Egyptian army troops deployed in North Sinai (Photo: Reuters)
A day after the merger of the second and third brigades on 31 January, the army began a series of intensive strikes against terrorist hideouts around the Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid, killing 57 suspected terrorists.
On Tuesday, 15 alleged militants were killed and eight others wounded in air raids in Sheikh Zuweid. It was not clear if Tuesday’s air raids were in retaliation for the five bombs set off in Alexandria by suspected Islamist militants on the same day.
Three blasts near police stations in eastern Alexandria wounded ten people, while two other bombs went off in the area without casualties.
In response to the ongoing military operations in Sinai, the Sinai Province of the Islamic State (SPIS) posted a video on the Internet showing members carrying weapons and performing training exercises.
The footage included shots of terrorists in open-backed vehicles, similar to those used by the Libyan branch of IS, carrying a portable anti-aircraft missile launcher and wearing camouflage uniforms resembling those worn by Hezbollah fighters.
The post, titled “Diaries of a Mujahid,” claimed that SPIS had undertaken a number of ambushes. No details were provided and many observers have dismissed the video as an attempt to prove that the group is still capable of undertaking operations against the army.
Major General Talaat Moussa, an advisor at the Higher Nasser Military Academy, told Al-Ahram that there has been a shift in strategy in Sinai towards preemptive strikes.
“At one point 12 takfiri organisations were operating in Sinai,” he says. “The army’s success in dismantling their infrastructure has forced them to join forces in an attempt to consolidate their capabilities. Initially, they joined beneath the command of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.
Continued military strikes subsequently forced them to turn to Daesh for help.”
Part of the military’s success, says Moussa, is due to commandos, paratroopers, artillery, mechanised infantry, the airforce, rapid deployment forces and military police being merged under a unified command. Yet he remains cautious.
“Because of SPIS’s ability to reconstitute itself from time to time we cannot be certain we will be able to eliminate terrorism there 100 per cent. We will probably have to face the fact that attacks will not come to a complete halt, although they will diminish. The increase in the number of suicide attacks is a sign of the growing desperation of the terrorists.”
There are no reliable estimates of how many foreigners SPIS has recruited to its ranks, says a security source in Sinai. Though numbers have dropped, terrorists are still able to infiltrate Sinai from Gaza. The source warns, “Much longer tunnels with multiple branches and openings will be constructed if new technologies for detecting them are not put into place.”
On Monday rumours began to circulate that the centre of Beir Al-Abed, hitherto regarded as a safe town, would be the target of a bomb attack.
Beir Al-Abed resident Mohamed Ibrahim told the Weekly: “I was on my way to the local council building and rumours were spreading like wildfire. Yet the town and its surrounding area had always appeared safe. No one seems to know how the stories started. Security has been intensified in the town centre and this has reassured residents. More needs to be done, however, to secure residential parts of the town.”
“The takfiris are in a difficult position,” a resident of Sheikh Zuweid told the Weekly. “They are being attacked from all directions. But they still terrify local people. Most are too frightened to cooperate with the army for fear of reprisals.
“Many families in Sheikh Zowaid and Rafah who have relatives in the Delta have sent their children there for fear the organisation will recruit them.”
In central Sinai the situation is different. The army has succeeded in securing the area and cooperation with local tribes is high.
“The war against terrorism is not just the responsibility of the army and police,” says Moussa. “It is a burden that falls on all institutions and people. Thankfully, initiatives from civil society organisations have begun to play a part in Sinai, though progress is slow and the reach of existing initiatives limited. Al-Azhar and the Church have a role to play, alongside NGOs.
“The security forces cannot overcome the ramifications of three decades of neglect in Sinai alone. A comprehensive national plan is required. There are Bedouins who are intimidated or induced into still offering shelter to takfiris. Only ideas, and a real development process, will convince them to do otherwise.”
One of the most significant of last week’s military operations resulted in the destruction of a wireless communication centre in southern Sheikh Zuweid. Security sources say the centre was used to communicate information on troop movements and the location of roadblocks.
The information was gathered by terrorists masquerading as shepherds and agricultural labourers.
It is believed many components of the system were captured during the terrorist attack on Karm Al-Qawadis four months ago. Sub-networks are thought to operate in other parts of Sheikh Zuweid, extending to Rafah and El-Arish via antennae that are used to strengthen the signals.
While communication equipment smuggled from abroad works over longer ranges, equipment stolen locally, from police stations and medical emergency centres, poses an additional threat since it can allow terrorists to intercept signals from military checkpoints and camps.
Sources say the authorities are now addressing this issue.