Salafi Bedouin and al Qaeda bands Sunday, Sept 16, expanded their Sinai offensive to three Egyptian bases along a 70-kilometer front three days after they raided the US-led Multinational Force base south of El Arish in northern Sinai and hoisted the black Islamist flag. DEBKAfile’s military sources report that at dawn, a small group managed to creep up to the northern Sinai Egyptian command center in al Arish and plant a large bomb against its walls. Because of the total Egyptian blackout on the episode, there is no information on casualties or damage.
The explosion was followed by a horde of heavily armed gunmen firing rocket grenades and heavy machine guns swooping on the center and seizing the rooftops of surrounding buildings to pin down the Egyptian commanders inside the compound. By the end of the day, the Salafi-al Qaeda gangs were in control of El Arish, the key town of northern Sinai.
At a distance of 40 kilometers, a fierce battle erupted at another site, Sheikh Zuwaid, 3 kilometers from the MFO’s northern base which was attacked Friday. The raiders captured the local school and took dozens of children hostage. Using them as human shields, the terrorists advanced on the local police station shooting anti-tank rockets, rocket grenades, automatic weapons and fire bombs.
To repel this attack, the Egyptian army deployed combat helicopters which struck the invaders with missiles and heavy machine guns. One chopper was reported shot down. Due to the Egyptian news blackout, there is no word on the fate of the children, the helicopter crew or whether it was downed by an anti-air rocket or machine gun fire.
The Salafi-al Qaeda terrorists next turned to the Egyptian special forces base at Rafah abutting the Gaza Strip and just across the Israeli border. This is the same base which Salafi Bedouin and al Qaeda gunmen attacked on Aug. 5 killing 16 Egyptian troops and crashing through the frontier barrier into Israel.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report that the broad al Qaeda-led offensive Sunday marks a major and dangerous escalation in the Islamist terrorist coalition’s war plans for Sinai. It carried four messages: