Egyptian security forces killed 10 terrorists and arrested 20 others in Sinai last week as the peninsula experiences an increase in jihadist activity following the military ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. While there are no definitive statistics on recent attacks, local media outlets reported up to ten separate militant attacks in one night alone. Despite an increased army presence and “cleansing” operations, violence continues to escalate as Islamist militants exploit the local security vacuum.
In the days leading up to the widely publicized June 30 Cairo protests, the Egyptian government sealed off Sinai from the rest of the country to contain the anticipated influx of armed militants. The army declared a state of emergency in Sinai on July 5, two days after Morsi was removed office. Less than two weeks later, the Israeli government agreed to temporarily suspend the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty stipulation heavily restricting the Egyptian military’s mobilization in Sinai. Fearing a mutually disruptive Islamist threat, Israel gave Egypt permission to deploy two infantry battalions in the peninsula. The first deployment of heavily armored vehicles and soldiers, including 25 tank carriers, arrived in el-Arish on July 16.
A helicopter flies overhead as soldiers in military vehicles proceed towards al-Jura district in El-Arish city around 217 miles northeast of Cairo on May 21, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
With Egypt’s increased military presence in the area, the international community continues to monitor the 1979 peace agreement. The Multinational Force and Observers Sinai mission, which includes four-hundred Americans, was designed to ensure that Egypt did not bring weapons or troops into Sinai in excess of the agreement and to maintain checkpoint security. These monitors are not involved in counterinsurgency activities, but remain potential targets for militants.
Egypt has also targeted the expansive Hamas smuggling tunnel network on its border with Gaza. Legal movement of people and goods between Gaza and Israel, and Gaza and Egypt, takes place at two internationally observed checkpoints. In 2011, the (UK) Telegraph reported that Salafists used underground passageways not only to smuggle arms in and out of Gaza, but radicalized jihadists as well. Approximately 800 of these tunnels have been destroyed, limiting the illicit movement of people and goods and severely restricting the funds available to Hamas. The Hamas government suffered over $230 million in losses in June and unemployment skyrocketed to over 30 percent, estimated a Hamas government official. Aid still enters Gaza from Israel, but the crackdown has forced militants to turn to entering the peninsula through the waterways. After the Egyptian Coast Guard intercepted one such boat smuggling 10 Palestinians, the government banned fishing off the coast of northern Sinai.
Geography isolates Sinai’s indigenous inhabitants from the mainstream of Egyptian society, and their jihadist roots encouraged identification with both Hamas and President Morsi. His ouster and the military repression of Hamas in Gaza has increased the motivation of disillusioned locals and militants from across the region to take up arms. Israel, meanwhile, has maintained its status as a wary observer to the conflict in Sinai.