Egyptian security forces launched a major military operation against a tenacious Islamic State affiliate in the country’s restive northern Sinai Peninsula and other areas Friday.
The offensive, the most comprehensive in years comes just ahead of March’s presidential elections, and as Islamic extremists continues to stage attacks around the country.
The government has ordered up all branches of the security forces, including the air force and navy, dispatched soldiers and police to tighten control of its land borders. Warships have been deployed along its coast to “cut the terrorists’ supply lines and ensure they do not get backup,” the military said in a statement.
The goal of the offensive, the military added, was to “tighten control of the country’s crossing points with neighboring countries and to cleanse the areas that are terrorist strongholds to safeguard the Egyptian people from the evils of terrorism and extremism.”
The operation comes less than three months after Islamic State militants were widely believed to have killed more than 350 people at a mosque in the northern Sinai. That prompted President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi to issue an ultimatum to the security forces to put an end to terrorism and extend a state of emergency in January for three more months.
Since launching operations under the ISIS flag in November 2014, this local affiliate calling itself Wilayat Sinai, has killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers in a guerrilla war.
Even as Egypt’s military claims to have killed more than 2,500 militants, the attacks have spread to other parts of the country. Friday’s operation stretches into the Nile Delta and the Western Desert, and it appears that other Islamic extremists and criminal groups are also being targeted.
The offensive comes as el-Sissi’s popularity has declined amid economic austerity measures, rising prices and high unemployment. He has either arrested or sidelined all credible challengers in next month’s presidential elections, all but insuring his reelection. By going after the Islamic State, Sissi is hoping to regain popular support, suggest Western diplomats.
The Islamic State has particularly targeted Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up roughly 10 percent of the country’s 94 million people. Many in the community voted for Sissi in the 2014 elections, a year after he led a military coup that toppled the elected Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi.
In 2015, the Islamic State affiliate in Sinai asserted responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane after it took off from the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. That attack, which killed all 224 people aboard, shattered Egypt’s tourism-driven economy.
Preparations for Friday’s offensive began earlier in the week. Local media reported that the government had placed regions around the Sinai on high security alert and ordered up more doctors and medical resources in hospitals in the northeastern city of Ismailia, on the edge of the Sinai.
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