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Violence escalates in Sinai

Terrorist groups in North Sinai continue to launch attacks against government forces while Egypt's wide-scale anti-terror operation drags on.
Egyptian army officers react during the funeral of officer Khaled al-Maghrabi, who was killed during a suicide bomb attack on an army checkpoint in Sinai, in his hometown Toukh, Al Qalyubia Governorate, north of Cairo, Egypt 8 July, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany - RC15CBC45300

A truck transporting civilians was hit by a shell in the Tofaha area of Egypt’s North Sinai Peninsula Oct. 12, killing at least nine family members and wounding six, according to the Associated Press.

The deadliest terrorist attack in Egypt targeted the same town, Bir al-Abd, on Nov. 25, 2017. Islamic State militants stormed into Al-Rawda Mosque, killing 305 people and wounding 128 others.

No party claimed responsibility for the Oct. 12 attack on the family, which was returning home from its private olive grove, according to a security source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. Over the phone, the source also noted that six members of the security forces were injured in the blast from an explosive device planted in an armored vehicle in Bir al-Abd in a separate incident the same day. No further details were given.

No security or governmental statements were issued about the incident, but North Sinai Governor Mohammad Abdel Fadil Shusha paid his respects to the family of the victims the following day. He also visited the wounded in the Bir al-Abd hospital and promised financial compensation, reported the government’s Al-Ahram newspaper Oct. 13.

Mostafa Singer, a journalist specializing in Sinai affairs, tweeted that the incident's civilian death toll increased to 10 when a young man named Mohammad Wajih died from his wounds after being taken to the hospital.

Singer told Al-Monitor over the phone that Wajih died when his truck was hit in an air raid, according to eyewitnesses. He added, “There is no certain information about the source of the missile or who launched it. But Tofaha residents claim an aircraft with unknown affiliation launched it.”

He noted that the incident took place a few hours after anonymous men blew up an armored military vehicle in Jaal near Bir al-Abd, wounding six soldiers. He added that armed men ambushed and clashed with security forces in Tofaha in the south of Bir al-Abd Sept. 27. The clashes killed a civilian and seven soldiers, including an officer, and wounded five soldiers and five civilians.

In February, the Egyptian armed forces launched a wide-scale military operation to fight terrorism in Sinai following the attack on Al-Rawda Mosque.

On June 26, the Egyptian Interior Ministry announced that a terrorist attack had struck a police station in southwest Arish, killing an officer and six soldiers in addition to four militants.

Maher Ferghalli, an Islamic movement affairs analyst at the Hafryat Center and writer for Ad-Dustour, said that the escalating terrorist operations point to deep turmoil among the groups that executed them. He told Al-Monitor over the phone that these attacks are not in the groups’ interests as they reveal their tactics, location and weapons, making it easier for the army to target them. He said when a militia is defeated and tired, it conducts random attacks out of confusion and a sense of weakness.

He pointed out that Sinai's mountainous geography makes it favorable terrain for terrorists and difficult to control. But clearly the terrorists have started losing power. He expects the pace of terrorist attacks to drop by early 2020 after the Egyptian army takes full control of Sinai.

Khaled Okasha, director of the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, said that the recurrence of terrorist incidents in Sinai has pushed the security forces to restrict citizens’ movements in North Sinai, especially in areas of high terrorist activity.

Okasha told Al-Monitor over the phone that the security inspection operations in Sinai increased to look for explosives near checkpoints or among civilians.

He noted that terrorist groups in Sinai are relying on the element of surprise. IS militants are wearing explosive belts and planting primitive bombs and making sporadic attacks.

Okasha said that the army and police force's strategies will change and there will be more raids of terrorist groups' hideouts. He predicted that North Sinai and Bir al-Abd will increase security restrictions and the whole area will be watched closely.

Meanwhile, Hamdi Bakhit, a retired major general and current member of parliament, said that security forces are launching pre-emptive strikes to prevent terror acts and eradicate terrorism at its sources.

Bakhit told Al-Monitor over the phone that the army’s operation in Sinai, the largest yet in Egypt, has contained the spread of terrorism and successfully prevented many attacks.