El-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — After decades of neglect and with the collapse of government authority the past 18 months, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula has become fertile ground for Islamic extremists. Militant groups have taken root, carrying out attacks against neighboring Israel and now turning their guns against Egypt's military as they vow to set up a puritanical Islamic state.
At a mosque in the northern Sinai village of Sheikh Zuweyid, a Bedouin tribal sheik gestures out toward the deserts that stretch outside of town. There, Sheik Arafa Khedr said, it's well known that militants have set up training camps. Jihadists recruit young Bedouin. Palestinian militants from neighboring Gaza help in weapons training.
The danger, Khedr said, is that Sinai could become another Yemen, where al-Qaida-linked militants last year managed to take over a swath of territory in the south.
"We're expecting the entire region to be like Jaar," he said, referring to a southern Yemeni town that militants held for months until Yemeni troops uprooted them earlier this year.
Egypt's army and security forces on Tuesday launched an offensive to "restore control" over Sinai after a stunning attack this week made clear the militants' growing strength. On Sunday, gunmen attacked an army checkpoint near where the borders of Egypt, Israel and Gaza meet, killing 16 soldiers, stealing vehicles and driving them into Israel in an apparent attempt to carry out another attack before they were hit by Israeli forces.
The attack set off alarms in Egypt and Israel. So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Security officials estimate hundreds of fighters operate in Sinai — though their numbers fluctuate and could at times reach as high as 1,500. The militants are not linked to al-Qaida, the officials insist, but do share similar ideologies and get backing from extremists from Gaza.
Residents say the crisis has long been building.
Since the ouster last year of Hosni Mubarak, traditional tribal leaders like Khedr have stepped in to fill the void in authority. But they say they face competition from extremism growing on two separate but intertwined fronts. Hard-line Muslim preachers have gained influence in the impoverished Bedouin towns of northern Sinai, often filling in for the role of the state and adjudicating disputes with Islamic Shariah law. At the same time, armed militants have become bolder, their ambitions growing to confront Cairo's rule.
The traditional leaders caught in the middle say government only feeds radicalism by its domineering attitude over Bedouin and failure to develop the region.
"The people you see today chanting in support of the military after Sunday's attack will turn against the military in time because of neglect," warned Sheik Ibrahim el-Menaey, a powerful Bedouin businessman. "There cannot be security in Sinai without partnership with the residents of Sinai."
The rugged peninsula of barren deserts and daunting mountains — a little smaller than West Virginia and bit bigger than Croatia with a population of around 400,000 — has long been a volatile corner of Egypt.
It has been a major crossroads for smuggling drugs and migrants. An entire industry rose up in smuggling goods into Gaza, which came under virtual seal by Israel and Egypt after the militant Palestinian group Hamas took over in 2007.
The central government has tended to view the Sinai through two lenses. One is as a main theater for its dealings with neighboring Israel, which seized the peninsula in the 1967 war and returned it under the 1979 peace accord. The other is tourism: Over the past decade, the government has focused on developing the Red Sea beach resorts that line the peninsula's southern edges and have become the main engine of the country's vital tourist industry.
The Bedouin residents, meanwhile, complain that Cairo leaves them to wallow in poverty and treats them like the enemy.
This, they say, led to Islamic militant activity that has previously erupted. In 2004 and 2005, bombings at the Red Sea resorts killed around 125 people. That prompted mass arrests of Bedouins that only further poisoned relations between residents and authorities — without ever finding a clear explanation of who was behind the attacks.
But Sinai spiraled out of control after Mubarak's fall — particularly in the north of the peninsula. Across Egypt, police and internal security forces fell apart during the anti-Mubarak uprising. They have in part returned to the streets in some areas, but in north Sinai their presence remains negligible. Police don't man checkpoints on the roads outside the provincial capital el-Arish without military forces present to assist. The police station in the nearby town of Sheikh Zuweyid was closed after it was set ablaze during the uprising and reopened only Wednesday.
