Home inContext ‘Largest Operation’ in Years Started to Quell Sinai Violence

‘Largest Operation’ in Years Started to Quell Sinai Violence

Hannah Schaeffer and Michael Johnson

The Egyptian military commenced a new offensive in Sinai late last week to address unrest following the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in July. Cairo hopes to weaken jihadist strongholds and disrupt weapon stockpiles in what officials describe as one of the largest Egyptian military operations in years.

Security forces are using a multi-pronged approach, enlisting many different assets, including tanks, armoured trucks, bulldozers and even Apache helicopters. Multiple government agencies including civil police, special forces and counter-terrorism units have worked in concert to isolate the peninsula from the rest of the country. Internet and cell phone networks were also shut down. Authorities placed transit points in and out of Sinai under new restrictions. Lastly, a lockdown in the provincial capital of Al-Arish has meant people cannot enter or leave the city after dark.

Egyptian soldiers stand guard on a minaret in the border town of Rafah in the Sinai. (Photo: AFP)

Over the past few weeks, Egypt’s government continued their campaign to close off tunnels from Sinai into Gaza that are operated by Hamas and can be used to hide extremists and smuggle weapons. An Egyptian official claimed more than 90 percent of the tunnels have been destroyed. In a new move, the military forces bulldozed homes along the border in Rafah to create an additional buffer zone with Gaza, upsetting local residents and tribal leaders.

Five days of military operations have so far killed 29 Islamist extremists and led to arrests of around 30 militants, mostly during raids, according to Egyptian officials. Security forces have successfully seized a number of mortars, explosive belts, and bombs, and say the mission will last until there is no jihadi presence the region.

But the Egyptian military continues to face a dangerous and determined insurgency. Two suicide bombers drove their explosives into military intelligence headquarters on Wednesday morning, killing nine soldiers and wounding 17 people. Also earlier this week, Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim narrowly escaped assassination when a car bomber rammed his convoy. An al-Qaeda affiliated group later claimed responsibility for this attack.

The deadly conflict between Islamist extremists and the Egyptian government is the result of jihadist capabilities that expanded under the sympathetic rule of Mohammed Morsi and cooperation from Hamas. The Army and the interim government appear determined not only to reduce the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, but also its allies in Sinai. Israel, which has come under rocket attacks from militants in Sinai, has been cooperating with the Egyptian military. Last month Egyptian officials allegedly assisted an Israeli drone strike which killed five extremists in Sinai.  A delegation of Israeli defense officials also made a quiet visit to Cairo last week.