EGYPTIAN MILITARY OFFENSIVE IN THE SINAI FOLLOWS TOURIST MASSACRE
Egyptian security forces have responded to the latest terrorist blow to Egypt’s vital tourism industry with a series of raids that have killed dozens of militants and resulted in the detention of many others.
On February 16, a bomb on a tourist bus carrying South Koreans making the trip from St. Catherine’s monastery to the resort town of Taba killed three tourists and their Egyptian driver, while a further 13 tourists were wounded (al-Jazeera, February 16). The attack was claimed by militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), who claimed the strike was “part of our economic war against this regime of traitors” (AFP, February 19). Tourism accounts for over 11 percent of Egyptian GDP and is an important source of foreign currency. The Sinai was the last part of the politically volatile nation to maintain a healthy tourist trade, but this has now been put in jeopardy. The bombing was denounced by the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, a militant Islamist group responsible for the murder of 58 tourists and four Egyptians in Luxor in 1997 (Ahram Online, February 17).
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) is the Egyptian branch of a Gaza-based Islamist organization. Since its first appearance in the Sinai in the days after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the group has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on oil pipelines, a strike on Israeli troops in 2012, the attempted assassination of Egypt’s interior minister in 2013 and the successful assassination of an important National Security Agency investigator the same year (see Terrorism Monitor, November 28, 2013).
The tourist bus bombing led to a number of operations as part of the ongoing Egyptian military response to radicalism in the Sinai Peninsula:
- During the night of February 19, Egyptian Army helicopter gunships used missiles to attack houses suspected to harbor militants in the Shaykh Zuwayad area, killing at least ten people (AP, February 20).
- On February 28, the Egyptian Second Field Army (responsible for the Sinai) reported killing six militants (including an alleged member of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) and the arrest of 14 others (Egypt State Information Service, February 28).
- On March 1, the armed forces reported ten extremists killed and ten others wounded in the Northern Sinai communities of al-Arish, Shaykh Zuwaya and Rafah (Aswat Masriya [Cairo], March 1).
The military also continues to demolish tunnels to Gaza in the border town of Rafah.
Militants in the Sinai also continue to attack another sector of the Egyptian economy – gas exports to Jordan. The gas pipeline running through northern Sinai was blown up south of al-Arish for the fourth time this year on February 25 (al-Arabiya, February 26). Most of the bombings of the pipeline (which brought an end to gas exports to Israel in 2012) have been claimed by Ansar al-Maqdis.
AL-QAEDA RESPONDS TO SECTARIAN CLASHES IN THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
In a statement entitled “Central African Tragedy… Between Crusader Deceit and Muslim Betrayal,” al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has taken note of the ongoing reprisals against Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR) being carried out by Christian “anti-balaka” militias, referring to the attacks as “a new episode in the series of spiteful crusades against Islam and its people.”  Over 15,000 Muslim civilians live in improvised camps where they are surrounded by armed militias intent on killing them for their alleged support of the largely Muslim Séléka rebel movement that briefly seized power last year (Reuters, February 25).
AQIM describes the international peacekeeping forces being sent to the CAR as arriving “only to increase the suffering of Muslims.” France comes in for special attention as “a malevolent colonial crusader… [that] continues to play the role of guardian of the African continent” while fueling conflict and looting wealth “in order to preserve their interests and satisfy their arrogant whims.” AQIM concludes by warning France: “Your crimes will not go unpunished and the war between us and you continues.”
The Islamist movement also condemns the “shameful silence” of the Islamic community, “a nation of one billion.” Noting that some conflicts involving Muslims gain the attention of the Muslim world while others do not, AQIM asks: “Why differentiate between a persecutor and a persecutor and a tragedy and a tragedy?”
The African Union peacekeeping mission in the CAR, the Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine (MISCA), has some 6,000 troops from Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Cameroon, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). There are an additional 600 police officers from the same countries engaged in training local police forces. Part of MISCA’s difficulty in restoring order to the CAR lies in the fact that the mission is trusted by neither the ex-Séléka rebels nor the anti-balaka militias. It has already become clear that the combined forces of the 2,000-man French deployment (locally referred to as “Sangaris” after the name of the French operation in the CAR) and MISCA are far from sufficient to restore order and security in a large nation with little infrastructure or road systems.
MISCA raided the Boy Rab quarter of Bangui, a base for anti-balaka militias, on February 15, detaining a number of important militia leaders, including Lieutenant Konaté and Lieutenant Ganagi Hervé. Another important anti-balaka leader, Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, managed to evade the operation, though arms and ammunition were recovered from his home (RFI, February 15). The detainees attempted to escape Bangui prison on February 23, but were foiled by alert Rwandan MISCA guards (AFP, February 24).
The anti-balaka militias are reported to be divided over the CAR’s future political direction. One faction continues to call for the return of deposed president François Bozizé, while a more moderate faction is seeking to lower the intensity of the conflict and to cooperate with the new government of interim-president Catherine Samba-Panza (RFI, February 16). The anti-balaka rebels depend heavily on charms and amulets designed to ward off bullets and other threats.
Many residents of the CAR view the Chadians as biased towards the republic’s Muslims, who are often referred to by the Christian population as “Chadians” regardless of their origins. The arrival in Bangui of the projected EU force of 1,000 troops with heavy equipment is still believed to be a month away. The formation of a planned UN force of 10,000 peacekeepers (which would probably absorb most of MISCA) is opposed by Chad and is likely still six months away from materializing (VOA, March 3).
Chad traditionally regards the CAR region as its traditional backyard, dating back to the days when the Sultanate of Wadai (in present-day eastern Chad) used the region as a source of wealth in the form of slaves, ivory and other goods. In more recent years, Chadians have figured in the CAR as traders, mercenaries and even presidential bodyguards. N’Djamena’s influence on CAR politics is considerable and growing, considering Chad’s expanding and oil-financed military might. Most of Chad’s oil production is in the south of the country, just north of the unstable CAR.
Both the EU and the UN are calling on Turkey to contribute to the EU deployment, with the UN secretary-general even making a personal call to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for assistance. The likelihood of such a commitment is, however, still uncertain, as Ankara is consumed externally with the Syrian crisis and internally by a corruption scandal and approaching elections (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], March 2). Turkey is, moreover, heavily involved in the reconstruction of Somalia and may be wary of adding a military role in an unfamiliar area.
French forces currently deployed to the CAR include Alpine troops of the 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade, some of whom are specialists in urban warfare, and troops of the 8th Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (8e RPIMa), an airborne unit with experience in French Indo-China, Algeria, Chad and Afghanistan.
The French intervention in the CAR is not the first in that nation’s post-independence period; in September 1979, units from the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE – France’s external intelligence service until reorganization in 1982) and the 1st RPIMa seized Bangui’s airport, allowing transports carrying 300 troops to land with the purpose of replacing “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa with a new president, David Dacko, who helpfully arrived with the French troops.
1. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, “Central African Tragedy… Between Crusader Deceit and Muslim Betrayal,” February 26, 2014, https://www.ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=47761.