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Islamic State Affiliate Claims Responsibility For Attack On Egyptian Soldiers


A deadly day on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula today. Militants staged several nearly simultaneous attacks on military checkpoints and other positions in the northern Sinai, not far from the border with Gaza and Israel. Egypt's military says 17 soldiers were killed, though local security officials reported more than 50 dead. An ISIS affiliate, Sinai Province, claimed responsibility on Twitter for the raids. The attacks follow the assassination two days ago on Egypt's top prosecutor in Cairo. Joining us from Cairo is Kareem Fahim of The New York Times. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAREEM FAHIM: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You write that today's attacks have turned the area where we're focused on in the Sinai into a war zone. What more can you tell us about how the attacks happened and the motives behind them?

FAHIM: Well, it's our understanding that the attacks began at about 6 a.m. with coordinated assaults on several security checkpoints. And then at a certain point, the militants moved into a town in the northern Sinai called Sheikh Zuweid, where they besieged a police station, fought gun battles with the authorities. They were eventually driven out of the town later in the afternoon, after the Egyptian military was forced to conduct airstrikes.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, this group calls itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. What's the nature of this group's actual connection to ISIS?

FAHIM: So this group declared its affiliation with the Islamic State last year. And its tactics and methods have differed in important ways from the conduct we've seen from the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. We haven't seen the kind of mass killings of civilians that have typified the insurgency in those places. They have largely limited their attacks to Egypt's security services. For the most part, their attacks have been very directed. The attack today was the biggest of a familiar type of attack, where they'll launch sort of an overwhelming sort of assault on military checkpoints. And the Egyptian army has remained very vulnerable to these attacks and has not adapted well to them.

MARTIN: This fight has going on in the Sinai for a long time. The scope of this attack today - the sophistication - is it an indication that the Sinai province is growing in strength in Egypt? What does it mean?

FAHIM: I don't think we know exactly what it means. It may - you know, there are people who will tell you that it may indicate that the group is sort of more actively receiving sort of direction from other groups overseas regarding tactics. People also say that it was inevitable over time, that groups like this would grow more sophisticated as they began to understand the tactics of their opponents in the military and the police. And so it may be that it's an evolution, and it may be evidence of greater coordination with the broader Islamic State entity.

MARTIN: What does this mean for the government of Egypt and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi? What are the stakes if he and his government can't get control of the fighting in Sinai?

FAHIM: Well, the consequences, obviously, for the Egyptian people are dire. I mean, we're facing potentially a prolonged period of violence and instability, and, you know, the attacks have spread to other parts of the country. There seems to be a proliferation of new militant groups, as well, whose motives and membership are not very well understood yet. We don't know, for instance, yet who carried out the assassination of the Egyptian prosecutor on Monday. And so that will be very worrying for the government.

MARTIN: Kareem Fahim of The New York Times on the line from Cairo. Thank you so much.

FAHIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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