A militant insurgency is turning into a full-fledged war across Egypt, experts said on Thursday, hours after the army announced an assault on a navy ship, the first of its kind.
The army said the “terrorist attack” on its boat in the early hours of Wednesday in the Mediterranean left five navy personnel injured, while eight others remain missing.
The military has been fighting Islamic extremists, originally based in the restive Sinai Peninsula, for a decade. But after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year, and with jihadist groups spreading fast across the Middle East, attacks have spiked and spilled into the capital and other cities.
The attack, considered a strategic shift in militant attacks, comes less than three weeks after an attack on an army checkpoint in North Sinai left 31 troops dead, the highest single death toll for the military in decades.
A three-month state of emergency was declared in the area after the attack, and over 1,100 families were evicted to create a buffer zone across the Rafah-Gaza border. The army has regularly announced killings and arrests of alleged militants, as well as destroying tunnels reportedly used to smuggle weapons, as part of what has been deemed a step up in the offensive against the growing insurgency.
Commenting on the possible causes behind the militants’ shift to nautical attacks, military expert Ashraf Sweilam said it could be a strategy to supply weapons to Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM), Sinai’s most powerful militant group, which has likely suffered from a shortage in resources due to the escalation in the army’s campaign.
Wednesday’s naval assault could also be an attempt to ship jihadists to Egypt’s coasts for more attacks, Sweilam added.
Earlier this week, ABM swore allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), the militant group which has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria. IS has previously called on Egyptian insurgents to step up attacks against security forces, raising more fears of the region’s growing jihadist network.
Sweilam said the sea attack should not be shocking, though, as “the battleground is stretched all over Egyptian land.”
“We are in a full-fledged war, and in the war you can expect anything,” Sweilam said. “And this is the first time Egypt has faced threats on all its borders, not just the eastern Gaza one.”
Another view is that ABM has lost control over its Sinai base and is now looking for any security soft spots, whether in the western parts of the country or in the Nile valley or Delta, said Ahmed Ban, an expert in Islamic movements.
“The group is seeking any encounter with the security forces to reassure its members and to raise their morale after the grave losses they’ve sustained in Sinai,” Ban said.
Damietta’s port, 40 nautical miles away from the site of Wednesday’s reported naval attack, was still operating during the assault and no activities were halted.
A huge fishing boat was found burned – although it’s unclear whether it was used in the attack or simply caught in the crossfire.
The military said it destroyed four boats used by the assailants and arrested 32 suspects, but offered no further details.
Meanwhile, a series of scattered near-daily smaller attacks has taken place across Cairo and other cities, mainly targeting security posts, but occasionally harming civilians near university campuses or metro stations.
Authorities have blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, from which ousted president Mohamed Morsi hails, and its Islamist allies for the growing violence since Morsi’s removal in July 2013.
There has been little evidence, though, linking radical groups and the political Islamists who won a series of elections after the country’s popular 2011 revolt.
The Brotherhood was declared a terrorist group last year.
“The scattered explosions nationwide are meant to distract the Egyptian army and to give the impression that it’s incapable of facing the repeated attacks,” Sewilam said. “It’s no big deal to pay a few hundred pounds for someone to carry explosives or to throw a bomb.”
Smaller attacks have been claimed by another militant group calling itself Ajnad Misr, as revenge for the violent dispersal of two pro-Morsi camps in Cairo in August 2013 that left hundreds dead.
Ban thinks the scattered, smaller explosions aren’t linked to the bigger network of ABM, but were rather executed by smaller groups like Ajnad Misr and other terrorist cells formed after the dispersals last year.
“It shows from the scale and the gravity of their assaults … but at the same time it acts as a constant warning to the Egyptian state,” Ban said.
Source : Ahram online