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An Israeli soldier examines the wreckage of an Egyptian armored personal carrier that militants stole and used to burst through a security fence into Israel from the Sinai.
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The Egyptian military sent tanks and armored vehicles into the Sinai Peninsula in a hunt for militants in the wake of the attack that left 16 soldiers dead.

The Sinai Explodes

Longstanding security concerns in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula burst into a full-blown crisis at the beginning of last month, when gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers at a checkpoint along the border with Gaza and Israel. The gunmen then stole Egyptian armored vehicles and crashed through a border crossing into Israel, where IDF forces finally stopped them.

This incident – the first such attack on Egyptian troops and the deadliest episode in the Sinai since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak last year – created a major challenge for Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi. Reacting quickly, Morsi fired his intelligence chief three days after the attack, and subsequently replaced the entire military leadership. Whether these decisions herald a real change in Egypt’s approach to the terrorist threat in the Sinai and what they mean for the country’s relations with Israel and the United States remains to be seen.

Nests of Terrorists

The Sinai has long been synonymous with lawlessness and smuggling, whether of weapons, drugs or people. But in the past year and a half, following Mubarak’s overthrow, things have gotten markedly worse. Islamic extremists have managed to establish a major presence in the area, taking advantage of a vacuum left by lax police presence and an Egyptian government inundated with political, economic and social problems.

Israeli and American officials have repeatedly warned about the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai. “There are nests of terrorists there, big nests,” said an Israeli military official. Barring serious Egyptian action, he added, the peninsula is liable to resemble the Afghan mountain hideouts that sheltered the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies.

The State Department identified the Sinai as “an area of concern” in its annual Country Reports on Terrorism released in July, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned during a visit to Israel the same month that the desert border between Israel and Egypt could become an “operational base” for jihadists.

“We think this is a dangerous situation for both Egypt and Israel,” Clinton said. “It is also dangerous for Americans. We have Americans who are part of the multinational force that observes the continuation of the monitoring (of the) Camp David Accord.”

Just three days prior to the incident that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead, Israel renewed a travel advisory against visiting the Sinai, due to information on potential terrorist attacks against tourists. Jerusalem alerted Cairo as well, as Egyptian officials have admitted, saying that they ignored the warnings because they did not believe such an event could take place during Ramadan.

Brazen Attack

On August 5, a group of masked gunmen ambushed an Egyptian checkpoint in the border town of Rafah and killed 16 soldiers. Using two armored vehicles they had seized from the Egyptians, the gunmen then broke through the Kerem Shalom border crossing into Israel. One of the vehicles – which was apparently booby-trapped – exploded, while the second vehicle drove about a mile into Israel, before being destroyed by an Israeli missile. The attackers who managed to get off the vehicles were subsequently killed by IDF soldiers. No Israelis were hurt.

Obviously an embarrassment for Egypt’s military, this brazen attack was also a first real crisis for Morsi, who had assumed office a little more than a month beforehand. His government began a campaign to restore security in the Sinai, deploying tanks and soldiers to the region and launching air strikes on suspected Islamic militants.

Some of the Egyptian forces were sent into the peninsula with Israel’s consent, as required by the 1979 peace treaty between the countries. Others, however, were deployed without prior approval from Israel, leading Jerusalem to request that they be removed. Egypt has been slowly pulling back tanks from the region in response to Israeli concerns.

Major Shakeup

Israeli officials found further cause for concern when the Egyptian president decided to reshuffle the country’s entire military leadership, leaving security cooperation between the two countries in doubt.

Morsi first fired his intelligence chief, Murad Muwafi, for failing to act on the Israeli warning, along with the commander of the military police, the commander of his presidential guards, and chiefs for security in Cairo and the police’s central security. And just four days later, he retired Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister, Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, the chief of staff, and the heads of the navy, air defense and air force.

In carrying out this major shakeup, Morsi was not only attempting to deflect popular anger over the attack, but also seized control and asserted his authority over the military. Indeed, he concurrently reversed a constitutional declaration the military leaders issued in June that had granted them expansive power.

Israeli officials are in touch with their Egyptian counterparts, and Washington has expressed confidence that cooperation with Cairo will continue, noting that the newly named defense minister and armed forces commander, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, is well-known to U.S. officials. Still, exactly how much leverage the United States will have over the new Egyptian government remains unclear.

It is also unclear whether the Egyptian military’s efforts against Islamic militants in the Sinai have yielded significant results. Despite reports that a number of militants have been arrested or killed and that the military was broadening its offensive, attacks in the area continue almost daily. The United States, meanwhile, has offered security assistance to bolster Egypt’s intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities in the Sinai.

“Sinai is a multidimensional problem, with terrorism, smuggling and long-term social problems, and an effective strategy should include all components,” said Michele Dunne, a former White House and State Department official who now directs the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council.