JULY 1, 2015
Jihadist Attacks on Egypt Grow Fiercer
By KAREEM FAHIM and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO -- Two years after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a military takeover promising to restore order and security in Egypt, he faces a rising jihadist insurgency that has shaken the stability of this most populous Arab state, a key ally of the United States.
Just two days after militants assassinated Egypt's top prosecutor on a Cairo street, the military on Wednesday called in F-16 war planes and helicopters to beat back a coordinated assault in Northern Sinai by a jihadist group affiliated with the Islamic State. Egyptian soldiers were killed, police officers were trapped in their posts, ambulances were paralyzed by booby-trapped roads and residents were warned to stay indoors by jihadists roaming on motorcycles.
The scale and complexity of the attack far exceeded any of the group's previous strikes in Sinai, raising the possibility that it has begun to coordinate more closely with the Islamic State leadership based in Syria, experts said.
More broadly, even as Mr. Sisi has pressed a campaign to marginalize mainstream Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood -- with the authorities outlawing the group, jailing thousands, sentencing hundreds to death and using lethal force to shut down protests -- he has faced growing opposition from more violent Islamists vowing retaliation for the government crackdown.
That failure to tamp down violence and restore order has undercut Mr. Sisi's ability to prop up the second pillar he promised to restore: the economy. The vital tourism industry faces new threats from militants just as the government had begun to predict a recovery. The economy remains deeply dependent on tens of billions of dollars a year in aid from Persian Gulf monarchies.
At the same time, political life is frozen, with parliamentary elections promised two years ago yet to be scheduled. And the drumbeat of attacks by militants is fraying the public's nerves.
"After the attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France, I imagined that we were far from this," said Abdelrahman Essa, a 27-year-old engineer in Cairo. "It is a new stage of violence. I am afraid of the situation and the way events are developing."
As the security crises mounted this week, though, there was little evidence that the government was preparing to change course. Officials pushed for restrictive new laws such as antiterrorism legislation and amendments that would speed up criminal sentences, including executions.
And in an escalation of the government's war against the Brotherhood, police officers shot and killed nine members in a Cairo apartment on Wednesday, saying that they had been gunned down while violently resisting arrest.
A statement on the Brotherhood's English-language website said the members, one of whom had been in Parliament, were killed "in cold blood."
"Why is it that they haven't figured out that this is not working?" asked Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation in New York, speaking of the counterinsurgency strategy. "Security is deteriorating. The government's strategies, operations and tactics in Sinai are a failure."
The rising tide of violence did not threaten to topple the government and may, at least for now, rally the nation behind Mr. Sisi's get-tough approach, Mr. Hanna said. "It might erode confidence in Sisi, but they are not going anywhere, because the state is essentially unified," he said.
Yet for Egyptians searching for stability -- including the families of conscripted soldiers and the residents of Sinai, lashed together to a shadowy and intensifying war -- the growing power and sophistication of the militants posed an immediate threat.
"No one is safe here," said Mostafa Singer, a journalist trapped by the militants' advance in Sinai. "The explosions are everywhere. We do not know if the army will be able to solve this."
The assassination of the prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, on Monday showed evidence of the evolving tactics and was the first time since the start of the insurgency nearly two years ago that the militants had killed a senior government official. The authorities said Mr. Barakat was killed by a remote-controlled car bomb, placed along the route that his convoy traveled every day.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing, but analysts said it was possible that it was the work of one of the new Islamist militant groups that have framed their attacks as revenge for arrests and prosecutions by the government.
The full-scale offensive on Wednesday in Sinai by the Islamic State affiliate began after sunrise with simultaneous assaults on more than a dozen military checkpoints. It was the most audacious yet by the militant group, which calls itself Sinai Province.
For hours, as the militants laid siege to the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, Sinai Province even released updates on its progress. The police station was under siege, it told followers in a statement, adding, "The lions of the caliphate were also able to blow up two pieces of machinery belonging to the Egyptian apostate army."
To finally overcome the militants, the military called in warplanes and helicopters, conducting airstrikes that left the remains of the militants still sitting in their pulverized vehicles, witnesses said. A military spokesman said that 17 soldiers had been killed along with 100 of the militants -- lower casualty figures than given by Egypt's semiofficial state news media, which reported throughout the day that dozens of soldiers had been killed and injured.
There was nothing to suggest the militants were routed, only that they may have staged a tactical retreat. The militants have been able to carry out dozens of smaller attacks in Sinai, seemingly at will, killing hundreds of soldiers and police officers.
Brian Fishman, a researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington who previously taught counterinsurgency strategy at West Point, said that the coordination illustrated by the assailants -- suicide bombers backed up by direct and indirect fire, well-aimed mortars used in combination with small arms, and simultaneous assaults in many places -- was the strongest evidence yet of strategies used by Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
"People need to get training or to have a lot of practice to pull that kind of thing off successfully; it is a lot easier said than done," he added. "The more we see these kind of sophisticated attacks, the more you have to conclude that there is actual learning going on, and potentially direct knowledge transfer by people moving around and providing training in this kind of thing."
Mr. Fishman also called the attacks more evidence that, even after two years of a heavy-handed crackdown by the Egyptian security forces, "the jihadi elements in Sinai aligned with ISIS are growing," not retreating, which renews questions about the efficacy of the government's approach to counter insurgency.
All the signs on Wednesday pointed to an increasingly violent confrontation between the government and its opponents. "We are in a real state of war," the prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb, said as he spoke about legislation the cabinet was considering "to face the terrorism we are in," according to the state news media.
In its statement, the Brotherhood said its members had been "assassinated" while they were detained. "The criminal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is laying the foundations for a new phase where it will not be possible to control the anger of the oppressed, who will not accept to be so executed in their homes among their families," the statement said.
"Rise in revolt to defend your homeland, your lives and your children," it continued. "Destroy the castles of injustice and tyranny. Reclaim Egypt once again."
Kareem Fahim reported from Cairo, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Fort Erie, Ontario. Merna Thomas contributed reporting from Cairo, and Rick Gladstone from New York.