EL-ARISH, Egypt -- The top leader of an al Qaeda-inspired group in Egypt's restive Sinai and three of his associates were killed in a drive-by shooting in the peninsula on Thursday, senior Egyptian security officials said.
The development deals a heavy blow to the militant group, which has claimed scores of deadly attacks across Egypt since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last July. It is also a boost for Egypt's military-backed authorities ahead of the country's presidential elections next week.
According to three senior security officials, Shadi el-Manaei, who headed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis -- or the Champions of Jerusalem as the group is also known -- and the three other militants were found dead after unidentified gunmen sprayed their vehicle with bullets on a road in central Sinai.
The officials said that according to the police investigation, 15 men in vehicles and armed with automatic weapons attacked el-Manaei's car to avenge the killings of tribesmen by his terror group.
The tribesmen were killed after the militants claimed they had cooperated with police against Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis first arose in Sinai, where for years militant groups largely made of up local Bedouin had carried out attacks, lobbing rockets into neighboring Israel and opening fire on soldiers and police officers. Attacks escalated after the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, but increased dramatically after Morsi's overthrow at the hands of the military.
The group claimed responsibility for the suicide car bombing targeting Egypt's interior minister in September, an attack he escaped from unharmed. Scores of Egyptian police officers and soldiers have been killed in attacks by suspected Islamic militants since. El-Manaei, the mastermind behind the group's attacks, has long been on the run.
CBS News' Alex Ortiz says, if confirmed, el-Manei's death would represent a serious blow to the terror group, which has been the focus of a harsh crackdown by government security forces since last year.
CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward was the first Western television reporter to enter Sinai since the fighting began, going in undercover in December 2013 to see the situation firsthand.
Ward and her team saw house upon house leveled, cars and tractors burned -- evidence of a scorched-earth policy by Egyptian forces. The owners of one destroyed home were too scared to appear on camera.
According to family members, government tanks began firing artillery shells onto the house early one morning, leaving massive destruction from the shells. Residents said it wasn't the first time it had happened. They said more than 60 other houses had been hit in the same way.
In a remote desert location, Ward and her team met el-Manei's brother, who agreed to talk if his face was not shown.
"If my brother is a terrorist, I thank him," he said. "They burn our houses, who else will defend us?"
Ward said most of the people she and her team met in Sinai didn't support the insurgency, but there was mounting anger over the brutality of the army's crackdown and concerns that it could be backfiring.
Egypt's military-backed interim government has blamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group for the violence, outlawing it and calling it a terrorist organization. But the Brotherhood denies being involved in the violence.
The United States has designated Ansar Beit al-Maqdis a foreign terrorist organization.
At the same time, there has been a massive crackdown against the Brotherhood -- at least 16,000 Brotherhood members and allies have been jailed and hundreds have been killed during protests since July. Morsi and most other senior group leaders are in detention.