Nadine Marroushi and Passant Rabie report: Abandoned houses destroyed by shellfire, a mosque turned to rubble, and burned huts lay among sand dunes, citrus farms and olive groves, in the villages of Mehdeyya and Muqataa, a few kilometers from the borders of Gaza and Israel in the north of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
They are the hometowns of some of the militants associated with Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, the jihadi group which has emerged as Egypt’s biggest terrorist threat in a decade, after its members claimed responsibility for bombing a tourist bus in the Sinai town of Taba, killing three South Korean tourists and the Egyptian bus driver, as well as shooting down a military helicopter, assassinating a senior policeman in broad daylight, and exploding a bomb outside Cairo’s police headquarters.
The impoverished villages and mountains of North Sinai have become the new base for an Islamist insurgency that echoes the one Egypt’s security forces fought and crushed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Jama’a al-Islamiya and Islamic Jihad were the two most prominent groups, whose string of attacks included the assassination of former president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, an attempted assassination of the minister of interior in 1993, and of former President Hosni Mubarak in 1995, as well as repeated attacks on tourists and Christians. These culminated in the 1997 Luxor massacre when gunmen opened fire and killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians.
The attack was the last of a wave of terrorism that between 1992 and 1998 killed close to a 1,000 people. A ceasefire was announced in early 1998, with rumors of internal rifts within Islamic Jihad following the Luxor attack, and a heavy crackdown on Jama’a al-Islamiya’s members.
A decade and a half on, elusive groups based in Sinai are waging war against Egypt’s military-led government in response to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in July and a subsequent crackdown on the movement. Attacks have been directed at vital economic targets such as the tourist industry and the Suez Canal, security buildings, and military and police personnel, including high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Interior — in early September the minister himself, Mohamed Ibrahim, survived an assassination attempt. [Continue reading…]