By Erin Cunningham and Loveday Morris
CAIRO — Militants linked with the Islamic State unleashed a wave of coordinated attacks on security checkpoints in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday, the latest strike in a global surge in violence by the group’s sympathizers and one that threatened to push Egypt into a wider conflict with the jihadists.
As many as 70 soldiers and civilians may have been killed in the fighting, officials and local media said. But the Egyptian army said late Wednesday that 17 soldiers and 100 militants died in the clashes. The differing death tolls could not be immediately reconciled.
Wednesday’s attacks came two days after Egypt’s top prosecutor was assassinated in a bombing in the capital, Cairo. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi on Tuesday vowed revenge for his murder, pledging to swiftly implement death sentences against militants and bring down the “heavy hand of the state” on anyone who threatens the country’s stability.
Sissi, a former defense minister who campaigned for president on a platform of security and stability, has so far failed to rein in an insurgency that mushroomed following his military coup in 2013 against an elected government led by members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Late last month, an Islamic State spokesman called for a “month of fire” during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, urging suicide bomb attacks against “infidels.” Operations by the group and its affiliates or suspected sympathizers have since shaken France, Kuwait, and Tunisia.
The assault on the northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid, which was claimed by the local branch of the Islamic State, was one of the most sophisticated attacks on the Egyptian military in years, analysts said. In a statement posted online, the militant group Sinai Province claimed to have attacked 15 checkpoints with car bombs and heavy weapons. Later Wednesday, an army spokesman said Egyptian warplanes were launching airstrikes against militants in the town, which is about 115 miles east of Cairo.
The nature of the attack on Sheikh Zuweid is “new and worrying”, said Zack Gold, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv who specializes in the Sinai Peninsula.
“This isn’t one of their regular hit and run attacks. They seem to be setting up for the longer haul,” Gold said, adding that it was unclear whether the group wanted to take the town or draw the military into urban warfare. “Either one is unprecedented.”
Egypt has grappled for years with unrest in the Sinai Peninsula, home to a native Bedouin population that has long accused the central government of neglect. The area has served as a conduit for drugs, weapons and migrants going to Israel and the Gaza Strip.
In recent years, Islamist militancy has flourished in the desert regions near Gaza, where Egyptian militants have armed themselves with weapons flows from nearby Libya. In November, the militant group Ansar Baytal-Maqdes — now known as Sinai Province — pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The group has carried out a number of deadly attacks on security forces in recent years, including a similar assault on the army in January that left 44 army and police personnel dead.
An Egyptian army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohamed Samir Abdel Aziz, said in a statement Wednesday that around 70 militants launched attacks on five checkpoints in Sheikh Zuweid.
The militants said they had surrounded the police station in the town. The siege was confirmed to Egyptian media by a local police commander.
The army dispatched reinforcements to the area, but highways were laced with roadside bombs, Egypt’s al-Ahram newspaper reported. It said injured soldiers were evacuated in armored vehicles because ambulances could not reach the town.
North Sinai has been the site of heated battles between Egyptian government forces and militant Islamists for years. But attacks have been increasing in frequency since the military backed the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. According to some military experts, the attacks also have been increasing in sophistication.