamic State has reaped since it seized Iraqi oil fields.
In numerical terms — the number of fighters compared with the number of losses inflicted — the Sinai group is the most deadly Islamic State faction in the Middle East.
In March, Israeli intelligence estimated that Wilayat Sinai had only a few hundred fighters, but within a year and a half it killed more than 300 Egyptian security personnel in Sinai. Wednesday that number rose by several dozen; according to reports in the afternoon, at least 64 Egyptian soldiers and policemen had been killed in attacks on military checkpoints and police stations.
Wilayat Sinai also suffered losses, but it seems that in the image war — vital to a terror group seeking to undermine a regime — the terrorists came out on top. Based on experience, we can assume the group documented the attacks. Those videos, if and when they are posted, will have an effect on morale.
The militants simultaneously attacked 15 security positions and checkpoints from Rafah and El-Arish in northern Sinai to the town of Sheikh Zuweid to the south. They used advanced Kornet antitank missiles, car bombs and suicide bombers.
According to an unconfirmed report, they even downed an Egyptian Apache helicopter. In battles that raged late into the night, the Egyptian military responded largely with F-16s and attack helicopters.
Also, following a report that the Islamic State had snatched an Egyptian armored personnel carrier, Israel closed the crossings at Nitzana and Kerem Shalom for fear militants would try to use the vehicle to breach the border, similar to an effort at Kerem Shalom in 2012.
The Israel Defense Forces believes that though the Islamic State’s Sinai efforts are designed to help overthrow the Egyptian government, the group sees Israel as a secondary target. This contrasts with the extremist factions in Syria like the Nusra Front, which refrain from attacking Israel on the Golan Heights.
Admiration for Israel
In any case, the terror wave in Egypt didn’t come out of nowhere. Every day there are at least three or four terror attempts by Islamic factions in Sinai or mainland Egypt. At the beginning of the week three Egyptian road workers were killed in such an effort.
But the killing of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat shows that even President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi may not be immune to the fate of one of his predecessors, Anwar Sadat, who was killed by Muslim extremists after reaching a peace treaty with Israel.
Israel was very pleased with the military coup two years ago that brought down the man it considered a problematic partner, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, and ushered into power generals who don’t hide (at least in private meetings) their admiration for Israel and their view of Israel as a partner in the war on terror. Sissi, unlike Morsi, keeps his distance from Hamas in Gaza and has often put greater pressure on the Strip than Israel has.
But the military coup came with a heavy price. As analyst Mohamad Bazzi noted in a Reuters column, the generals’ regime has apparently brought some stability to Egypt and relieved it of the Muslim Brotherhood’s amateurish economic management. But it has also created tremendous frustration among Brotherhood supporters because the first president elected in a free and fair election was toppled.
According to Bazzi, the coup also reinforced the notion that the only way to achieve political power in Egypt is violence. The show trials for the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, the wholesale death sentences for members of the movement, including Morsi, and the military's killing of 1,000 pro-Brotherhood demonstrators in August (which Israel has forgotten) only strengthen that impression.
Israel will certainly help Egypt fight terror in Sinai, albeit indirectly and with a low profile. But what might be more important for Jerusalem is Sissi and the generals’ relationship with Hamas. Though Cairo has long accused Hamas of aiding the Sinai extremists, the relationship between the generals and Hamas thawed somewhat after Saudi Arabia asked Egypt to reduce its pressure on Gaza (and perhaps also because Hamas was forced to rein in Salafi groups in Gaza that were firing rockets at Israel).
Now it’s reasonable to assume this truce is over. Egypt knows that Hamas needs the Sinai Islamic groups because they’re the desert rulers, the ones who control the area containing arsenals and the few smuggling routes left between Sinai and the Rafah smuggling tunnels.
If Cairo accuses Hamas of supporting Sinai groups, it may well consider punishing Gaza. This may seem unlikely, but in an extreme scenario even an Egyptian airstrike on “terror targets” in southern Gaza is possible.