Military operations intensify after deadly attacks in Southern Rafah

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Hours after the deadly attack that claimed the lives of 25 military personnel in an army outpost in the village of Al-Burth, near the border village of Rafah in North Sinai, air strikes have intensified in retaliation of Friday’s attack.

On Friday morning, military spokesperson Tamer Al-Rifai said clashes between army forces and militants at several outposts in southern Rafah killed around 40 militants and destroyed six cars that were used in the attack. The spokesperson of the army posted pictures of bodies of the dead militants.

Casualties rose from 10 to 25, as injured personnel died after sustaining injuries.

The assault started on Friday morning, with a suicide bomber storming into the military post and detonating. The blast reportedly led to the destruction of the compound and the suspension of communications.

Sinai Province has declared responsibility for the deadly attack in an electronic statement, which was circulated online by its affiliates and supporting news outlets.

After the first suicide bomber, dozens of masked guerrilla militants stormed into the destroyed site using more than 20 Land Cruiser vehicles, security officials said.

“A number of the soldiers of the [Islamic] Caliphate aimed for a military outpost of armed forces elements in Al-Burth area in Southern Rafah,” the Sinai Province statement said, describing that the attack was executed by a militant named Raban Al-Ansari, who used a car bomb, claiming it left dozens killed and injured. The group said that its militants executed the ambush, as “members of the armed forces and Al-Sahawat [pro-army tribal member]” were planning to launch an attack on the militants’ headquarters.

The statement added that the attack resulted in 60 casualties from the army, and that only five militants were killed in action, describing that after the suicide bomber exploded the car, individuals carrying different weapons entered.

After that, the statement clarified that reinforcements came from the side of the armed forces, which was met by another suicide bomber called Abu Laith Al-Masri, who detonated his car, leading to more casualties.

The coordinated attack illustrates a technique often used by militants to attack stable outposts in the middle of the desert. The method entails attacking the stable point with a suicide bomber, which causes a disturbance, giving way to squads of guerrilla fighters with light weapons.

Similarities can be drawn between Friday’s attack and the attack on 1 July 2015 in Shiekh Zuwied, where dozens of militants surrounded and attacked several security headquarters in the city before being pushed back by army forces and air strikes.

Among the causalities was Special Forces officer Colonel Ahmed Al-Mansi. A sound record was allegedly leaked, where Al-Mansi’s voice can be heard asking for reinforcements. However, hours after the sound track was heavily circulated in news outlets and social media, military spokesperson Tamer Al-Rifai denied that such a recording belongs to the dead officer.

Several state institutions, including the Cabinet, the Parliament, and ministers, condemned the attack. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi presented his condolences on Saturday in a meeting with the Cabinet to the families of the victims. According to a statement from the presidency, Al-Sisi was briefed on the recent attack and the measures taken to counter it.

He added during the meeting that so called “powers of extremism” are aiming to destablise the country’s security “in a period when Egypt is intensifying its fight against terrorism.”

The reaction of the Egyptian local media and press were supportive of the army retaliation to the attacks, pointing out that the usage of suicide bombings and large and haphazard attacks shows significant weaknesses in the forces of the militants. Newspapers also praised the role of the air forces, which managed to quickly intrude to quell any attack.

This was echoed by the state-owned State Information Service, which released a commentary on the attack and the timing of the militant operation. The entity said that the condensed operations in the last year and a half, such as the Martyer’s Right campaign, have managed to weaken the militant group and decrease the number of its operation. However, the report stated that the motive of the operation was that “the terrorist groups seek from this operation to claim that they are still having a combat capability in light of the immense losses they were incurred by the Egyptian army.”

The report further drew relations with the regional context, saying that Friday’s attack in Rafah “was done to attract the attention of international media away from the collapse of its capabilities in Syria and Iraq, so as to minimise psychological pressure on its grassroots.”

The attack is the first well-executed attack to take place since the January attack that hit two police checkpoints in the city of Al-Arish. Both attacks left eight policemen and one civilian killed.

Following the massive exodus of Coptic families from Al-Arish City in February, the army has intensified operations, leading the group to depend on light hit and run operations, including shootings, IED bombings, and targeting security members through sniper operations.

The attack garnered angry reactions from different international and local entities. Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that the extremists are trying to defy the security of Egypt as they commit such crimes. In the same context, diplomatic representatives of several Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Jordon, condemned the attack, and vowed to continue supporting the Egyptian state in its fight against militancy.

The Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis group, now called Sinai Province, declared its affiliation to the Islamic State (IS) group in 2014 and has since then launched deadly attacks on army and police checkpoints.

Over the last two years, the Egyptian armed forces have launched counterattacks against the militants’ stationing points across the Sinai Peninsula, where the group is based in the cities of Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah, and Al-Arish.

A state of emergency in North Sinai was first declared in 2013 by then-interim president Adly Mansour, who came into power following the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi. It has been extended following this year’s extremist attacks on Coptic churches during Palm Sunday.

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