Islamic State fighters attacked several military checkpoints in Egypt’s North Sinai region on Wednesday in a coordinated assault that killed more than 100 people – one of the biggest terrorist strikes in Egypt’s modern history.
Soldiers, policemen, civilians and terrorists were among the dead.
Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate, Sinai Province, claimed responsibility and said that it had attacked more than 15 security sites and carried out three suicide bombings.
Alleged video of today's Sinai attacks surfaces on social media
Egypt’s armed forces said that at least 100 fighters and 17 soldiers had been killed.
One security source said about 300 fighters, armed with heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weaponry, had taken part in the attacks, while the army said five checkpoints had been hit and the fighting had raged for more than eight hours.
This attack is a major escalation in the ongoing conflict in Egypt, Prof. Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Jerusalem Post.
He said the violence was challenging Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s claims that he would eradicate terrorism and stabilize the economy.
Israel is a strong supporter of Sisi’s regime and has allowed the Egyptian army to deploy forces beyond the scope allowed in the peace treaty between the two countries, he said.
“Developing on Israel’s southern border is one of the most dramatic battles of Islamic State, which threatens not only Egypt, but also Israel’s side of the border,” he stated.
The Egyptian government makes no distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist terrorism, but they are not the same, argued Meital.
As a result, he said, Egyptian society – which includes a large number of Brotherhood supporters – is seeing a growing split between supporters and opponents of the regime.
The assault was the second high-profile attack in Egypt this week. On Monday, a bomb killed the prosecutor- general in Cairo.
Israel reacted to the violence by closing its borders with Egypt and Gaza.
The IDF is closely following the exchange of fire near the border with Israel, and has already decided that all Egyptian requests to reinforce troops in the Sinai Peninsula will be approved, Channel 2 reported.
Israel is worried that several armored vehicles and weapons that Islamic State has taken may later be used against the Jewish state, security sources told Channel 10.
The jihadists, who have killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, want to topple the Cairo government and have stepped up their campaign since 2013, when Sisi removed president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood after mass protests against his rule. Sisi, who regards the Brotherhood as a threat to national security, has since overseen a harsh crackdown on Islamists.
Security sources said the terrorists had planned to lay siege to the town of Sheikh Zuweid.
“But we have dealt with them and broke the siege on Sheikh Zuweid,” one of the sources said.
Egyptian F-16 jets and Apache helicopters strafed the region. Soldiers destroyed three SUVs fitted with anti-aircraft guns, the army said.
Security sources said the fighters had surrounded a police station in Sheikh Zuweid and had planted bombs around it to prevent forces from leaving.
The fighters also planted bombs along a road between Sheikh Zuweid and al-Zuhur army camp to prevent the movement of any army supplies or reinforcements, and they seized two armored vehicles, as well as weapons and ammunition, the sources said.
“We are not allowed to leave our homes,” said Suleiman al-Sayed, a 49-year-old Sheikh Zuweid resident. “Clashes are ongoing. A short while ago I saw five Land Cruisers with masked gunmen waving black flags.”
Ambulance medic Yousef Abdelsalam said he was at the entrance to the town but could not enter because of warnings that the road was rigged with bombs.
Witnesses and security sources also reported hearing two explosions in the nearby Gaza border town of Rafah. The sources said all roads leading to Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid were shut down. The Hamas Interior Ministry in the Gaza Strip reinforced its forces along the border with Egypt.
“It is a sharp reminder that despite the intensive counter-terrorism military campaign in the Sinai over the past six months, the [Islamic State] ranks are not decreasing – if anything, they are increasing in numbers as well as sophistication, training and daring,” Aimen Dean, a former al-Qaida insider who now runs a Gulf-based security consultancy, said in a note.
In Cairo, security forces stormed an apartment in a western suburb and killed nine men whom they said were armed, security sources said.
The sources said authorities had received information that the group was planning to carry out an attack.
Among the dead was Nasser al-Hafi, a prominent lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood and a former lawmaker.
The Brotherhood denied that the group was armed.
Islamic State had urged its followers to escalate attacks during the month of Ramadan, which started in mid- June, though it did not specify Egypt as a target. In April, the army extended by three months a state of emergency imposed in parts of the Sinai.
The army has taken several measures to crush the insurgency.
Besides bombardments in the region, they have destroyed tunnels into the Gaza Strip and created a security buffer zone in northern Sinai. The army is also digging a trench along the border with Gaza in an effort to prevent smuggling.
Under the terms of Egypt’s 1979 peace accord with Israel, the Sinai is largely demilitarized. But Israel has regularly agreed to Egypt bringing in reinforcements to tackle the Sinai insurgency, and one Israeli official signaled that there could be further such deployments following Wednesday’s attacks.
“This incident is a game-changer,” an official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The courts have sentenced hundreds of alleged Brotherhood supporters to death in recent months. Morsi himself, and other senior Brotherhood figures, also face the death penalty.
The cabinet on Wednesday approved a draft anti-terrorism law, which it said would “achieve quick and just deterrence.”
“Any terrorist or criminal attacks that aim to sow chaos... will be confronted,” the cabinet said, citing the interior minister.