At least 25 Islamist militants were killed in air strikes in northern Sinai over the past several days, senior security officials said Friday.
Security sources cited by Reuters said 10 militants from Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and renamed itself “Sinai Province”, were killed Friday in Egyptian air raids on a home in Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai, near the Gaza Strip. This followed similar air strikes on Thursday in the town which killed 15 terrorists from the group, according to the sources.
Egypt is in the throes of fighting an Islamist insurrection in the Sinai that has claimed the lives of hundreds of police officials and soldiers since the ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in the summer of 2013.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi has taken a hard line against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which was ruled a terror organization, and its Palestinian branch, Hamas, which received a similar ruling, much to its dismay.
The Egyptian government believes jihadist militants, with help from the Muslim Brotherhood and neighboring Hamas in the Gaza Strip, were seeking to overthrow the regime and re-install an Islamist ruler.
Last month, state-run newspaper al-Ahram quoted “informed sources” who accused Hamas’s military wing of coordinating plans with the Brotherhood to hit Egyptian military targets and vital installations and distribute footage of the attacks in order to lower national morale. They claimed that the two groups planned to spread rumors of an Islamic State presence in Egypt in order to sow panic among the population.
Hamas and the Brotherhood thus hoped to spread fear and disappointment with the Egyptian armed forces, the sources alleged, while also working behind the scenes, using agents in the government to disrupt internal services and erode trust in the regime.
In early January, Egypt began work on doubling the width of a buffer zone along the border with Gaza to prevent militants infiltrating from the enclave. The buffer zone was created following a suicide bombing on October 24 last year that killed 30 Egyptian soldiers and wounded many others.
Earlier this month, however, Egypt scaled back its military presence in the Sinai Peninsula according to Israeli sources, redeploying troops from its Gaza border to its western one with Libya in a bid to combat Islamic State fighters, in a potential game-changer for Israel.
Egypt was left reeling late last month when IS kidnapped and beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya, posting the chilling video online as is its modus operandi.
Unnamed Israeli security officials warned that the reduced military presence in the northern Sinai Peninsula might allow terrorist groups get a foothold and let them carry out attacks against Israel, according to Walla.
“Egypt is operating according to its priorities, and at this point sees the porous Libyan border as a more significant threat. This is a territory over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) long, on the other side of which Islamic State operatives are running amok, murdering Egyptian citizens,” an unnamed security official told Walla.
The unnamed source warned that the “redeployment of Egypt’s special forces from the Sinai to the Libyan border will weaken the Egyptian pressure on terrorist groups that may act against Israel.”
The move comes amid tension between Cairo and Washington as well as warming relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
The report said that some Israeli officials fear that stronger ties between Cairo and Moscow may adversely affect relations between Israel and its Arab neighbor.
Despite the shift of forces, Israel has recently enjoyed productive security cooperation with Egypt, with Cairo cracking down on armed groups in the Sinai and destroying smuggling tunnels running beneath the border into the Gaza Strip.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Gaza’s main gateway to the world, has mostly been closed since October.
Egypt’s decision to strengthen its Libyan border comes as IS extremists have been gaining ground in the country, feeding on chaos that has engulfed the country since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising.
The country is awash with weapons and has two rival governments and two rival parliaments, with authorities unable to rein in powerful militias battling for power and to control the nation’s oil wealth.
AFP, AP and Jonathan Beck contributed to this report.