For months, the nearly 700 American soldiers deployed on the ground in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula have weathered a crisis all but indistinguishable from their fellow troops in Iraq.

Living amid blast walls topped with razor wire, riding only in up-armored vehicles, the troops face a constant threat of attacks from extremist groups loyal to the so-called Islamic State.

On Sept. 3, four of those troops were injured when their convoy rolled out of the "North Camp" just a few miles east of the Egypt-Israeli border and hit two improvised explosive devices.

None of the injuries were life-threatening, but it was the latest indication that the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, is rapidly developing a new front in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous and historically influential nation.

The U.S. troops stationed across the remote desert peninsula are caught in the middle of an insurgency that has intensified since the lead militant group there declared allegiance to ISIS.

Unlike U.S. troops in Iraq, those in Egypt are not technically deployed on an anti-ISIS mission. Rather, they support the "Multinational Force and Observers," or MFO, a 34-year-old peacekeeping mission that aims to enforce the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

For years, "Task Force Sinai," as the U.S. contribution to the MFO is known, was an uneventful mission, historically assigned to reserve units.

But now, amid daily fighting between Egyptian military forces and an ISIS branch known as Wilayat Sinai, American MFO troops sometimes struggle to get food, water and other logistical supplies into their secure compounds. Armed militants often harass the force's contractors, and these days the Egyptian military commonly provides armed escorts for logistics convoys, according to the mission's annual report.

Egypt has become central to a larger ISIS strategy to create a "caliphate" that stretches across Sunni Arab countries. ISIS-linked groups have seized control of parts of the Sinai in Egypt's east and are gaining ground in Libya across Egypt's border to the west. Scattered attacks also are reported in Egypt's heartland along the Nile River and its delta.

"One thing we've seen the Islamic State trying to do is to ... create the appearance that Egypt is surrounded," said Zack Gold, who studies the Sinai as a visiting fellow with the Institute for National Security Studies.

"There have been attacks in the Sinai and across Egypt and the Islamic State has, at least in its propaganda, has said, 'We are taking this as an action against the [U.S.-led] international coalition,' " Gold said in an interview Friday.

The Pentagon said it continues to review force protection measures for the MFO troops.

"We are concerned over security conditions in that area of the northeastern Sinai," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said on Sept. 8.

"We're considering several steps to bolster force protection there… that this is something that's been in the works for several weeks now, not necessitated by what happened with this particular IED incident [on Sept. 3] . … it's going to be something that you're going to see some movement on in the short term," Cook told reporters at a press briefing.

There have been reports of the Sinai-based ISIS militants using advanced weaponry, including Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles and SA-18 anti-aircraft weapons.

The U.S. military recently installed counter-mortar radars and better communication equipment for the force to deal with the threat — which Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, expects to intensify, he told lawmakers in July.

The violence has led the Obama administration to reconsider the entire U.S. commitment to the MFO mission. Fearful that the peacekeepers could become high-profile targets, the White House is considering whether to ratchet up their protection or pull them out altogether, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Previous attacks

The IEDs that wounded the four American soldiers on Thursday was the latest in a series of attacks on troops there.

On Aug. 3, a U.S. soldier was shot in the arm when gunmen targeted the "North Camp" near the northern Sinai village of Al-Joura. The soldier's wound was treated inside the camp.

On June 9, the North Camp was hit by rockets and mortars. The ISIS-linked group claimed it targeted the MFO base in part because its airport is used by "Crusader forces to maintain the security of Jews," according to a report from the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.

That attack on an "international target" was a "major shift" for the ISIS branch in the Sinai, which had previously limited its attacks to the Egyptian military. That may "signal the approach of a broader strategy by Wilayat Sinai to deter U.S.-led coalition involvement in Iraq and Syria, or to divert international attention away from a main offensive in Iraq or Syria," according to the ISW report.

In 2012, some 60 to 70 militants broke into an MFO base, wounded four peacekeepers, torched a vehicle and seized ammunition and communications equipment before the Egyptian military restored order.

Rocky relations

The violence and questions about the future of the MFO mission come at a tense time for U.S.-Egypt relations.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, a roughly $1.5 billion annual package that was put at risk in 2013 when the current Egyptian president mounted a military coup and ousted the democratically elected leader.

U.S. law prohibits supplying advanced military aid to a government that seizes power in a coup. But the Obama administration never officially acknowledged the coup, and the aid has continued.

Operation Bright Star, the supposedly semiannual joint exercise between the U.S. and Egyptian military, has been canceled twice; it was last held in 2009.

Recent months have seen a thaw. In March, the U.S. lifted its hold on a shipment of some military equipment to Egypt, clearing the way for delivery of 12 F-16 aircraft, 20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tanks. And Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Egypt in August in an effort to resume normal relations.

"The administration has been, for a lack of a better phrasing, dancing on the head of a pin," David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview.

"I think everyone recognizes this was a coup d'etat, but they never said it," he said. "We have a region that is essentially going to hell in a hand basket, and I think that while there are many in the administration pointing to [Egypt's] incredibly atrocious human rights record, they understand that we can't put at risk this relationship right now and ultimately the stability of Egypt."

Egypt controls the Suez Canal, a major choke point for international trade and a strategic transit point for U.S. Navy ships moving from the Mediterranean Sea into the U.S. Central Command region.

Schenker said the MFO continues to play an important role in keeping peace in the Middle East. As "observers," they ensure that neither Egyptian nor Israeli military forces mounts a major buildup in the desert border region. The MFO's main task is to identify and help mediate any emerging crisis.

But technology has changed since the force was born in 1981, and key components of its "observation mission" may no longer require boots on the ground, Schenker noted.

"We have to think how we preserve this force," he said. "We have to think about whether we can accomplish certain aspects of this mission with UAVs, with other stand-off intelligence collection. We can't have, any longer, two guys sitting in an observation post in a place that takes you an hour and half by Black Hawk to get there."

From the ISIS perspective, the foothold in the Sinai puts them within reach of the Arab world's historic cultural center, Schenker said.

"This is big," he said. "They've got Iraq. They are closing in on [the Syrian capital] Damascus. What is the third most important city outside Mecca and Medina? Cairo," Schenker said.

"If you are talking about the most important symbolic targets, this is it."

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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