The Egyptian government is considering plans to evacuate large areas near the border with Gaza and Israel amid fears that Syria-based militant group Islamic State (IS) is now active in the Sinai Peninsula.
At least 30 members of the security forces were killed in two attacks in North Sinai on Friday, the latest in a string of attacks on army and police targets, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in the region.
What characterises Friday's attacks, and others beforehand, is their sophistication. Militants have the ability to track army convoys and strike causing maximum casualties.
Military and security experts told Ahram Online that there is no lack of information about the militants, and dismissed the idea that the security forces have been infiltrated by them, despite the fact that retired military officers have been involved in some recent attacks.
“It is very difficult to imagine that there is a deficiency in the security system as it is one of the best in the region in dealing with this (terrorism) file. However, there is always a chance for human errors on the ground,” said Major General Sameh Seif El-Yazal, an expert in national security affairs.
Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, an Al-Qaeda-inspired militant group, has claimed responsibility for similar attacks. Local observers and security experts believe it was behind Friday's assaults and that it has links with Islamic State.
“Many see the 24 October attack as a preliminary message that IS exists in Egypt, especially after its recent message to its “brothers” in Sinai telling them not to move to the lands of jihad in Syria and Iraq but rather to stay and support Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which will soon be IS's Egyptian front,” Ghazi Abu Farrag, a local researcher, told Ahram Online. “We have been warning for months that IS is emerging in Sinai, whether under the umbrella of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis or another group.”
Leading Islamist militant Adel Habara, who has been sentenced to death for involvement in deadly attacks on soldiers, recently told a local media outlet that “IS is coming to Egypt.”
A local source in Sinai, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Ahram Online that the flow of money to recruit young people to militant groups is “not a big problem for them, and it is almost impossible to keep track of these funds.”
The source hinted that some of this money comes indirectly through networks in both Israel and Gaza. “Until this moment Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis does not seem to have a problem with getting money, whether through these financial networks or through trafficking or arms trading,” he added.
Communication also does not seem to be a problem, the source added. “They are not using local communication networks but mostly networks associated with the Thuraya satellite phone. Some use Palestinian networks or even Israeli ones. Even more, some have started using private networks with coverage of up to 120km, which are hard to trace with conventional [tracking] methods.”
The army's next move
On the ground, Sameh Seif Yazal, director of the Republic Center for Strategic and Security Studies, said an 8km area parallel to the border with the Gaza Strip should be evacuated of civilians and pronounced a military operation zone.
This idea seems to be a possibility, especially after the spokesperson of the Egyptian cabinet Hossam El-Qawish told media on Saturday night that if such measurements were taken they would only include limited areas and be for a limited period of time. "The government has taken a decision to allocate the necessary funds to move the citizens from areas where military operations are expected to be undertaken," El-Qawish told CBC-Extra private television channel.
Local journalist Ashraf Sweilam told Ahram Online that some tribal leaders in Sheikh Zuweid had expressed their enthusiasm for the idea because “they are tired of militant attacks in the area which have left them almost paralysed.”
Yet military expert Alaa Ezz-Eddin does not think evacuation will be an easy task. “If it does this, Egypt will losing one of its most important sources of information [the tribesmen] and this is something we need to consider when taking such a decision or at least look into alternatives,” he said.
Tribesmen in the area are one of most qualified sources of information about local militants, he added.
“Yes the tribesmen are sources of information,” Abu Farrag told Ahram Online, “but we should also bear in mind that it is getting harder for them as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis punishes anyone they suspect of having connections with the police or military.”
According to local sources, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis warn anyone who deals with the army to leave the area within a week or they will be decapitated.
“Some families have already moved to the Nile Delta for this reason,” said Abu Farrag.
“Evacuation is a hard choice for the people of Sinai, who have had a bitter history since the 1967 war with Israel,” Abu Farrag added. “And even if the government has a plan to compensate the temporary evacuatees it has to keep in mind that the people of Sinai are very attached to their land and will not leave it easily, even for better places.”
Abu Farrag and other tribal sources told Ahram Online that jihadist militants are now in control of some areas and are even supported by local residents who help them find their way to safe places in the desert.