More than 20 Egyptian soldiers killed in Islamic State assault on Sinai outpost

The Islamic State’s Sinai branch launched a deadly assault on a military outpost in the northern Sinai earlier today. More than 20 Egyptian soldiers, including several officers, were killed and at least 33 others wounded.

The raid began when a suicide bomber drove his explosive-laden vehicle into a checkpoint near the village of el-Barth. Other vehicles (and possibly a second suicide bomber) then swarmed the location, with dozens of jihadists engaging in a firefight with Egyptian personnel.

On his official Facebook page, Egyptian Army spokesman Colonel Tamer Mahmoud El-Refaay portrayed the incident as a thwarted attack, saying that approximately 40 jihadists were killed and six of their vehicles destroyed. Images purportedly showing a number of dead jihadists were also posted on the Facebook page.

The Egyptian military also released a video of warplanes and helicopters being dispatched to the area, with a number of targets bombed in precision strikes. The video was intended to bolster the government’s claim that the incident was quickly handled.

But the Egyptian Army can hardly claim that today’s events were a success. Instead, it was perhaps the deadliest operation conducted against Egyptian soldiers stationed in the Sinai in the last two years.

El-Refaay indicated that 26 soldiers were killed, while State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert and other sources said 23 died as a result.

The Islamic State’s Wilayah Sinai (or Sinai “province”) launched a large-scale offensive on security forces in the peninsula just over two years ago. The July 1, 2015 assault reportedly left dozens of Egyptian soldiers dead, but the precise death toll from those coordinated raids is unclear.

The self-declared caliphate released a statement claiming responsibility for today’s operation on behalf of the Wilayah Sinai. The statement indicates that two suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices were used.

The jihadists forced the Egyptian state to scramble in response.

According to the Associated Press (AP), the first suicide car bombing “likely disabled the checkpoint’s military communications system, prompting an officer to use his own cellphone to record an audio message and send it to a colleague via WhatsApp.” The officer has been identified as one of the soldiers who perished while attempting to defend the outpost. “This might be the last seconds in my life,” the man is heard saying, according to AP. “Quickly, oh men, anyone who knows how to reach the command center, notify them to use artillery as we are still alive.”

The Islamic State has claimed a series of operations in the Sinai in recent weeks, repeatedly targeting senior Egyptian personnel.

On June 22, the group claimed that a Humvee, a BMP vehicle, and another Egyptian Army vehicle were destroyed by improvised explosive devices detonated east of Arish, the capital city of the northern Sinai.

On July 4, the organization claimed that an Egyptian officer and a member of the intelligence service were assassinated in Arish. Three other Egyptian soldiers were also killed by improvised explosive devices east of Arish that same day, according to Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency.

Two days later, on July 6, an Egyptian police officer was purportedly killed in downtown Arish.

The jihadists’ claims could not be immediately confirmed, but the group’s statements are certainly plausible given the Islamic State’s operational capacity in the area.

The Islamic State has two branches in Egypt — Wilayah Sinai (the so-called Sinai “province”), which carried out today’s attack, and another one in the heart of the country. They are led by separate commanders, according to Islamic State propaganda.

The Sinai province is headed by Muhammad al-Isawi, also known as Abu Usama al-Masri. The US State Department designated al-Isawi as a terrorist in May, saying that he has led the group since Aug. 2016. Foggy Bottom said that al-Isawi “spent time in an Egyptian prison before escaping during the 2011 Egyptian revolution.”

Al-Isawi assumed the top spot after the previous emir, known as Abu Du’a al-Ansari, was killed. He had served as the spokesman for Wilayah Sinai and its predecessor group, Ansar Jerusalem, which pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Nov. 2014. Ansar Jerusalem was quickly rebranded as Wilayah Sinai.

Even before Ansar Jerusalem swore its fealty to Baghdadi, al-Isawi frequently lauded the Islamic State in his messages.

An interview with the head of the Islamic State’s arm in mainland Egypt was included in the English-language Rumiyah (“Rome”) magazine in March. He was not identified. The “emir” attempted to justify the jihadists’ high-profile bombings at Coptic Christian Churches. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Islamic State leader in Egypt says church bombings aren’t popular.]

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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