Videos of the execution of young Egyptian men accused of spying for Israel, and mounting speculation about the appearance of Islamic State (IS) cells in Sinai and Upper Egypt point to a new wave of militant-related developments in Egypt.
On Tuesday, 11 security personnel were killed in North Sinai when their armoured vehicle hit an explosive device planted on the road between Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. Four other security personnel were injured.
The current situation is too complex to be reduced to a handful of images, however gruesome. Security forces continue to record successes in the battle against terror, the latest being the killing of Fayez Abou Shita, and the successful raid on a terrorist den.
Egyptian intelligence agencies have obtained important information from such raids, including computers that have provided invaluable insight into the militant operations.
Security agencies had estimated the number of militants in Sinai at around 8,000. If that figure was correct, then following the elimination or capture of militant elements, it is unlikely that more than 500 remain at large.
General Mohamed Rashad, a former deputy director of the General Intelligence Services, warns against taking such figures seriously, “regardless of how widely circulated they are.” The situation on the ground, he says, is changing at an ever-accelerating speed. One of the more significant shifts is that many Egyptians who travelled to Syria during the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule to take part in the fighting there have now returned home.
Sinai, says Rashad, remains the most worrying terror hotbed, not least because “it is adjacent to Gaza, which is also major tributary for the export of extremism,” and the local terrain offers many places to hide. Nor can it be denied that there are some in the peninsula who are happy to defy the state.
Complaints are regularly voiced that the government is only present in Sinai when it carries out military operations. Others in the massively underdeveloped Sinai rely for their livelihoods on the conflict, or else are reportedly paid by foreign groups that seek to foment chaos in Egypt.
Militant organisations continue to target security forces in the Sinai, a fact often overlooked in international reports that focus exclusively on the rights of civilians. And the number of these groups is growing. The rumoured presence of IS cells in Egypt have proved to have a basis in fact. A military operation is currently in progress to target these cells in the Jebel Al-Hilal area. According to military sources, the initial purge will be followed by a combing operation that is expected to take some time.
The amount of time needed would be less, say sources, if there was greater international cooperation.
Washington’s foot-dragging on the issue has surprised many observers. It is, says one commentator, “a thorn in the side of Egyptian-US bilateral relations.”
Egyptian officials are increasingly exasperated with what they see as backtracking by the US. There have been delays in supplying equipment and providing maintenance for three Apache fighters, as well as the suspended delivery of 10 more aircraft that were the subject of an agreement signed when Mohamed Morsi was president.
General Rashad points to another complicating factor in the equation — a major shift in Israel’s strategy. The Israeli government is moving away from confronting the Palestinian resistance and towards tackling new groups that it believes constitute a real existential threat.
“We need to consider the role the US is playing in this shift,” says Rashad. “Washington is clearly very worried. It has been estimated that emerging militant groups will pose a significant threat to Israel by 2020.”
Rashad believes it may take longer for such “non-state organisations to create parallel entities” but nonetheless warns that a full-scale war against them in the Levant may be necessary by 2026.
Growing awareness in Washington of regional terror threats may pave the way for closer cooperation. US Secretary of State John Kerry has already told Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry that Egypt will soon receive the delayed military equipment.
That message was followed by the arrival in Cairo of Senator Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. The sole purpose of his visit was to discuss ways to combat the new wave of terrorism with Egyptian officials.