- - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

CAIRO — Islamist militants in Egypt’s volatile Sinai Peninsula have increased the number and range of their attacks on military targets as they push to undermine Egypt’s top army official, and ultimately pursue an Islamist state.

Terrorist attacks throughout and beyond Sinai increased after newly promoted Field Marshal Abdel Fatah el-Sissi won the military’s endorsement to run for president, analysts note. Because of the field marshal’s widespread popularity, he likely would win the election, which must be held by mid-April, and would have a good chance of reuniting Egypt’s fractious population of 85 million.

Jihadists have been taking advantage of Egypt’s political and economic chaos, which they see “as their opportunity” to undermine the interim government, said David Barnett, who researches Sinai militant groups at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“You’re going to see an increase in the rate of attacks in the mainland,” he said.

Violence in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt has increased steadily since the military-led coup against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July. Mr. Barnett said fresh recruits were influenced by the failure of political Islam and the interim government’s violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Sinai-based jihadist groups Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (also known as Ansar Jerusalem or “Supporters of Jerusalem”) and Ajnad Misr (“Soldiers of Egypt“) have claimed responsibility for a rash of car bombings and other attacks targeting military officials and sites in Egypt and Israel. Recent assaults include the bombing of a police barracks and the assassination of a government official.

Both extremist groups say they aim to attack only military forces, not civilians. Still, three civilians in the northern Sinai border town of Rafah were wounded Sunday when a car bomb targeting Egyptian soldiers exploded.

“Their reach has gone far beyond the Sinai, and their ability to assassinate government officials and deliver vehicle bombs to downtown Cairo is far beyond anything we have seen with past jihadist organizations operating from the Sinai Peninsula,” said Scott Stewart, an analyst for the global risk assessment firm Stratfor.

The 400 U.S. troops stationed in Sinai as part of an international peacekeeping mission, so far, have not been targeted. The Multinational Force and Observers, which includes an infantry battalion and a support battalion, monitors checkpoints and reports violations of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

Still, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has demonstrated “increased levels of sophistication and coordination,” Mr. Barnett said, and more of its attacks in recent weeks have been outside Sinai.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for firing two rockets Friday at the Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat in retaliation for Israel’s airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.

Four improvised explosive devices were detonated in Cairo ahead of the third anniversary of Egypt’s revolution that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak. One person was injured when two homemade bombs exploded outside a police barracks in Cairo.

Militant gunmen killed Gen. Mohamed Saeed, head of the Interior Ministry’s technical office.

Little is known about the Sinai militants. Ajnad Misr, which issued its first official statement Jan. 23, is the most recent addition to the growing Sinai-based jihadist movement. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis called Ajnad Misr’s members its “brothers,” but the level of cooperation between the two is unknown.

Concern has grown over their widening range and increased activity. On Jan. 26, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis released a video of a militant using a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile to shoot down a military helicopter.

Analysts for the IHS Jane’s security intelligence firm describe the weapon in the video as a “more advanced, but less common” version of a Soviet-made missile that militants in Iraq typically use.

“The operational tempo of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis‘ attacks appears to be quickening,” said Mr. Stewart, the Stratfor analyst.

Although not officially aligned with al Qaeda, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis appears to share al Qaeda’s views, and its statements are featured on al Qaeda-affiliated online forums.

Egypt has responded with a show of force. On Monday, troops backed by helicopters raided hideouts of suspected militants in the northern part of Sinai, killing at least 20 and wounding 25, military officials said.

The officials said the sweep, which led to the arrests of 16 people, was among the biggest in an offensive against militants waging an insurgency in the area bordering the Gaza Strip and Israel, The Associated Press reported. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

On Friday, army aircraft pounded suspected militants’ positions, killing 13 people.

Egypt’s interim government has vowed to step up efforts to eradicate terrorism, a term that has been broadened to include anyone suspected of inciting violence or speaking to those accused of inciting violence — including local and foreign journalists.

“We’re determined … to root out terrorism,” Interim President Adly Mansour said in a televised address Jan. 26, pledging to take additional measures if necessary.

Most Egyptians continue to support the government and Field Marshal el-Sissi’s crackdown on terrorism.

“Things cannot go on [like this] forever,” said Aysha Selim, who has protested the Islamists since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster. “We have an out-of-hand situation in Sinai. You cannot handle them with care in order to have done with them. We have to fight back with equal force.”

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