The attacks in Sinai were claimed by Sinai Province, an Egyptian militant group that has pledged allegiance to the "Islamic State" group. Kristen McTighe reports from Cairo on its growing influence in the region.
As details of the deadly assault on the town of Sheikh Zuweid continue to emerge, the attack underscores the growing strength of "Islamic State" (IS) militants and the inability of the Egypt's army to quell violence and restore stability, analysts say.
"This was very expected, it was not surprise at all," Dr. Khalil al-Anani, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC and an expert on Islamist movements and Egyptian politics, told DW. "The Egyptian army doesn't seem to be able to prevent such attacks, the regime policy failed and it shows [President Abdel-Fatah] el-Sissi is very weak right now."
Formally known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the group first emerged following the country's 2011 revolution and attacks were directed mainly against Israel. The government's trouble controlling the country's vast northern territory, where weapons smuggling from both Libya and the Gaza Strip was rife, has allowed the group to flourish.
Following the military-led ouster of former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, the group began to shift its focus to fighting against the government and security forces. In September 2013, the group claimed responsibility for one of its most high-profile attacks with an attempted assassination of then-Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, targeting his convoy with a car bomb.
Inspired by al Qaeda
Initially seen as inspired by al Qaeda, it renamed itself Sinai Peninsula and pledged allegiance to IS in November 2014. It has since been involved in suicide bombings, assassinations and beheadings.
The return of Egyptians fighting for militant groups in Libya, Syria and Iraq has also contributed to the group's increasing capabilities.
"I think a lot of the reasoning behind their increased capabilities over the past couple of years has been that fighters have trained abroad and they've come back, not necessarily sent back by the Islamic State to cause trouble, but they've returned home after being abroad and they've brought these skills with them," Zack Gold, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told DW.
But while the group has been carrying out frequent attacks against the army, the scale of and tactics used in the recent attack signals a sharp escalation in the group's capabilities.
"What I think is unprecedented, and what I didn't expect, was the assault on Sheikh Zuweid because it really seems to have moved their operations from attacks on the state security apparatus to attacks directly on the population," said Gold. "They may have not run in and slaughtered people, but shooting in civilian areas, laying down IED in civilian areas, was basically an assault on the civilian population, even if you are laying down those traps for the military."
New cycle of violence
Previously, Gold said, violence in the Sinai had become a "very predictable cycle" of militant escalations followed by massive military maneuvers inside the Sinai Penninsula since the July 2013 military coup.
"Frankly we've seen for all the hundreds of militants that have allegedly been killed or captured by the Egyptian state, the group itself has only been getting stronger," said Gold.
Making the situation more difficult to gauge, for the past two years the Egyptian government has restricted media access to the northern Sinai region. "Our surprise at the attacks in Sinai ought to be a reminder that we know precious little about what happens in the peninsula - and especially regarding radical groups like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis," Dr H.A. Hellyer, associate fellow in International security at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy in DC., told DW.
The Egyptian army says its operations have been successful and often publishes grisly photos online like those posted by Egyptian army spokesman Mohamed Samir on his Facebook account following the attacks in Sheikh Zuweid showing scorched and bloodied bodies of what he said were "despicable terrorist elements that were eliminated."
"Overall, the government's response has not been helpful and in some ways it's actually been harmful," said Gold. "A lot of the policies that are put in place in order to clamp down on the militants are almost in no way affecting the militants maneuvering and they are putting a great deal of stress on the local population."
Making life difficult
Since the military ouster of Morsi, Egyptian army operations in Sinai have included house demolitions and the forced relocation of thousands of residents to build a buffer zone between Egypt and the Gaza strip. Curfews have been imposed and Internet and phone networks are often shut down during military operations, making daily life even more difficult for locals who have long been caught in the crossfire of militants and the army. Locals have also been the victims of beheadings and executions by militants.
"I don't know if this is necessarily in the immediate term radicalizing local populations…but even if they are not signing up and joining and operating with the jihadi forces, they certainly aren't willing to join the military against them," said Gold.
Others say the government's repeatedly harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which former president Morsi hails, has distracted the government from the real threat of jihadist groups.
"There has been a crisis since 2013 and one of the main mistakes of the Sissi regime is that it is fighting in the wrong place," said Dr. Al-Anani, from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "The Sissi regime will not be able to win the war against terrorism in Sinai without having a solution with the Muslim Brotherhood. They cannot fight such wars on both fronts at the same time."
The government has consistently blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for attacks the group has denounced and that have been claimed by jihadist groups such as the Sinai Province. The Sinai Province views the Muslim Brotherhood as traitors, but it has criticized Morsi's ouster by the military and declared war against Sissi's government and the army.
"Why do they fail so badly vs IS? Because they've been busy using the IS threat to go after their non-IS opponents," wrote Iyad El-Baghdadi, an activist originally from the United Arab Emirates but now based in Oslo, Norway after being expelled from the country, on his Twitter account.
"How many attacks has ABM (IS in #Egypt) launched and claimed, just to have Sissi say no, it was the MB (and the MB say it was Sissi)?" he added.