The day after their El Arish rampage, Al Qaeda gunmen Saturday, July 30, blasted the al Shulaq terminal of the Egyptian-Israeli gas pipeline on the Mediterranean sea shore north of the Sinai town, halting supply for the fifth time since February and the third time this month.
This time was different. The saboteurs fired rockets at the terminal until it caught fire, the same tactics they used to raid the El Arish police station Friday. Egyptian forces confronted the assailants but could not save the terminal. This was al Qaeda's first attack on a strategic Israeli installation.
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In a Taliban-style raid, at least 150 masked, uniformed al Qaeda gunmen rode into the Sinai capital of El Arish on pickups and motorcycles Friday, July 29, shooting up the desert town with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and automatic rifles. Before they rode out six hours later, at least seven people were killed, and upward of 30 injured.
Egyptian police and troops pulled back to their fortified station as terrified citizens of this desert town of 150,000 inhabitants fled the rampage. At least two of the dead were Egyptian civilians, a man of 70 and a 13-year old boy shot while take a cell phone picture.
debkafile's military sources report that round about 1800 hours, the assailants split into two groups, one keeping up the street attacks, the other heading for the police station.
Witnesses said the masked gunmen were not local because they lost their way several times and asked for directions to the police station. They then attacked the building with rockets and a battery of five mortars – the first time al Qaeda in Sinai is known have procured mortars, setting a police armored truck and other vehicles on fire. Rather than capturing the police station, the gunmen appeared concerned to keep the police pinned down in a shootout and to prevent from interfering with the deliberate occupation of the town.
The Egyptian news agency reported an Egyptian lieutenant colonel and captain died in the shootout . The number of dead and injured may be higher than reported. Two military planes were sent out from Cairo to evacuate the casualties.
After nightfall the gang withdrew to central Sinai.
El Arish townsmen are convinced that the black-uniformed jihadis, having demonstrated that they can't be stopped, will be back and next time, stay to proclaim Sinai a Muslim caliphate.
debkafile notes that El Gorah, 20 kilometers to the west, houses the international MFO established there nearly three decades ago to monitor the Sinai demilitarization provisions of the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty. Attached to the force are 1,000 troops, most of them American and Canadian marines.
This command center has been on supreme alert for an al Qaeda threat for seven months. Since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, Hamas, al Qaeda and Bedouin gunmen have been running riot through Sinai, while Egyptian security officers stay holed up in their bases.
Israeli forces deployed the length of the Egyptian border likewise stood aside while El Arish was occupied and terrorized by al Qaeda. According to debkafile's counter-terror sources, none of the Egyptian, Israeli or American intelligence agencies monitoring the desert peninsula were prepared for al Qaeda to raise a force of hundreds of men, oufit them with uniforms, heavy arms and vehicles and train them in the military skills and disciplines required for capturing a complete town two and-a-half hours drive from Tel Aviv and five hours from Cairo.
Until July 29, al Qaeda in Sinai was believed to be no more than a handful of cells mostly working with local Bedouin dope and arms smuggling rings. None suspected them of acquiring quasi-military competence.
This evaluation will have to be urgently revised now that the Egyptian authorities have lost their grip on Sinai. The lawlessness reigning today in this strategic territory, which abuts on Israel, the Red Sea and Suez Canal, is cause for Israeli and US alarm.