The Egyptian interior ministry has said that several 'armed assailants' attacked a security checkpoint on the road leading up to St Catherine's Monastery in South Sinai on 18 April. It is unclear how many attackers participated in the attack.
The Egyptian interior ministry has said that several ‘armed assailants’ attacked a security checkpoint on the road leading up to St Catherine’s Monastery in South Sinai on 18 April. It is unclear how many attackers participated in the attack. On the same day Islamic State claimed that its ‘fighters’ had carried out the assault. Attacks in South Sinai do not occur frequently, with this being the first such incident that we are aware of since the Metrojet bombing in 2015.
The attack occurred in the evening of 18 April, when gunmen reportedly fired shots at a security checkpoint on the main road to the monastery. They killed a police officer and injured three others. The assailants were also injured in the shootout. The interior ministry has confirmed this, after the South Sinai security director initially denied that an attack occurred, saying instead that a police officer had misfired his weapon. Officials have since said that the armed forces, in cooperation with local Bedouins, managed to track down and kill a person who they suspect was one of the assailants.
Since the attack, the Egyptian authorities have implemented heightened security measures across the Sinai and conducted several counter-terrorism operations. The Egyptian premier also reportedly announced a curfew in several areas in North Sinai ‘until further notice’. The curfew is from 1900hrs to 0600hrs, and includes areas between Al-Arish and the Rafah border crossing, as well as further south towards Mount Helal. In and around the city of Al-Arish, the curfew only applies from 0100hrs to 0500hrs.
The vast majority of operations by IS Sinai are still concentrated in North Sinai, and have generally targeted Egyptian army and security personnel and locations they frequent. But in a sign of the group’s increasingly sectarian narrative and intent, the claim by IS only mentioned that it occurred ‘near St Catherine’s Monastery’ rather than specifying that it was a security checkpoint. The attack on 18 April occurred less than two weeks after two IS-claimed bombings in Alexandria and Tanta. And in an edition of Al-Naba released on 20 April, the group dedicated a few pages to explain their rationale for targeting Copts.
We have seen several signs that the IS affiliate has started to increase its operations in the south in the past few months, while also maintaining a high-tempo of attacks in North Sinai. The group appears intent on targeting locations frequented by foreigners. The Israeli authorities had closed the Taba border crossing with Egypt during Passover for almost two weeks, saying it had information of attacks ‘planned in the immediate future against tourists in the Sinai’. Although they have now lifted the restriction, they reiterated that the threat remains ‘serious, concrete and imminent’.
The Egyptian authorities seem to be increasing their security presence in central and southern Sinai to try to discourage attacks outside of the more insecure areas in North Sinai. The official army spokesperson said in mid-April that in addition to counter-terrorism operations in central and northern Sinai, they had taken ‘intensified’ measures in cooperation with local police around St Catherine and ‘all other tourist destinations’ in South Sinai. These measures – which often include more checkpoints and security presence – are likely to make it more difficult for militants to mount attacks, but we doubt that the overall security situation in the Sinai will improve anytime soon.