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Unstable Sinai becomes locus for jihad

| Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 8:15 p.m.
Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi, chant slogans during a protest to commemorate two months since he was ousted, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. Egypt's new military-backed government has moved on multiple fronts to put down Morsi supporters, who continue to challenge the popularly supported military coup that removed the country's first elected president. Hundreds of supporters, including leading members of the Brotherhood and its allies, have been detained or face prosecution on charges ranging from inciting violence to possession of weapons and murder. Morsi himself has been held in an undisclosed location since the July 3 coup. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

CAIRO — An Egyptian doctor once close to Osama bin Laden is bringing together multiple al-Qaida-inspired militant groups in Egypt's Sinai to fight the country's military as the lawless peninsula emerges as a theater for jihad, Egyptian intelligence and security officials said.

There have been signs of a dangerous shift in the longtime turmoil in the peninsula bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip since the military's July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsy, the officials say. Sinai's instability is becoming more regionalized and threatens to turn into an outright insurgency.

Sinai has had an influx of foreign fighters during the past two months, including several hundred Yemenis. Several militant groups that long operated in the area to establish an Islamic Caliphate and attack their traditional enemy Israel have joined others in declaring formally that their objective now is to battle Egypt's military.

Sinai has become the focus of attention among major regional jihadi groups. A leader of al-Qaida's Iraqi branch, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, last weekend called on Egyptians to fight the military, as did al-Qaida's top leader, Ayman al-Zawahri. The militant considered the most dangerous man in the Sahara — one-eyed Moktar Belmoktar, a former member of al-Qaida in North Africa — joined forces with a Mali-based jihadi group last month and vowed attacks in Egypt.

Topping the most wanted list in Sinai is Ramzi Mawafi, a doctor who joined al-Qaida in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Mawafi, 61, escaped from an Egyptian prison in 2011 in a jailbreak that sprung free Morsy and more than a dozen Muslim Brotherhood members during the chaos of the uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Mawafi is believed to be in Sinai coordinating among militant groups and helping arrange money and weapons, security officials said.

The four officials were from military intelligence, the military and the security forces and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Sinai's disparate militant groups are now “on the same page, in full cooperation in the face of the same threat,” said Gen. Sherif Ismail, a recently retired security adviser to the governor of Northern Sinai. He said the groups are inspired by al-Qaida but not necessarily linked to the mother group.

Morsy's fall opened the way for an escalation by Sinai's jihadis. Most militants viewed Morsy as too willing to compromise in bringing rule by Islamic Shariah law in Egypt. But his removal by the military, backed by liberals, was considered as an attack on Islam. More importantly, it ended the policy Morsy pursued during his year in office of negotiating with Sinai armed groups, restraining security operations against them in return for a halt in attacks on the military.

On Tuesday, helicopter gunships struck suspected militant hideouts in several villages near the borders with Israel and Gaza, killing at least eight and wounding 15, the state news agency MENA announced.

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