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The Jihadist Threat in Egypt's Sinai

The threat from violent Islamic groups in the Sinai has only worsened since the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi.
An army check point is seen in El-Arish city, in North Sinai July 15, 2013. At least three people were killed and 17 wounded when suspected militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at a bus carrying workers in Egypt's North Sinai province early on Monday, security and medical sources said. REUTERS/Stringer (EGYPT - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY) - RTX11NAD
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Since the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, the violence staged by Islamist militants in the strategic Sinai Peninsula has taken a vicious course. Millions of Egyptians embraced the success of the June 30 revolution, which brought the nation an interim government and a new sense of hope. The Muslim Brotherhood became the opposition overnight, blaming Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for what it called a "coup" against Morsi's legitimacy. 

Sinai's jihadist groups, rooted in the area's mountainous terrain, see it as a "coup" against Islam. Their terrorist operations aim for one goal: to proclaim the Sinai as an independent Islamic emirate. There is no evidence that extremist groups in Sinai, such as Ansar al-Sharia, Tawhid wal-Jihad and Takfir wal-Hijra, have organizational ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, many of these groups blamed Morsi for being too soft on his commitment to the project for an Islamic Egypt based on strict Sharia. 

However, Mohamed el-Beltagy, one of the hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood leaders placed on the wanted list after the ouster of Morsi, took refuge among tens of thousands of Morsi supporters in Cairo. In a televised interview, he stated, "Attacks in Sinai would stop the second President Mohammed Morsi is reinstated." 

Abu Khoza, Abu Rabia, Abu Gafar and Abu Hamza are just a few of the many fighters who use such aliases in their war against the Egyptian military, according to General Sherif Ismael of the North Sinai Intelligence, who has been tracking these militants for years. He thinks there are not more than 1,000 operational fighters. "Such fake coded names indicate their rankings in their Islamic armies. They have actually appointed emirs [religious militant leaders] for towns in el-Arish such as Sheikh Zuweid, Gura, Rafah and Mehdia," Ismael explained. 

The Egyptian special forces arrested two jihadists driving a jeep in the mountains of Sinai on July 18. The special forces confiscated their laptops, maps of the region and a weapons arsenal. One of the men, Ibrahim Singab, is a fugitive Yemeni jihadist, according to Ismael. "He confessed that the jihadists in the Sinai have advanced weapons, mostly smuggled from Libya, and that an Egyptian jihadist called Ramzi Mahmoud al-Mowafi is playing a major role in the insurgency. (Mowafi) has called for the formation of the Free Egyptian Army similar to the model in Syria," Ismael verified. 

According to prison records accessed by Al-Monitor at General Security, Mowafi escaped a maximum security prison in Cairo on Jan. 30, 2011, while serving a life sentence for a "military case." Mowafi, born in Egypt in 1952, is also known as "the chemist." He left his home country for Afghanistan and joined al-Qaeda under the command of Osama bin Laden where he became an explosives expert, according to data listed in his prison records. Mowafi is originally a dentist and, after treating bin Laden in Afghanistan, earned his reputation as the late al-Qaeda leader's doctor.

Indeed, one gets the sense that North Sinai has become a war zone in the past two weeks with almost daily attacks on military and police camps, checkpoints, airports and the obvious targeting of Christians. Military helicopters have rattled the skies for weeks now trying to track and deter terrorists. Intelligence sources say the increased presence of tank convoys and army personnel carriers is due to an upcoming high-profile operation, without providing more details.

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