Wednesday’s terror attack was the largest ever carried out by the Sinai Province, Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate, since it began its fight against the government in Cairo some four years ago.
It also marked the most painful blow suffered by the Egyptian military in its war on extremist Islamist terror, which it is bent on eradicating.
It was a well-planned attack, carried out by dozens of ISIS operatives in northern Sinai, and the explosions and weapons fire were heard loud and clear in Israel.
Amid concerns that ISIS may try to spread their attacks in the direction of Israel – and in the past there have been several instances that started with clashes with the Egyptian army in Sinai and ended in infiltrations into Israel – the IDF decided to raise its preparedness along the border and to close the Kerem Shalom and Nitsana border crossings. The crossings were reopened on Thursday.
Wednesday’s events proved that, despite the regime of Egyptian President Abdul Fatteh al-Sisi’s steadfastness in directing the Egyptian army and security forces to use unyielding power against the terror organization, the task has proven difficult and is exacting a heavy price. The honest truth, as of now, is that Egypt is not succeeding in its war on terror. This raises difficult questions about the Egyptian army’s operational capabilities, its lack of sufficient intel-gathering abilities, and perhaps even worse – its helplessness and negligence.
The ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province is an incarnation of a previous organization – Ansar Bayit al-Maqdes, which once identified itself as a local arm of al-Qaida, and from time to time carried out operations against Israel as a subcontractor of Hamas. A few months ago the group abandoned al-Qaida and pledged allegiance to ISIS in exchange for a promise of financial aid.
It will be interesting to see how the situation in Sinai will influence Egypt’s relations with Hamas. After hatred and acrimony between Hamas and Cairo, the height of which was seen during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, and accusations that Hamas aided terrorists in Sinai, in recent weeks, there have been signs of better relations between Gaza and Egypt.
Israeli defense and intelligence sources estimate that the Sinai Province numbers several hundred trained and armed operatives, as well as a similar number of collaborators. Most of them are local Beduin, some of them from the Tarabin tribe which resides in north Sinai and has dealt in drug and weapons smuggling as well as human trafficking in recent years. In the past two years they have clothed this profession in the ideology of ISIS.
The Egyptian army has had a number of achievements in recent months, since the bloody attack in January 2015 in which 30 soldiers were killed. It has achieved relative quiet in the rest of Sinai – in the center and in the south – after winning the loyalty of several tribal leaders in these areas through bribery, threats and punishment.
However, the problem has persisted in north Sinai. Despite Israel’s agreeing to allow the Egyptian army to add more forces in Sinai than is allowed in accordance with the peace accord between the countries, and despite the security coordination with Israel (foreign reports have even suggested that Israel has helped Egypt in intel-gathering and with drone attacks), President Sisi has struggled in his battle against terror.
However, it can be assumed that, despite Wednesday’s terror attacks, Sisi’s resolve will not weaken, and his regime will continue in its all out war against terror in Sinai. As has been proven in Israel and many other countries throughout the world, the struggle against the monster that is terrorism has no lightning solution.
* The author Yossi Melman is an Israeli journalist and writer who specializes in security and intelligence affairs. He is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. He blogs at Yossi Melman’s blog. Originally published on JPost, on July 2, 2015