In Al-Shalaq, close to Sheikh Zuweid in North Sinai, we spent a full day at a security installation. We reached Al-Shalaq as part of a security convoy that set off from the North Sinai Security Control Command in Arish and during the hour it took to reach our destination we were struck by the amount of activity — military vehicles and security patrols were constantly on the move coming to and from Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid.
Shortly before we arrived there was a sign indicating the way to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) headquarters on the Arish-Rafah highway. The MFO were stationed here to monitor the implementation of the terms of the Camp David peace accord but the Egyptian army took over the camp after the MFO vacated after it was targeted, albeit unsuccessfully, by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in July 2015.
A lookout tower, manned by several soldiers who were monitoring movement on the road, stood at the entrance to the installation. Beyond the tower there was another facing southward, keeping a lookout for suspicious movements in that direction.
We were received by the fort commander who explained the importance of the site and the role it played in securing control over the international highway. Explosive devices planted on roads were the most common type of assault against the army, he said.
During the tour we were allowed to climb to the top of the lookout tower and speak with the soldiers stationed there. Their morale was high as one of them related details about the conditions of his military service while stationed in Sinai.
His period of service was due to end at the beginning of March but he had asked to prolong it.
“I’ve been in this same location for about two and a half years. I had hoped that my duties would not be limited to observation and surveillance, as important as it is to the safety of our fellow soldiers and to securing an important corridor for the operation. I had wanted to take part in the raids against terrorist lairs,” he said.
“The problem is not when my military service ends. The problem for me is how to serve my country and help rid it of terrorism. I cannot allow anyone to come here and take my land. It will be an honour to stay in the army until we completely get rid of the terrorists.”
His companion in the lookout tower felt the same, though he said he was inspired by another motive as well. Several of his friends had been killed in previous operations, during the combing of the Gabal Al-Halal area and in defending checkpoints.
“The nation is dear and the blood of its martyrs is dear. I spent some of the best days of my life with companions who sacrificed their own lives. I can never forget them. We are avenging them in this comprehensive operation against the takfiris who have twisted ideas about everything. No one will ever break our will. Our country belongs to us, not to anyone else.”
On the other side of the installation the soldiers were just as alert and diligent. I climbed up the second tower to interview them.
They, too, had insisted on prolonging their period of service in order to continue to be part of COS 2018.
Asked about the nature of his duties, one of the soldiers said: “Our mission, here, is to prevent takfiris from infiltrating this area. We keep watch over the terrain and we immediately sound the alarm when we see any suspicious movement.”
The takfiris will usually approach by motorcycle at night, he said, adding that others have used booby-trapped vehicles to attack the installation.
Some will rush into hiding, others are apprehended. “If we notice a suspicious movement we will fire a warning shot into the air first. If it is a civilian who lives in the area he will react in a different way to a target that wants to engage the military force stationed here.”
His colleague told how attempted infiltrations and attacks were intercepted because of the vigilance of the soldiers and their advanced training and equipment.
Soldiers can surround the takfiris tightly and they are unable to find a way to escape, he said, adding: “We are proud of the level of performance of the operation. We will not give them an inch of our land. I am not going to watch my country meet the same fate as the countries they have destroyed. We are not going to let anyone take Sinai away from us.”
The stories we heard from the soldiers tell of something difficult to describe. They speak of a profound belief, shaped by faith in the nation and loyalty to colleagues who have died in battle — “irreplaceable heroes”, as one of the commanders in Sheikh Zuweid put it.
We went to a meeting room where we were able to interview the commander in charge of raids in nearby areas where takfiri operatives are active. We asked how COS 2018 differed from earlier counter-terrorist operations.
Before COS 2018, he said, the focus had been on securing population centres and roads.
“On the basis of intelligence received, we would take action to raid takfiri hideouts and eliminate them.”
With the beginning of COS 2018 they began to enter more parts of Sheikh Zuweid, including areas that had seen earlier operations but to which terrorist elements were able to return.
“In previous operations there were bigger raids. In this one, greater progress has been made because of the comprehensive nature of the operation and the measures that have been taken to sever the terrorists’ supply routes and communications lines, and to eliminate their infrastructure, from lairs and hideouts to underground boltholes, trenches, weapons depots and communications centres,” he said.
Like Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid was a centre of terrorist activity but now is being gradually restored.
But how had it been possible for terrorists to return to areas which had been the scene of previous operations? Did they receive support from the local inhabitants?
“Only a few inhabitants would do such a thing,” said the commander, “the cowardly sorts who have a record of engaging in smuggling or dim-witted people who think they can profit. Most people here support the army and its operations.”
Raids are launched on the basis of intelligence received or in the course of the combing operations undertaken by special patrols. One recent raid was carried out near Jihad Abu Tabl by an officer and his colleagues following the death of Colonel Ahmed Al-Mansi.
“He was a legend, a true patriot,” the officer recalled of his colleague. The late colonel was such an inspiration to the officer who headed the operation that, after receiving a bullet that tore through his shoulder during the raid at Jihad Abu Tabl, he resolved to return to Sinai after he recovered from surgery and continued to do his part to rid the area of terrorists.
The commander stressed that despite the difficulties of COS 2018 the army was fully committed to respecting the human rights of the civilian population. This is in keeping with the doctrine of the Egyptian army which will cancel an operation if it places civilians in too much risk.
Anyone arrested is turned over to the relevant authority at the North Sinai command headquarters in Arish. According to the commander, in addition to local operatives, there are foreign operatives who have infiltrated Sinai, some from Gaza and others from elsewhere in the Arab region.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly
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