Islamic State appeared to make small but unprecedented advances in Egypt on Wednesday, killing dozens of soldiers as it attacked multiple military checkpoints and attempted for the first time to control a small pocket of territory in the Sinai desert.
Wilayat Sinai, a jihadi group that declared allegiance to Isis last autumn, attacked the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, a few miles from Egypt’s borders with Gaza and Israel, on Wednesday morning.
It overran several army checkpoints and by local accounts had taken control of several buildings. By midday, the group said it had surrounded Sheikh Zuwaid’s police station, a move reportedly confirmed by the station’s commander in a phonecall with a local newspaper.
Officials tried to downplay the number of military casualties, admitting only that 10 soldiers had died. But several local newspapers quoted far higher numbers, with the main state news website, al-Ahram, reporting at least 20 dead, and news agencies placing the total at nearly 40.
Isis also claimed it had seized other parts of the town, releasing an statement that read: “We have total control of many sites, and have seized what was in them.”
If true, even for a brief period, the move marks an escalation in the group’s strategy and capabilities in Sinai.
Isis has previously launched several bloody attacks on the Egyptian army in the north-eastern part of the peninsular – most notably this January and last October. But after those assaults, Isis quickly retreated – whereas after Wednesday’s attack the group appeared to try to advance.
Asked by the Guardian about the situation in Sheikh Zuwaid, an army spokesman would not comment.
A health official at a local hospital told the Guardian that his colleagues had treated at least 30 civilian casualties. He added that survivors had described the scene as a full-scale battle. Militants are “firing weapons from the rooftops”, the source said. “We’re hearing that it’s street warfare.”
To what extent Isis succeeded in holding territory is unclear, said Zack Gold, a Sinai-focussed analyst, particularly as reporters have long been prevented from entering this area of Sinai, which lies far from the peninsular’s southern tourist resorts.
But any control of physical space would be significant, said Gold, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “The invading of a city, taking over buildings – that is a new development, and it’s similar to the over-running of cities that we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria,” said Gold.
“It would be different to the January events when there were multiple simultaneous attacks – but then [the militants] disappeared.”
Jihadis in north-eastern Sinai have attacked Egyptian forces for years, but the scale and frequency of the violence rose markedly after the army ousted Egypt’s first elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013.
An extremist group that had been active before Morsi’s overthrow, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, began claiming responsibility for more attacks – and just over a year later it declared allegiance to Isis, and changed its name to Wilayat Sinai.
Apart from a string of major attacks in the winter of 2013-14 on the Egyptian mainland, the group’s activity has been largely limited to north-eastern Sinai. But on Monday, unknown militants assassinated Egypt’s chief prosecutor in Cairo, and no one has yet claimed responsibility for his death.