Terrorism in North Sinai returned to local and international headlines in the wake of the terrorist attack against Batal 14 checkpoint in the Masaed district of Arish which left eight soldiers dead.
Five terrorists were killed during the attack which occurred at dawn on the first day of the Eid Al-Fitr holiday. According to an Interior Ministry communiqué, security forces pursued the perpetrators to a hideout in Arish and surrounded it. When those inside opened fire, security forces responded, killing 14 more terrorists.
“Fourteen automatic rifles, three explosive devices and three explosive belts were found in the hideout,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement. Security forces then foiled a second terrorist attempt to target a separate checkpoint. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack.
Sinai has seen a significant decrease in the number of terrorist attacks, testimony to both the success of counter-terrorism efforts and the collapse of the organisation of IS in Syria and Iraq.
However, attacks linked to IS have been on the rise elsewhere as the group attempts to assert its continued presence in the field. This new wave of brutality was launched by IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in a video appearance in April during which he declared his determination to avenge the fall of the self-styled caliphate and demonstrate IS’ ability to reproduce itself regardless of the group’s humiliating collapse.
“As the timing tells us, the terrorist organisation thinks religious occasions are ideal times to stage attacks,” Mohamed Gomaa, an expert on terrorism, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Every year it carries out some attack in the name of a ‘Ramadan campaign’ and it looks like the recent attack in Sinai is no different.”
As to whether the attack falls into the framework of a so-called “jihadist resurgence”, Gomaa is sceptical. IS “has not been able to re-establish its presence in Sinai since its fall in Iraq and Syria” he says.
Regardless of how analysts categorise the level of attacks targeting Egyptian forces in Sinai, they do reflect the growing role of the police in counter-terrorist activities there, especially when it comes to preventing terrorists from accessing areas already cleared by the Armed Forces.
Manifestations of this are to be found in the pre-emptive operations undertaken by National Security Agency forces in Sinai, and especially in Arish where terrorist cells have been apprehended in the process of planning terrorist acts.
The Interior Ministry recently announced the creation of a special strike force, Black Cobra, trained by an elite contingent of the Armed Forces to pursue and apprehend terrorists. The new unit reflects the need to rise to the mounting challenges of irregular warfare posed by changes in the regional security environment.
As was the case with the 15-year-old who carried out the suicide attack in a public market in Zuweid, images posted on IS-affiliated websites reveal the latest attack as part of IS’ determination to compensate for dwindling ranks by recruiting children and minors.
“It is truly a phenomenon,” said Abu Bakr, an expert on extremist groups. “It means that the terrorist organisation’s sources of recruitment are drying up and that the only alternative, at present, is to indoctrinate children. Adolescents are very easy targets for brainwashing with the organisation’s extremist ideas.”
Popular anger against the terrorist crimes was palpable during the funeral ceremonies of members of the Armed Forces and police who sacrificed their lives while exercising their duties to protect the nation, even as criticism was rained down from some quarters on Egypt’s efforts to fight the scourge of terrorism.
A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on Sinai, which relied on second hand, misleading and unfounded narratives in order to argue its case, is a case in point. As strategic expert Abdel-Moneim Said pointed out to the Weekly, “Egypt is fighting a war against terrorism.”
“It can’t bring along someone from the outside to watch, especially in view of the irregular nature of this type of war.”
The HRW report accused the army of forcibly expelling tens of thousands of people from their homes in North Sinai, which has a population of half a million people, sweeping up thousands in arrests and secretly detaining hundreds.
The figures, here, are derived from the Human Rights Political Coordinator, a political post set up by the Muslim Brotherhood in August 2014. HRW totally ignores the context, the terrorist operations, attacks against civilians and anarchy in Sinai spread by terrorist groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
It should be noted the report was carefully worded to disassociate former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from any escalation in Sinai despite the linkage being undeniable.
As Khaled Okasha, director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Thought and Studies, says, “How can we possibly forget what Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Al-Beltagui proclaimed from the podium at Rabaa Al-Adawiya: ‘What is happening in Sinai will stop the moment that president Mohamed Morsi Al-Ayat is restored to power’. Soon after a fellow Muslim Brotherhood leader warned from the same podium that ‘whoever sprays us with water we will spray with blood.’”