As a result, the region has become more lawless. Weapons have flowed in from Libya since its civil war ended late last year, some of them smuggled on to other destinations, but others ending up in militants' hands in Sinai.
Attacks on security forces have multiplied — at least 35 since early last year, killing more than 50 policemen and soldiers, security officials say. There have been 15 bombings of the gas pipeline that runs underground through North Sinai to Israel.
Over the same period, militants have carried out three attacks into Israel. In one attack a year ago, gunmen from Gaza who crossed through the Sinai into Israel killed eight people in an ambush, sparking an Israeli retaliation that accidentally killed three Egyptian soldiers.
Amid the poverty, many have turned to more hardline religious movements. Khedr, the tribal sheik, pointed to two recent attacks wrecking the shrine of Sheikh Zuweyid, a local Muslim saint after whom the town is named. Such shrines, revered by the mystical Sufi movement of Islam, are reviled by hardliners who see them as heretical.
Ultraconservatives known as Salafis have grown popularity. Also swelling in numbers is a more fringe group known as Takfir wil-Hijra, dubbed "takfiris", their popularity fueled by lack of jobs, poverty and government repression. They practice a stringent form of Islam that believes in total isolation from a society seen as heretical. Their children do not go to schools, they shun the state and do not attend traditional Friday prayers in mosques — because even Salafi preachers who do not share their beliefs are considered infidels.
While the "takfiris" are not all engaged in attacks on security forces, their pool of supporters is an easy target for jihadist militant recruiters, said Mohamed Jabr, who was once a follower of Takfir wil-Hijra until he eased into Salafi trend.
And those militants, he said, have made bringing a strict version of Islamic rule in Egypt a priority over the traditional enemy, Israel.
"I asked one of the jihadis why they are not targeting Israel and he said their goal is to 'purge' and 'cleanse' Egypt of infidels first," Jabr asid.
A handful of militant groups have arisen in Sinai, though it is unknown whether they operate together or are loosely linked.
On Aug. 1, a group calling itself Jund al-Shariah, or Soldiers of Islamic Law, announced in a Web statement it would wage jihad against "the current tyrant of Egypt ... until they implement God's Shariah in the land."
Web videos from another group, Ansar al-Haq, showed gunmen wearing ski masks and camouflage fatigues training with weapons in the Sinai desert. One of the videos showed the men openly patrolling the streets of a northern Sinai town, brandishing assault rifles and grenade launchers, as curious crowds watched in the background.
"We are, by the permission of God Almighty, a force for the truth in order to protect our homes, lives, and families from oppression of any kind," a bearded young man says to the camera — the only unmasked person in the video and apparently the group's leader.
In Sunday's attack, militants struck just as the soldiers were having their evening meal breaking the dawn-to-dusk fast of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Eissa Mohamed Salama, 19, who lives nearby, said two Land Cruisers with about 15 well-built gunmen in ski masks and all-black outfits opened fire on the soldiers. Some of the gunmen loaded up the vehicles with ammunition and weapons from the checkpoint. One militant got out a camera and filmed the bodies of the soldiers.
All the while, a hail of missiles was being fired from Gaza that confused residents about what was going on, he said.
"It was an hour before a military officer with a driver arrived and saw the bodies," he said.
Shady Attiya owns a nearby cafe, nicknamed "The Misrata Cafe" after Libya's third largest city because patrons there not only sip coffee and smoke waterpipes but also sell cars smuggled in from Libya to Gazans who slip them into the Palestinian territory.
Attiya was among the residents who helped transport wounded soldiers to the hospital at Rafah on the Gaza border. For him, the attack underlined the whole breakdown of the system. Residents were the only responders at the scene and they had to carry the bodies through mounds of trash at the entrance of the Rafah hospital. Inside, he said, there were no blood bags or proper equipment to save lives.
"It was just pathetic that this is the state of our military, and our hospitals and our schools too," he said. "As I'm picking up the bodies I'm thinking where are our ambulances, our army, our tactics?"