02:18 - Source: CNN
U.S. troops in ISIS crosshairs

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A contingent of about 700 American soldiers is stationed at bases in northern and southern Sinai

But they are not a fighting force -- their mission is to observe and report, and they are equipped accordingly

Washington CNN —  

Concerns about the security of American forces stationed as peacekeepers in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have increased this week after militants there issued an uncorroborated claim to have downed a Russian airliner.

A contingent of about 700 American soldiers is stationed at bases in northern and southern Sinai as part of an international effort to keep the peace between Israel and Egypt. But they are not a fighting force – their mission is to observe and report, and they are equipped accordingly.

“Every soldier has an individual weapon, and there are the squad weapons as well. So we could defend ourselves if we were attacked,” said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Rich Greene, who served with Task Force Sinai in 2011 and 2012. “But not anything that would take on a large, you know, coordinated attack.”

While the area had been quiet for decades, the rise of ISIS-affiliated militants in the past two years has added an element of danger for the soldiers deployed there.

“They’re outgunned by the terrorists right now, and it’s a dangerous mission,” said retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst. “They have mortars and artillery that they have been firing on the base camps.”

In September, four American service members were injured by a roadside IED attack, believed to have been carried out by the ISIS affiliate in Sinai. It is not clear if the Americans were the intended targets. But the next week, reinforcements began to arrive: 75 American troops bringing armored personnel carriers, additional communications gear and enhanced medical and surgical capabilities, intended to provide additional security and force protection.

An American defense official said the upgrade was already planned before the IED attack, and the U.S. Army is “continually adapting force protection measures to meet the demands of an evolving security environment.”

A spokesman for the international force, which is headquartered in Rome and headed by a Canadian general and an American diplomat, declined to comment on security concerns.

Analysts said the track record of the ISIS affiliate in Sinai shows both the ability and the intent to mount attacks on security forces – although so far, they have focused primarily on Egyptian forces, using assassinations, IEDs and hit-and-run attacks.

“They have taken out field commanders of the Egyptian military, they have eliminated hundreds of Egyptian soldiers, unfortunately,” said Egyptian journalist Mohannad Sabry, who just published a book about militants in Sinai called “Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare.”

“And they continue to successfully destroy armored vehicles, armored convoys, tanks, and they even took down a military gunship in 2014.”

One video posted by ISIS shows what it claims is an Egyptian helicopter being shot down by a shoulder-launched missile in 2014. Another online clip allegedly shows a missile hitting a small Egyptian warship near the shore earlier this year.

“ISIL Sinai has been able to acquire and use a range of weapons,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official, using another name for ISIS. “ISIL’s Sinai branch is one of the group’s most active and potent ISIL affiliates.”

While most of their attacks have focused on Egyptian forces, the militants also claim to have killed an American oil worker in 2014, and Sabry said American troops could be facing a growing danger.

“Does the group want to make more propaganda for itself by attacking the Multinational Force of Observers, with almost 700 U.S. soldiers on the ground there? Yes, they would like to do that. Of course,” he said.

CNN’s Evan Perez contributed to this report.