Equally tendentious is HRW’s claim that the army is carrying out military operations in residential neighbourhoods. Such claims aim to undermine the development efforts to which the Armed Forces have been contributing in the framework of the comprehensive counter-terrorism operation in Sinai, a major component of which is construction and development.
The army has been helping with 312 development projects in order to improve standards of living and create job opportunities for the people of Sinai and the actions the Armed Forces have taken to destroy the terrorist infrastructure have helped generate the peace and stability needed for development efforts to succeed.
As Okasha points out, the HRW report appears to deliberately ignore measures that the government has adopted in sensitive areas such as border zones to ensure the civilian population’s needs are met.
“Around LE900 million was paid out to people whose homes had to be demolished, even if the houses were barely hovels. People were compensated in other ways, too, including with plots of land. The army and government have clearly been guided by the principle that the civilian population should be insulated from any harm and damage engendered by the war against terrorism.
“At a time when terrorism peaked there were repeated calls from the public, as well as from some experts, to evacuate the most sensitive areas. The political leadership explicitly rejected such calls and remained firm in the conviction that Sinai’s inhabitants should remain where they are and work be done to improve their circumstances and standards of living. The government, accordingly, committed to bearing the material costs of supporting and providing aid to people where they live. The terrorists had banked on intimidation, expulsion and weakening local communities. The government was determined to return them to normalcy by ensuring that schools held their exams on time, that elections were held and that everyday routines continued. This is not the type of government to resort to the methods alleged in the HRW report.”
ON 29 MAY Egypt took custody of its most wanted terrorist.
Hisham Al-Ashmawi was transported on an Egyptian plane from eastern Libya to Egypt eight months after his arrest during a Libyan military operation in the Al-Maghar neighbourhood of Derna.
Al-Ashmawi, aka Abu Omar Al-Muhajir, was a commander in the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis terrorist organisation in Sinai before heading to Syria via Turkey in the spring of 2013.
He returned to Egypt at the time of the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule and took part in the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in.
“Al-Ashmawi subscribed to the ideology of Egyptian Jihad which prevailed among Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the chief architect of which is Ayman Al-Zawahri,” Ali Bakr, an expert on terrorist organisations, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“This helps explain his association with Omar Sorour, son of the Islamic Jihad leader Rifaai Sorour. Like many affiliated with jihadist organisations Al-Ashmawi identified with the Muslim Brotherhood at the time of its ouster. Radical Islamists of all stripes felt it a duty to close ranks. They saw the overthrow of any Islamists in power as a threat to all Islamist organisations, regardless of the differences between them.”
From Egypt Al-Ashmawi went to Libya to found a group under the banner of the Murabitoun, a North African Al-Qaeda affiliate founded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Al-Ashmawi used it as a platform to attract followers and funds and to cast himself as Al-Qaeda’s strongman in Libya.
Al-Ashmawi is implicated in at least 17 terrorist cases for which he will stand trial in Egypt. One of the most notorious, the Beit Al-Maqdis in Sinai case, involves 212 other defendants.
Other cases include the assassination of former Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, the bombing of the National Security building in Shobra Al-Kheima, the bombing of the Daqahliya Security Directorate, the Karm Al-Qawadis attack, the bombing of the Italian Consulate on Galaa Street in downtown Cairo, the assassination attempt against the prosecutor-general, the attack against a security checkpoint in Farafra and the attack against a bus carrying Copts in Minya. Al-Ashmawi is also charged in connection with military case 148, involving an assassination plot against President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.
Al-Ashmawi was in charge of military training for Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. He flew to Turkey on 27 April 2013 and crossed the border into Syria before travelling to Gaza to receive training in the manufacture of explosives and in combat operations.
After his return to Cairo to take part in the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in he fled to Libya where he set up his branch of the Murabitoun and began to stage terrorist attacks in Libya and in Egypt.
He fostered the creation of an affiliated group in Egypt called Abu Mohannad with designs to deploy terrorist operatives in four “sectors” which they referred to as the central zone, the Western Desert, Ismailia and Sharqiya.
The group split into a cluster of eight cells. The most dangerous was directed by Al-Ashmawi and was responsible for military training. It indoctrinated recruits with ideas hostile to the Egyptian state, trained them in planning attacks, included reconnaissance missions to spy on the movements of army personnel, and instructed them in bomb-making.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Secure against terrorism