EL-ARISH, Egypt — Over the weekend, Mohamed Morsy cleaned house. Following weeks of deadlock with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's first popularly elected president finally stepped out of the military's shadow, sacking a laundry list of top generals, including Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and annulling a controversial military decree that curbed the president's powers.
The surprising political showdown came on the heels of a devastating terrorist attack in el-Arish, North Sinai, on Aug. 5 that left 16 members of the Egyptian security forces dead and the military looking complacent. Morsy pounced on the opportunity, ordering both a shakeup of the armed forces and an all-out offensive in Sinai, pounding supposed militant strongholds with missiles and helicopter gunships -- the first use of such hardware since the 1973 war with Israel.
But if it's clear that the "Ramadan massacre," as it has become known in Egypt, gave Morsy the political space to outmaneuver the generals, what exactly is happening in the Sinai remains something of a mystery. Who was behind the Aug. 5 attack -- and who has borne the brunt of the military's subsequent incursion -- are still open questions.
One soldier who survived the attack blamed "masked men" with a "Palestinian dialect" in an interview after the fact. Others have pointed to "infidels," "elements from the Gaza Strip," and Israel's Mossad. Few seem to have a firm grasp on the facts.
Yet this was not the first time unknown militants have wreaked havoc in Sinai. For years now, Egyptian security forces have been battling a ghost in the desert. Since the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, militants have blown up the pipeline that supplies natural gas to Israel 15 times. Only weeks before the Ramadan massacre, gunmen on a motorbike attacked a military outpost in Sheikh Zuweid, leaving two members of the Egyptian military dead.
Yet analysts have struggled to pinpoint the source of the terror. Some flirted with blaming al Qaeda, while others hedged their bets by fingering groups "inspired by al Qaeda." Takfir wal-Hijra, a loosely organized extremist group with roots in Sinai, is also a usual suspect. The organization views most people as infidels -- including Muslims who fail to follow their strict interpretation of Islam -- and adheres to a radical militant ideology that requires them to purify the world of kufar, or heretics. But aside from a handful of attacks that security forces have attributed to Takfir wal-Hijra, there seems to be little consensus about who is to blame for the uptick in violence.
In part, this is because the extremist groups themselves appear to be proliferating -- or at least morphing. Over the past two years, the Internet has been flooded with statements and videos released by unknown groups vowing to create a puritanical Islamic state in Sinai. A statement released two days before last week's attack by a group calling itself Jund al-Sharia ("soldiers of sharia"), for instance, called for a Sinai "emirate" governed by Islamic law and threatened to attack the Egyptian military if it did not release prisoners the group claimed were "falsely" detained. In reality, however, no one has been able to verify the location or reach of these groups -- or even if they exist outside of cyberspace.
Similar mystery shrouds the Ramadan attack, for which no one has yet claimed responsibility. According to an Egyptian general from the border guard intelligence team who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "There is serious intel that those who committed the Sunday massacre are members of Palestinian Islamic Jaljala Army." The Jaljala Army is an extremist offshoot of Hamas based in Gaza, meaning that its members would have had to cross into Sinai via the intricate web of tunnels controlled by Hamas.