A long war ahead of Egypt in Sinai
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A long war ahead of Egypt in Sinai

Thursday’s deadly attack in the peninsula highlighted extremist Islamist capabilities; el-Sissi may need years to root out the Jihadi threat

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Egyptian families collect their belongings as they leave their houses during a military operation in the Egyptian city of Rafah, near the border with the southern Gaza Strip, on October 30, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/STR)
Egyptian families collect their belongings as they leave their houses during a military operation in the Egyptian city of Rafah, near the border with the southern Gaza Strip, on October 30, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/STR)

This has undoubtedly been the strongest blow suffered by the Egypt of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi since Egypt’s second revolution in June 2013, and certainly since his election as president. True, there have been previous terrorist attacks that have cost the lives of tens of soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula, but Thursday’s attack, which killed 30 soldiers and civilians and left dozens more injured, occurred despite an ongoing military operation against the aggressive terrorist gangs that populate the Sinai. Thursday’s chain of attacks underlines the arsenal of capabilities still possessed by the extremist Islamic groups in the peninsula.

In recent months, the Egyptian military has invested an enormous amount of energy in an attempt to subdue these jihadist groups led by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a terrorist organization that has pledged its “loyalty” to the Islamic State. About 16-18 Egyptian army battalions are operating in the Sinai, with special focus on the northeastern peninsula, namely Rafah and el-Arish. Concurrently, the Egyptians have made a tremendous effort to neutralize the threat of tunnels between Gaza and Sinai in order to prevent the smuggling of weapons and terrorists between the two regions.

The Egyptian army has managed to strike quite a few terrorists and enjoys intelligence support from the Israeli side. Still, Thursday proved there is a strong level of organization within the jihadist groups, as they were able to carry out four attacks simultaneously: In el-Arish, which was the deadliest attack, Rafah, Port Said and Suez, which has been the focus of a protest against the government by the Muslim Brotherhood that also commemorated the January 25 revolution. The demonstrations in Suez, which ended in the deaths and injuries of a number of protesters, may only add to the plausibility that the attacks were aided by the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, center, speaks in front of the state-run TV ahead of a military funeral for 30 troops killed in an assault in the Sinai Peninsula, as he stands with army commanders in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014 (photo credit: AP/MENA)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, center, speaks in front of the state-run TV ahead of a military funeral for 30 troops killed in an assault in the Sinai Peninsula, as he stands with army commanders in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014 (photo credit: AP/MENA)

The el-Arish assault by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis targeted the headquarters of the Egyptian security forces and severely damaged the office of the Ahram newspaper. The incident included a car bombing and a launching of mortars and missiles. In other words, a guerrilla-style attack more representative of the Islamic State rather than a run-in-the-mill suicide attack — an indication of a high-level of planning and sophistication.

Still, Egypt under Sissi is in no hurry to get down on its knees. In Cairo, recent events in the Sinai are viewed as part of an ongoing battle between radical Islam, in the form of either the Islamic State or the Muslim Brotherhood, and the moderate and rational camp led by Sissi. In recent months, Egyptian officials have stressed that the war in the Sinai is far from over at precisely the two same locations, el-Arish and Rafah. The Egyptian army is preparing to evacuate neighborhoods in both these cities, but until then, senior military officers understand full well that the armed attacks will continue.

“It will not end in a week or in two weeks,” a senior Egyptian official recently explained to The Times of Israel.

The assessment in Cairo is that the operations of the Egyptian army in Sinai will ultimately eliminate terrorism but the war may take two years, maybe more. Cairo understands that the name of the game is patience, despite the severe price the Egyptian army will have to pay.

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